The industrial lift door opens onto a light green corridor lined with posters.
“Hack the future of photography.”
“Intensive product design course.”
“Introduction to 3D printing.”
“Let’s have a beta beer. – Free beer while it lasts.”
“Introduction to woodworking.”
“Programming is SEXY. Let’s code an innovative world! /usr/get/turned/on.”
We’re in Betahaus, a collaborative space embodying Berlin’s Open Design City principles and practice. Suggestions for making the best out of coworking are posted next to the tea kitchen. Meet your coworkers. Keep an open mind. Respect the space. Ask for help, and be prepared to help others in turn. Be active in the community: participate, participate, participate.
The openly embraced hacker mentality involves changing something to make it better, without permission. We’re here to hack too, albeit a slightly broader problem: the future of civilisation. Not sure how such an invitation would look on a poster.
My cappuccino cup has a black moustache painted on it; this is Kreuzberg, Berlin’s hipster central, after all. I take the coffee upstairs to the meeting room. I’m sleep deprived but at least spared the jet lag of those who have flown half way round the world to be here. We’ve all responded to (or gate-crashed) a call to attend the Commons Culture Communications (CCC) workshop, a side-event of the Economics of the Commons Conference. Our host is executive director of the P2P foundation, our facilitator an experienced practitioner in the Art of Hosting.
We go around in a circle introducing ourselves and providing examples of how we understand Commoning. Researchers and educators, magazine editors and documentary makers, cooperative volunteers and time bankers, artists, superculturalists and software developers. A broad spectrum of communicators, including the oddball or two (walk-ins, Occupy aficionados), our numbers fluctuate between two and three dozen. Most, it turns out, are migrants. Some, many times over.
Our understanding of the Commons and Commoning includes an appreciation of our shared humanity, being Commoners by virtue of breathing air, by how we manage our collective activities, by creating and generating some positive value, by singing and cooking and talking together, by active listening, by being concerned about where our food and energy comes from, by promoting and enabling the DIY movement, by facilitating networking, communication and collaboration.
A clear definition of Commons and Commoning is already looking tricky. Maybe it’s a question of combining our partial views together. Or maybe it’s a matter of culture.
During one of the breaks at the main conference, I bring up the definition question with another Greek I’d just met. It’s a very short discussion, ending with instant, automatic recognition and agreement. In Greece, there’s a special immediacy in thinking about Commoning and the Commons. You become familiar with these concepts (“Τα Κοινά”) early on, when learning at school about the ancient agora and the origins of democracy. They are concepts that come inbuilt with associations of the highest responsibility and value.
Even outside school, these are concepts you use on a daily basis. They form the root of words such as community (“Κοινότητα”), society (“Κοινωνία”), communication (“Επικοινωνία”), transport (“Συγκοινωνία”), even Holy Communion (“Θεία Κοινωνία”). Because of this etymology, society translates simultaneously as an organised group of people that live in accordance with certain rules, and as the act of participation. The social goods and the process of participating in their management are interrelated, bound to one another within the same word. Communication is simply the process of building on, upon, participation – both the product and the process. Holy Communion is about participation as well as an act of exchange, again incorporating both object and subjects within a single word.
This unity is not encountered elsewhere. In English, the two concepts of society and participation have linguistically split ways. Society as a mass of people operating under a shared framework of rules is one thing; commons, communion and communication another. “Common” has actually acquired negative connotations (vulgar, coarse) with the only widespread use of the word “Commons” involving the lower house of Parliament, again holding explicit associations with plain and ordinary.
Other languages and countries face similar problems of articulation. In Latin America, where struggles by indigenous populations focus mainly on land and the environment, the discourse is about bienes comunes. The process of developing a sense of the collective is described as el buen vivir. Once again, this discourse tends to encourage the view and thinking of objects and subjects as separate entities. Similar linguistic concerns involve concepts such as environmental justice or the Rights of Nature.
But honestly, who can speak on behalf of Nature?
The road from Betahaus to the main conference hall, passes by Checkpoint Charlie. Heading north, the cold-war sign is still visible: “You are leaving the American sector.” Across it, the image of a Soviet soldier looks down on passing traffic. Beyond, another sign reads: “You are entering the non-profit sector.”
Market fundamentalism. State-controlled economy. Other.
I am mulling over Stefano Rodotà‘s talk about the Commons in the context of state, law and politics. Two years ago, 27 million Italians voted in a referendum against the privatisation of water. Currently, 7 countries in Europe are collecting 2 million signatures for a citizens’ initiative according to the article 12 of the Lisbon treaty asking the European Commission for water services not to be privatised.
This is an easy-to-grasp handle for the Commons: the basic requirements for staying alive. These would then cover air, food, water, shelter, health and knowledge or education. Probably too, energy and transport. Rodotà described these basic requirements as the result of social construction; they are produced by (or derived from) the fundamental rights. As examples, he cites UNESCO’s declaration on the genome, the treaties of the Antarctic, the European Charter of fundamental rights, India’s Supreme Court decision to deny Novartis a patent on a cancer-treating drug, the description by the world wide web’s founder of internet access as a basic right. A related ongoing campaign involves the European Citizens’ Initiative for an Unconditional Basic Income.
These and other examples highlight an increasing awareness that certain things -indeed a growing number of things in the world- should be kept away from national sovereignty, the overwhelming power of the markets, and the instrumental use of individuals. From this viewpoint, common goods challenge both foundations of modernity, i.e. ownership and sovereignty.
How could the production and distribution of common goods be governed on a global scale? Here Rodotà had mainly warnings to offer. Avoid a new institutional medievalism, a world without a centre organised around communities with their own rules and practices. Be aware of the risk of transplanting in our environment commons coming out of non-democratic societies. The way the commons are recognised affects the redistribution of power; this implies that we must look (and go) beyond a naturalistic view of commons. And yes, you can have a legal right, clearly spelled out and constitutionally enshrined, which is a dead husk because the social culture (everyday practice) does not support it. The institutional field needs to work in tandem with direct action.
There are many vocal proponents of the power of language in this meeting. Language is performative. It makes reality and shapes the way we think. Language certainly creates reality if you’re, say, a coder, but there as elsewhere, the main determinant of success appears to be skill of use. One of my favourite examples of rearranging language to quicken, prime, catalyse a shift in perspective comes courtesy of a Brazilian bishop: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” The framing forces you to think, it’s inescapable. So yes, skill – but also imagination. Kids create new language all the time and whole dictionaries’ worth of new vocabularies have been published and old ones reinterpreted, as a joke.
During this conference, language was regularly stretched at all levels to the point of failure and beyond. Translation between English and Spanish (the meeting’s official languages) was perhaps the most trivial hurdle, although non-native English or Spanish speakers probably thought otherwise. Then there were the specialists: legalese, economese, nerdish, activish, academian. And dramatically different knowledge levels. People confused money with currency, public with common, sustainable with survivable. I attended a talk on feminist economics expecting developed strategies (coordinated sex-strikes, Lysistrata style? new approaches/methodologies for including non-utilitarian welfare factors?) and was disappointed to hear the same old ideas of decades ago. Until, discussing it with another attendant, I realised others had never even heard of welfare economics. Conversely, I had not previously come across complexity economics. Someone from India mentioned the role of deeply embedded hierarchies in the maintenance of gender roles within subsistence economies. It’s complicated.
The complexities of different geographic needs and particularities came up next. I attended a workshop where people understood infrastructure as, consecutively, smart grids, a network of relationships between humans, education, the historic and socioecological dynamics of the Indonesian archipelago, community land trusts, the energy landscape in Denmark, performance and transport issues at a hospital in Montreal, Croatia’s railway system, the management and accountability principles of a fab lab, the increased automation of social interactions and processes and so on. There was little-to-no visible shared ground so a lot of people ended up having monologues. A couple announced that they couldn’t enter the conversation, didn’t know how. At least one person appeared to be against the very concept of infrastructure. “In Russia, we have no infrastructure. We need to use cultural remembrance, Mir, the very old common culture, against structures.” Infrastructure pioneers, such as the team leader of WikiSpeed, an open-source manufacturing company operating in over 20 countries, remained essentially unengaged.
Different beliefs and experiences provided another communication hurdle. Some participants believed in the primacy of markets, others not. Some that cooperation could spread everywhere, others that competition could never go away. Europeans believed that the road ahead required a partnership with local government (examples of such success stories involved public-social partnerships in Denmark, Cornwall’s community land trusts, the deprivatisation of water in Naples and the Friern Barnet library in London). This is also the approach taken by a trans-border initiative in North America. Latin Americans on the other hand, regarded the state as inherently untrustworthy, citing as examples emblematic, ongoing conflicts: TIPNIS in Bolivia, the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in Brazil, Peru’s Conga project.
In the end of course, it’s not about language or communication per se. It’s about compatible ideologies and methods. You need the information to make sense, the data to be ordered into a more-or-less coherent worldview. Such a worldview is what the Commons movement is currently lacking.
Or maybe I’m just being too linear and rigid in my own thinking, and need to get to grips with different modes of information exchange and knowledge growth such as the rhizome.
Towards the end of the meeting, a theoretical biologist and ecophilosopher, tried to introduce the beginnings of an ideology via a plea to bring together enlightenment with enlivenment, third-person science with first-person science, poetic objectivity with empirical subjectivity, and move beyond bioeconomics into a biosemiotic and biopoetic world.
I got the concept but there was no music, no resonance to it, perhaps because I couldn’t sense any of the required dynamics.
Also, my personal rule of thumb for successful communication, would this really speak to an intelligent 8-year old? And yes, again, how would it look on a t-shirt?
Not for the first time, I found myself thinking that more artists would have been good to have at this meeting.
The main conference hall lies across the street from a 5-storey poured concrete building, its exterior studded with bullet holes. During WWII, it served as an air-raid shelter. Subsequently, it was used to house prisoners of war, as a textile warehouse, a storage facility for imported tropical fruit, a hardcore techno club and a venue for fetish parties. It has now been converted into a studio by an art collector who lives on the roof in a glass-walled penthouse.
Bunker, prison, warehouse, music club, sex venue, art gallery, penthouse. All these words pre-existed in language but only came together to forge the building’s rich identity through practice. Other words could probably have been applied too but remain irrelevant and without impact because non-materialised. In the process of walking the talk, one ends up generating reality.
So how were the walkers going about creating paths to the future?
This being a conference on economics, a lot of it revolved around money. Currency experiments are ongoing and spreading. I met designers and practitioners of timebanks, BerkShares, Bitcoin and Freicoin (Bitcoin with demurrage), currencies based on a public honour system, like #punkmoney, and currencies still under construction, such as OpenUDC, Ripple and TERRA. Different pros and cons were discussed: orientation (for-profit versus for-benefit), centralised versus distributed/global, designs that favour early entrance, currencies with humans as peers.
I found the idea of a worldwide network of timebanks appealing (by-passes the narrow trust radius by allowing for transitivity; if everyone within timebank A trusts one another and everyone within timebank B trusts one another, then timebanks A and B can also exchange time between themselves) until I started considering the foundational concept (“every hour of labour is valued equally”) in more detail. So an hour of labour requiring my full attention would be valued the same as an hour of labour that I could carry out with only partial attention? An hour of hard physical labour would be valued the same as an hour of sitting on my couch typing up a news report? An hour benefitting the many would be the same as an hour benefitting only one? Most likely not, the reason why there’s a limitation in the number of jobs/activities people are willing to exchange via time credit. But maybe again, the real limitation here involves how we go about assigning value. Or maybe I just need to stop wondering and give it a try. Ruby was a great time banking ambassador.
A lot of discussion went into currencies as tools for building trust, i.e. that would remove money’s commodity logic. Someone who had spent 40 years living in an intentional community described their currency as a gift, someone else talked about a system of favours. But how do you keep track of favours, and how do you determine equivalence? I was told that the process was implicit. But surely there must be problems with this type of exchange? Huge: exclusion, racism, all sorts of biases. Also, problems with things that couldn’t be produced locally. I started to understand what Rodotà may have meant by “new medievalism”.
Towards a common paradigm
Given the complexity and over-reaching ambitions of the meeting, the most fruitful exchanges occurred outside structured time. This meant that interactions extended to 16 hours a day or more.
Late one night over beer at an outdoor pub, in the middle of a discussion with Max about how healthier hunter-gathers were and the racist origins of anthropology, I spot Caroline at the other end of the table showing off a circuit board. Intrigued, I approach and ask her what she’s making. She doesn’t know yet, is just enjoying soldering. I’m taken back to my undergrad days and memories of similar fooling around after an electronics class.
Some fifteen years later, I feel the urge to fool around again – does she know of any maker spaces in London? She points me to a London Arduino space, introduces me to NJA, Flossie and Kobakant. Wow, wearable tech has certainly come a long way. That’s another subject this meeting didn’t get round to discussing much; the inherent fun of exploring and creating together. Or cultural trends towards limiting consumption (‘Thrift Shop‘ for instance, or initiatives like LifeEdited – check out the guy’s language!). Also, means of getting beyond the problem of language and interculturality, such as gamification and serious games. Again, it’s all about enjoying the practice.
We’re all drinking Berliners. Tim repeats a joke about an open-source beer donating 1% if its profits to Alcoholics Anonymous; second time round it sounds just as hilarious. He talks about getting a Commons festival going – any ideas? I suggest checking the one that took place in Crete last month. Maybe we can try adding some of those non-symmetric rhythm dances, like the ones Johannes demonstrated on the stairs the other night. The ones complex enough to induce joy, even ecstasy.
We talk tee-shirts. Stefan’s black one with “I’m a commonist” in white caps, gathered general approval. Other one-letter tricksters: In Good We Trust. Jonny has lost his jacket and is feeling the chill. We didn’t choose to be born into a body, as Eli corroborated the other day, solemnly quoting Sartre. Maybe I should give #PunkMoney a go as well. Jonny wonders what good events or festivals he might take Stir to. Eimhin would probably have been able to suggest a dozen on the spot but isn’t here. Would have loved to discuss the dynamics between community values, practices and trust with him some more. At least, those concerning fire spinners.
Bernardo laughs, his trendy yellow frames catching the light. The Spaniards know how to have fun, I remember their parties in San Diego. Though I understand the majority of the language, I haven’t practiced the speaking part. Wouter who is fluent in several languages including humour, has no such problem. Bernardo talked about how fantastic it was, losing control of the #globalP2P hangout. He’ll be collaborating with George from the School of Commoning on a large-scale, international mapping of the Commons. Wouter, who has his agile fingers in half a dozen Common pies, repeated an open invitation to help discover the design principles of a Commons-based currency. Pros and cons, tools and needs. Any reason why we can’t start with Silke’s guidelines?
It’s a magic table, both strange and intimate, situated simultaneously in the future and in the past. As Johannes said, there are different ways of seeing. Look at it one way and all you see is a bunch of foreigners winding down for the night. Look at it another and you’ll recognise the products and creators of the same, beautiful, vibrant with promises city.