Open Wide

in The New Inquiry: “Since the earliest days of Linux and of Wikipedia, conflicting attitudes to profit have co-existed with a commitment to digital sharing. Whether it’s source code, text, artistic works, or government data, some see the open digital commons as an ethical alternative to corporate production, while others believe that sharing and profit go together like wine and cheese. And now, as massively open online courses bring the rhetoric of digital openness to education and Web-based startups are making it easy to share apartments and cars and unused parking spaces and jobs, the seeds have been planted for a sharing economy whose flowering is welcomed both by idealists who value authenticity, sustainability and community sharing over commodity ownership and by venture capitalists looking to make their next fortune. Strange bedfellows.
Cities have long been sites of commons and commerce: full of trade and private enterprise but shaped by parks and streetscapes, neighborhoods and rhythms of daily life that grow from non-commodified sharing. In his 2012 book Rebel Cities, David Harvey observes how, in cities, “people of all sorts and classes mingle … to produce a common of perpetually changing and transitory life,” from the irrepressible energy of Manhattan to the café culture of Rome to Barcelona’s distinctive architecture to the symbolic meaning of modern Berlin. Yes, by 2009, volunteers had spent a hundred million hours building Wikipedia, but cities put this dramatic number into perspective: Every year the citizens of Canada alone volunteer roughly 20 Wikipedias for hospitals and children’s sports, for charities and the arts —  the equivalent of more than a million full-time jobs in a population of 30 million — and there is no reason to believe that the count is complete or that Canada is exceptional.
The similarities between urban and digital worlds are not incidental. Both are cultural spaces, and cultural spaces have always been iceberg-like. Above the surface, market forces and state interventions; beneath, a mass of noncommercial activity organized, at least in part, as open commons. But while digital entrepreneurs look to the “Internet’s way of working” to disrupt the bricks and mortar of our cities, urban experiences have sober lessons for the digerati if they will listen: The relationship between commons and commerce is fraught with contradictions. Harvey never once mentions computer technology in his book, but his reflections on cities make a compelling case that money-making and sharing are far from natural allies, and that the role of openness must be questioned if commons-based production is to be a real alternative.”