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Knowledge commons and enclosures

Peter Ronald DeSouza — 23 March 2021

Peter Ronald DeSouza - Quote Card - Ideas LAB

We are all deeply immersed in the everyday working of the digital universe. From blogs, to social networking sites, to e-meetings, to e-commerce, to the internet of things, everyone, or nearly everyone, is embedded in its functioning. We thereby need to understand its dynamics, its drivers, spread and consequences. Given the fact that we are entering new and unchartered territory the inadequacy of the old vocabulary to describe our findings is becoming increasingly clear. We need new concepts to explore the issues that complicate the many possible futures of education.

We need new ideas to guarantee that what is being made
contributes, in sum, to human flourishing.

Our initial exercise therefore is to understand the makers of this digital universe. The gigantic technology companies that drive and shape it have developed the capability to store and access near infinite amounts of data. Most knowledge in the world, if it has come into a relationship with the capitalist economy, has now been digitized. This is stored in servers across the world. These companies have in the last few years developed the physical infrastructure, logical protocols and content that has made such stored data the key resource of a future world. Algorithms enable us to access this data.  Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) allow two or more applications to communicate with each other. Algorithms discover patterns in the data converting it into information and knowledge in a seamless transition. They also replicate the biases of the developer and of the data sources used and have as a result spawned demands for algorithmic justice. On the other hand these technologies, with a different set of algorithms, also offer huge emancipatory possibilities. The battle between these two scenarios, of bias and of freedom, control and liberation, makes our thinking about the future both exciting and terrifying. The digital universe is being made at a terrific speed and the technology is racing ahead of ethical thinking about how to regulate it. That is why we need new ideas to guarantee that what is being made contributes, in sum, to human flourishing. 

The idea of the Commons:

One concept from the old world, which has enjoyed considerable mileage in the disciplines of institutional economics and environmental studies, and which travels well is the concept of ‘the commons’. It has the potential to do good work for us as we deliberate the futures of education. It is not just the concept of the ‘commons’, that is useful, but also its associated concepts - ‘commoning’, ‘common good’, and ‘enclosures’ - which are available to us as we explore the futures of education. Let me, therefore, begin by specifying the key features of the knowledge commons. Like the commons in institutional economics the knowledge commons too is many related things: a resource, an activity, and a place.  Each aspect performs different functions. The resource comprises the variety of knowledges, ranging from cultural to ecological to scientific, that human societies, from different regions and across different times, have individually and collectively produced. These, we argue, should all be available for making futures. Access to some of these knowledges has, however, in the past been restricted through the rules of a traditional society where only some were permitted to know what needs to be known, as in the case of India’s caste system, and others were deliberately excluded by the structures of power from accessing this knowledge. This restricted access to knowledge is also prominently a feature of modern society through its expansive and evolving intellectual property rights regimes. 

The knowledge commonsseeks to resist these enclosures
by challenging the grounds of exclusion as being illegitimate

The idea of the knowledge commons, that we wish to embrace, seeks to resist these enclosures by challenging the grounds of exclusion as being illegitimate (although they are legal) from a human flourishing point of view. The knowledge commons as activity concerns not just using the resource in creative ways but of producing new knowledges from them and making these available through open access. An example of such activity (commoning) is the Free Open Source Software movement which is best exemplified by the Linux operating system. Commoning, as sharing and co-producing, is a defining characteristic of the knowledge commons. And finally knowledge commons, as a place, is governed by rules and ethical assumptions that are different from the rules and ethical assumptions of the market. The knowledge commons is an intangible place where sharing, caring, ubuntu, teraanga, sumak kawsay are some of the ethical considerations that need to be borne in mind as we set up its infrastructure of governance.

As an idea, the knowledge commons brings all the benefits of the natural commons to the digital universe. It specifies that the knowledge is available to all for their benefit, for them to use when they confront material and intangible challenges in making the futures they imagine.  The resources of the knowledge commons must be available to all for use in their play, imagination, creativity and aspiration for the development of their human capability. Indigenous knowledges, cultural knowledges, environmental knowledges, scientific and technical knowledges, and so on, are all part of, or should be a part of, the knowledge commons. 

Like the natural commons the knowledge commons too has some key features. The first is non-excludability. No one should be denied access to the use of the resources of the knowledge commons. The second is non-subtractability. Unlike the natural commons, in the knowledge commons the use of a resource by one does not diminish the amount available for another to use and hence subtractability, which was a feature of the natural commons that had led to the concern of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, is not a concern in the knowledge since use by one not only does not reduce the resource available to the other but in fact enhances it adding to its value. Use of knowledge adds to its expansion and its deepening, as has been conclusively demonstrated by the Free Open Source Software and the Creative Commons movements. The third feature of the natural commons that we must give our attention to concerns the enabling governance infrastructure. This structure of governance of the commons is crucial because it will determine how much of the knowledge stored in digital form belongs to the commons and how much will remain in private enclosures. This is a fluid field and requires intense discussion, for example, on something as specific as the ethical principles that are to govern the expanding role of Artificial Intelligence applications. The Knowledge commons needs a robust defence, a new imagination of why the commons features must be protected from the marauding forces of the market that threaten it with enclosures.

Enclosures versus Commons:

The big threat to the knowledge commons comes from such enclosures which take different forms but have a common purpose which is to reduce access and thereby to exclude. States, multilateral organizations, corporates, universities, consultancies, cultural organizations, publishing houses etc. all seek to make the knowledge resources that they hold as private resources only accessible through the payment of a fee. These private knowledge holdings are protected by IPR law whose aim is to exclude and penalize intruders. Various arguments are given as to why these knowledge resources should be governed only by the rules of the market and not of the commons and have become the dominant rationalization of the governing systems of today. This struggle between the two logic, therefore, of the commons and of the market, remains a continuous struggle. There are, however, counter movements to these creeping enclosures such as public libraries, Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia, Spotify, Creative Commons, and LINUX among many others all of which seek to expand the space and resources of the knowledge commons. The future requires an expanding knowledge commons. It will help us deal with the four big challenges of climate change, social and economic inequality, erosion of democracy and the surveillance society brought about by the big tech companies. 

Some interesting examples of knowledge resources being taken out of ‘enclosures’ and placed, albeit temporarily, in the ‘commons’ was during the early days of the Covid 19 pandemic when populations were stuck at home because of national lockdowns. The Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, the National Theatre in London and the Berliner Philharmonie in Berlin, each independently placed selections from their archives of ballet, drama performances and music concerts in the public domain for people from across the globe to enjoy. It was a great service to aid the process of human flourishing as people in remote areas, who access to the internet, could enjoy the aesthetics of these spectacular artistic productions. This is a model of access to cultural knowledge that can be explored as we examine innovative strategies for public financing of the costs of production which retains all the incentives that today are offered by private systems.

If the movement from ‘enclosures’ to the ‘commons’ was one trend, although only temporary, corporates drove a trend in the opposite direction. The enormous state grants (millions of dollars) that were given to private and state companies to develop vaccines against the Covid 19 virus, and the corresponding phenomenal collaboration between researchers, epidemiologists, hospitals and companies, resulted in vaccines being available to protect all of humanity in the short period of one year. In most other cases of vaccine development such a process normally takes several years. The vaccine was clearly a common good beyond the specific interests of nations and companies where it was being developed. Yet on development we are witness to vaccine nationalism, and vaccine privatization. India and South Africa proposed that certain rules of scaling-up research development, manufacturing and supply of medical equipment be waived so that the vaccine would be freely available. This proposal was resisted at WTO by the developed countries on the grounds that it was not consistent with the IPR system that they supported. Even WHOs support for the proposal did not help the technology being taken from the private domain of the companies and placed in the commons. The logic of the market won against the logic of the commons even though what was a stake was global public health, an obvious common good.

The Futures of Education:

What does all this have to do with the futures of education?

The foregoing gives us a glimpse into the struggle between two logics, that of the market, which prefers knowledge enclosures, and that of the knowledge commons which supports open access. These restrictions of access are imposed through law, financial resources, and control of the digital economy which is done through the control of the physical infrastructure, algorithms and APIs in use, protocols adopted, and content made available. The big technology companies drive the growth towards knowledge enclosures. Paradoxically they also place their technologies and financial resources at the service of expanding the knowledge commons. Herein lies the puzzle. Technology companies seek to control the digital universe, and do, but also create products which they place in the knowledge commons, such as Google maps or Google scholar. Google has recently launched another initiative, ‘Data Commons’. Listening to the details one is unable to determine whether this initiative leads to an extension of the knowledge commons or whether it is the beginning of a new enclosure movement because of its control of the algorithms in use.  Open access to the huge public data that Google will clean and store is therefore at stake. 

The digital universe will be central to the futures of education

The digital universe will be central to the futures of education. The seamless movement from data to information to knowledge in this universe presents us with unimaginable possibilities. Creative exploration of these possibilities will dependent on whether this knowledge exists in the commons or is fenced in within IPR enclosures. If it is located within the knowledge commons, and its enabling governance infrastructure, then we can look forward to a grand new era of human flourishing, to a surge of human creativity whose forms we dare not even begin to speculate about. We do not have the imagination. We can, however, with certainty say that it will be varied, it will be innovative, it will be phantasmagoric, because of our deep belief in the human person’s ability to be infinitely creative. Learning how to collaboratively use the resources in the knowledge commons, the act of commoning, is what the futures of education should be about. The task before us is, therefore, to imagine the pathway there. Arguing for an expansion of the knowledge commons is a major stage in the journey there.


Peter Ronald DeSouza is the DDKosambi Visiting Professor at Goa University, India

Cite this article (APA format)
Ronald DeSouza, P. (23 March 2021) Knowledge commons and enclosures. UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB.  Retrieved from https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/DeSouza-knowledge-commons-and-enclosures.

Cite this article (MLA format)
Ronald DeSouza, Peter. "Knowledge commons and enclosures". UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB. 23 March 2021, https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/DeSouza-knowledge-commons-and-enclosures.


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