© Florian Cramer, Research Centre Creating 010, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, in http://criticalmaking.nl/about/consortium

Activist arts projects weren’t free of these pressures and dynamics either. Potlatch ended up being reprinted as a book by Gallimard, France’s most reputable publishing house. The book cover does not attribute it to the anonymous collective of the Lettrist International, but reads ‘Guy Debord présente Potlatch (1954-1957)’, with ‘Guy Debord’ typeset as the book’s author’s name. On page 7, the book bears the copyright mark ‘© Éditions Gallimard, 1996’.

When the ecologist Garrett Hardin coined term ‘the commons’ in 1968, he intrinsically linked it to the idea that they were doomed to fail in a ‘tragedy’. In his paper, Hardin used the term in a way similar to the first dictionary definition of the ‘public domain’, namely as commonly used space.35 However, he did not focus on the space as such but on its economic exploitation. For Hardin,

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. … As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain.36

As a result, the herdsmen will have their cattle overgraze the shared resource:

Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.37

Today, Hardin’s theory seem to be backed up by facts like the one that the world’s biggest fifteen ships create as much environmental pollution as all the cars in the world because their engines run on waste oil, on open oceans.38 Yet his notion of the commons has been criticized for lacking any differentiation between unregulated ‘open access resources’, such as open oceans, and policy-regulated ‘common-pool resources’, such as fisheries and forests, to use the terminology and examples of Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom.39 Ostrom’s notion of ‘open access resources’ must not be confused with ‘open access’ as in Open Access publishing. It concerns the exploitation of material resources while Open Access publishing is about the creation of immaterial goods. Furthermore, Ostrom’s ‘open access resources’ are ‘open’ in the sense that their access and exploitation is completely unregulated, while Open Access publishing involves standards and rules for both, such as the provisions that an Open Access publication may not be commercially exploited or incorporated into a non-Open Access work.40

The various theories of the commons from Hardin to Ostrom indicate the lack of a generally agreed-upon concept of ‘the commons’ and thus, by implication, the lack of a universal notion of access. Terms such as ‘Creative Commons’ and ‘Open Access’ avoid these issues by offering practical solutions rather than theoretical definitions. Yet the issues remain unresolved. As the understanding and practice of copyright and intellectual property greatly differs across cultures and political systems (despite the Berne Convention for Protection of Literary and Artistic Works signed by all 170 United Nations member states), neither ‘the commons’, nor ‘access’ can be as universally defined as suggested for the Creative Commons and the Open Access movement.

It is even questionable whether the notion of the commons applies to such a globally standardized system as the Internet. In its current status quo, the Internet can hardly be called a commons. It is, in Ostrom’s terms, neither an open access resource nor a common-pool resource, because of the private ownership and control of most parts of its technical infrastructure. As it exists today, the Internet is also driven by industrial manufacturing of electronic hardware in low-wage countries, the inexpensive, ecologically questionable extraction of natural resources for manufacturing and electricity, and finally the concentration of Internet traffic and, increasingly, physical network infrastructure onto only a handful of large corporations (Google, Facebook, Amazon).

If one nevertheless suspends these objections and hypothetically assumes Benkler’s belief that the Internet is a commons and that projects like Linux and Wikipedia constitute true commons production, then Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ still provides a useful critical perspective. Increasingly, Linux and Wikipedia are exploited to serve as ‘back-ends’ for private services. Google’s search engine now relies on Wikipedia for its top-ranked search results and uses the free encyclopaedia to auto-generate information summaries on search result pages themselves, thus encouraging users to remain on Google’s advertising-financed site. By putting a proprietary service layer on top of Linux that, among others, heavily tracks user behaviour, Google’s Android operating system effectively turns Linux into a proprietary operating system while legally conforming to its Open Source license. In a 2012 critical paper on Android, Kimberly Spreeuwenberg and Thomas Poell therefore conclude that the ‘exploitation [of Open Source] has not only become more pervasive, but also more encompassing and multifaceted’.41

Hardin identifies economic growth and surplus extraction as the ultimate reason for the tragedy of the commons. This is just as true for a case such as Linux whose Open Source availability may be pessimistically interpreted as a driver for surplus extraction like Google’s – which conversely results in wasteful gadget production and resource consumption. Yet for Hardin, commons ‘may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries’ if there is no economic growth and population numbers do not increase above ‘the carrying capacity of the land’. Gift economies, however, from Potlatch to Kenneth Goldsmith’s cornucopian record stores and Hito Steyerl’s open-sourced Dom Pérignon, are economies of excess. They never pretended to be ecologically reasonable. Against communist interpretations, Georges Bataille characterized the Potlatch as ‘the meaningful form of luxury’ that ‘determines the rank of the one who displays it’.42 The gift economies of Lettrism, Situationism, Fluxus, 1980s postpunk culture and later net.art involved excessive production of ephemera—pamphlets, multiples, performative leftovers, badges, pamphlets, code works—whose exchange was poor people’s luxury and whose volatility was part of this ‘circulationism’. In that sense, the tragedy of the commons, violation of the commons’ rules of constraint, is a crucial part of these practices. ‘Circulationism’, if taken as an umbrella term for everything from Berlin Dada to UbuWeb, is not about ecological-ethical self-constraint, but it amounts to a bohemian antithesis to scarcity, including the artificially created scarcity of gallery art.

In this perspective, the Internet has only been a temporary accelerator (in the late 1990s and early 2000s perhaps more than today) for a history that is politically, not technologically driven. Being neither commons nor gift, the public domain now exceeds separations of ‘public space’ and ‘free information’, as these cultural practices and excesses show.