Commons, State and Markets: Response to David Bollier

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Here's my response to David Bollier's talk "The Great Value Shift - And What It Means for "Memory Institutions" at the "Economies of the Commons" conference today (11.10.) in Amsterdam. My main concern here is to rethink the relationship between markets, public institutions and the commons, in a way that public archives and commons can thrive and there is still opportunities for real entrepreneurs to innovate.

Thank you, David, for this very inspiring talk, and I think I could agree with everything you said. But I tripped over a seemingly innocuous formulation, one that have used myself repeatedly: the commons are beyond markets and states.

I think we need to be more precise here. We need to ask how the commons relate to the market and to the state, that is is, to public institutions. And, in relation to archives and libraries, we need to ask what is their relation, as public institutions, to the commons.

Let me first make a theoretical point, and then, don't worry, I will return to archives.

The commons is not beyond the market and the state, rather, it is complementary to both.

Remember: The state and the market are not opposites to each other, but each makes the other possible. The markets could not exist without the state. Even the most radical forms of deregulation, are still regulation, and they often do not even decrease the extent of regulation, they merely reorganize opportunities, costs and benefits. In the same way, the modern state exists, to a large extent, to make free markets possible. Its most basic functions are the protection of property, the enforcement of contracts, and the creation of a stable currency. We might find out what happens to the markets if the state can no longer provide this last function.

Over time, there has been a lot of debate whether to shift certain functions to the market or the state side. But overall, the two are parts of one integrated system that accommodates two different, but complementary productive models.

What the debate about the commons now suggests, David has outlined this, is that there is a third productive model, the commons. We now have to adapt our societies so that this third model can thrive. This could be easy, but it isn't. Because we need to do this is a context where the state and the market are not only closely related to one another, but in where the two models are becoming ever more similar. Even public institutions are tasked today with acting as market participants and generating profits, and degree that markets are subsidized by the public, particularly in the cultural sector, is staggering.

This is a very problematic development, particularly for public institutions which loose their distinctive capacities and are forced to act on ways in which they are not very good. What the debate around the commons gives us, then, is also an opportunity to rethink public institutions and market actors and what they can do to make the development of the commons possible.

We need to ask: what resources and services should be provided by public institutions, what by the markets, and what can be produced in the commons. In this discussion, we need to be very careful not to downplay the strength and role of public institutions, as providers of services for everyone without profit seeking, otherwise the debates around the commons becomes another pretext to weaken public institutions and further increase the possibilities for those who already have a lot.

One productive relationship between the three models could look like this: public institutions create the potentiality by providing resources, the commons creates the demand through active use, and the market can add particular services on top if it to satisfy demand that cannot be met by the commons.

OK, what does this mean for archives: It means, they need to organize their material to make it easy for the commons to create demand. At the same time, they need organize it for market actors to be able to generate services on top of it.

By making it easy to be used in the commons, I mean, really easy. We are living in a world of information overload. Every Google search generates more results that one can ever use. It is more difficult to find, then nobody is going to use. Creating your own silo is not an option. Because already faced with information overload, user don't even realize that they are missing something. The same goes with restrictions for re-use. If you find 100 photos, why would you use the one that comes at a cost, or with strings attached? Yes, it might be better, but if the other is good enough?

So, free access and free re-use are preconditions for enabling the commons to create demand for the materials offered by archives. If you do not provide it, you will fail.

Without this demand, the public support for archives and library will weaken to the degree that budgets can be slashed without resistance. Let me tell you a story of one of my students, an aspiring artists in her early twenties. So, an information professional, if you will.

One day, she complained to about the online library catalog. That she could not find books there. I didn't understand the problem, since the library holding in Zurich, where I teach, are outstanding. Most books are in open stacks, so one can easily pick them up. But she maintained that the books are never there and she clearly could use the interface. But still, for her, no books. It took me a long time to understand, that she doesn't differentiate between the catalog and the holdings. For here, the problem is that the books are not part of the catalog The model, against the library came up as deficient, was, clearly, Google books. And the deficiency was so fundamental, that quality concerns did not even register.

Now, we can say this is stupid, but people like her will determine public budgets in a few years.

Thus, I think it's in the very own interest of public archives to help to generate a thriving commons which demands and legitimizes it services as public services. But archives have to do it on the terms of the commons, rather than other ways around.