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'DIY U' and the 'Romance of the Public Domain'

By Mike Konczal

I want to talk a bit about Anya Kamenetz's "DIY U" in two posts. First we need to talk about the "Romance of the Public Domain," something that is the mirror image of "The Tragedy of the Commons."

In 1968 Garrett Hardin argued that with a commons, “a pasture open to all," overuse would inevitably occur. Inefficiency would reign, since this overuse (or, in some cases, underuse) would continue unless propertizing rights were introduced.

There are two problems with this right out the door. One is that it quickly invokes a game theoretical vision of community, the RAND-sponsored midcentury cyborg science that comes with all the associated paranoia and myopically paranoid self-interest. There's been a large body of research on how the commons can in fact govern itself efficiently through the use of, among other things, social norms, and this body of research scored a major win with Elinor Ostrom, author of "Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action," winning the Economic Nobel Prize last year.

The other problem is that it assumes the commons is available to all. Is it? Can women use the pasture for their self-gain? Can the poor, who may not own animals, use the pasture? And if an overuse occurs, and there is a food shortage, do people suffer the consequences equally? When taught to students, the tragedy of the commons often looks like a prisoner's dilemma, a two-dimensional space where you are a, implicitly but never stated, privileged and full member of the community and everyone who is not you but similar each takes an axis. To reflect these distributional concerns, you'd need to both create a dimensional space for each group, and assume the payoffs of each action and each other's actions. It's easier to collapse the space
down to the simplest dimension, but you lose the ability to conceptualize these issues. And without the conceptualized math, you also lose them entirely.

Two things happened in the late 1990s that are relevant here. One is that the "shock" privatization of Russia was a complete disaster (see, for example, Black, Kraakman, Tarassova: "Russian Privatization and Corporate Governance: What Went Wrong?"), shaking the neoliberal belief in the idea that it doesn't matter who owns something as long as someone has the property rights over it with certainty.

The second was the growth of what we'll call zero-marginal cost production, or the creation of digital artifacts. When something exists on the Internet it has two special features. You "using" it doesn't prevent anyone else from using it. You can read this blog post in your city and it doesn't stop someone else from reading it in their city, as opposed to if it were a single book. Also it is virtually costless to reproduce: You can e-mail this article, or Facebook it, or tweet it (do it! do it!) and it is virtually free. If you wanted to print another book, that would cost some money. Controversially, the cost of such a good should be zero, as it is always free to produce another one (see Timothy Lee here).

Notice that this immediately destroys our biggest concerns with the commons problem mentioned above. Go ahead and overuse! You won't destroy the field. Provided that electricity is well priced to environmental degradation (ahem carbon pricing) there's no commons problem. The first problem of the commons mentioned above is gone. (Outside the scope of this blog post, but it isn't of course; the commons are privately owned and stored on servers that cost money, and when this veil is pulled it can cause anxiety about, say, privacy.)

But what about the second issue, the one about distribution? In the debate over this, there is often concern about the supply issue; if a good is free, how can you ever pay the cost of labor and capital to produce it? Hence the concern about DRM, copyright, etc. I'm more interested in the demand side: If an object is free to reproduce, then everyone can have it. To use a very loaded phrasing, it can be distributed to each according to his or her need. The idea that, like virtual fishes and loaves, there will always be enough should radically alter the terms on which we think of distributional justice. The commons is real, and there is plenty for everyone.

But is it? This is something that law professors Anupam Chander and Madhavi Sunder call the "Romance of the Public Domain" in their fantastic paper of the same name. Their summary:

Since Hardin, law and economics scholars have launched a crusade to expose the evil of the commons -- the evil, that is, of not propertizing. Progressive legal scholars have responded in kind, exposing the perils of propertization. With the rise of the Information Age, the flashpoint debates about property have moved from land to information. The public domain is now the cause célèbre among progressive intellectual property and cyber-law scholars, who extol the public domain as necessary for sustaining innovation. But scholars obscure the distributional consequences of the commons. They presume a landscape where every person can reap the riches found in the commons. This is the romance of the commons -- the belief that because a resource is open to all by force of law, it will indeed be equally exploited by all. But in practice, differing circumstances -- including knowledge, wealth, power, access and ability -- render some better able than others to exploit a commons.

Another thing that has zero-production cost is genomic data. You can click here to go to the United States' National Center for Biotechnology Information to get access to biomedical and genomic information. That's free! Me downloading genomic code doesn't interfere with your ability to do so, in the same way me listening to my Toto mp3 doesn't interfere with your ability to listen to yours.

And in fact, we have things like TRIPS, or the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, to make sure that any fruit of research out of this genomic commons is preserved across countries and that appropriate information can be accessed in a commons style. How broadly accessed is this genomic data? From Wired:

During these six months [in 2001] ... 43 terabytes ... was downloaded. ... Yet it turns out that few countries understand or read large-scale biodata. Nearly all -- 92 percent -- of the data was downloaded by users in 10 countries, half of whom live in the US. Europe, which has similar population, education, and income figures, accessed just 22 percent of the data. No country in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, or Asia (except Japan) downloaded 1 percent or more of this free information. ... Users from .com domains downloaded about half of all US data versus 38 percent going to universities (.edu). Biogaps are growing not just among countries, but within them. The top five biotech patent-producing states account for 57 percent of all such patents in the US.

So even though it is in the commons, only certain people have the ability to actually use it. The third world's genomic resources can be accessed by all as if this was a commons, but "all" in practice refers to large U.S. corporations. This may still be a desirable state of affairs, it may not be, but the distributional issues of who can actually access the commons gets lost in the shuffle.

I thought of this while reading Anya Kamenetz's "DIY U," an interesting and worthwhile book (and Web presence). It's a book about how the Internet, or the free-to-reproduce public domain, can revolutionize education. I'll talk more about the book in the next entry, but the romance of the public domain was the philosophical bogeyman in this critical take by a community college dean:

Kamenetz' framework rests on a mostly unacknowledged, but remarkably deep, set of privileges. If you had a strong high school background, and you have money and leisure, and you have social connections to smart people who are willing to spend time with you, and you can afford all kinds of technology, then you may be able to do something with this. (Astute readers will recognize the young Bill Gates and the young Steve Jobs in those descriptions.) But if we're honest, we have to recognize that most of the people who download TED talks don't do it as an alternative to college; they've already been to college. If you have a well-developed set of skills, you can avail yourself of all kinds of things. But in the absence of those skills, it's just information. And those skills come from somewhere.

If you're serious about education for the non-elite, you need institutions. The institutions need to be accountable, and open to creativity, and efficient, and changed in a host of ways that I spend most of my waking hours obsessing over and probably more that I've never even thought of. But you need them. Every serious social movement of the past two centuries has understood this. The internet has changed a lot of things, but it hasn't changed that. The rich kids may experience unbundling as liberation, and to some degree, it can be. But for the vast majority, the issue isn't that their individuality is being squelched by The Man and his distribution requirements. It's that without effective educational institutions from preschool on up, they will never get the chance to develop their skills in the first place.

Is education simply a matter of hitting "cntrl-c" and "cntrl-v", and absorbing that information through a non-space of the Internet? Or do the institutions that transmit and reproduce this information play a pivotal role? Will a self-directed educational goal primarily benefit those with stable homes and the time and capital to cultivate this? Is "DIY U" accessible according to need? This is the framework I think of as I read and explore this work.

Mike Konczal is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He blogs about finance, economics and other topics at Rortybomb and New Deal 2.0, and you can follow him on Twitter.

By Washington Post editor  |  May 28, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
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I see the part which poses the question "if a good is free, how can you ever pay the cost of labor and capital to produce it?" and understand fully why an advocate of "New Deal 2.0" would be "more interested in the demand side."

The question seems to remain, though... "if a good is free, how can you ever pay the cost of labor and capital to produce it?"

Posted by: rmgregory | May 28, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

rmgregory - Ha! Nice.

There are plenty of people arguing about the supply side of this question, of how to compensate artists, writers, journalists etc. in the age of digital reproduction. I honestly don't have an answer or much to contribute - it isn't an easy question to answer, though lots of people are grappling with it.

I rarely see the question flipped and asked about access, especially when you get out of the media/new part of the digital space, hence me bringing it up.

Posted by: rortybomb | May 28, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

The Washington Post is overpaying for this free drivel, I can guarantee you that.

You can go and eat your tweets when the government runs out of money to redistribute.

Posted by: msoja | May 28, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Hopefully institutions will develop to manage these goods at low margins. For example, with tuition so high, there would seem to be a market for low cost online universities. I don't know much about the University of Phoenix, but that might be an example. Another question is whether employers will give equal weight to these degrees as they give to conventional college degrees; hopefully, with time, online degrees will become more common, and a good accreditation institution will also develop.

Posted by: jduptonma | May 28, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Between Academic Earth and iTunes University, I'm currently studying three subjects: Computer Science from Stanford, Circuits and Electronics from MIT, and Vector Calculus from UNSW, Sydney; all for free. I don't get recognition for taking these, which is unfortunate, but if I could afford it many Universities including Harvard and Univ of Maryland do offer on-line degree programs. However, recognition by others has always been a secondary concern for me and my education. It would be nice to earn a degree, but learning the subject matter is much more important.

DIY U is available for anyone with a computer and an interest.

Posted by: chassmith1066 | May 28, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

But there still have to be people to teach young people to read, write, calculate and become human beings with a normal range of emotions and ability to interact apropriately. The comments about privilege are spot on. And while people can learn many things through computers, there is a great deal that needs to be acquired through human interaction. The lack of some social and emotional intelligence can afflict even the very smart, in some cases making them very dangerous to others.

Posted by: Mimikatz | May 28, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

"if a good is free, how can you ever pay the cost of labor and capital to produce it?"

Replace "free" with "sold at the marginal cost".

The problem isn't that the marginal cost is zero; the problem is that transaction costs dominate the marginal cost (and indeed, the whole unit price).

Cheaper, then, to give it away, and use it to as free advertising to sell something else.

Posted by: mudlock | May 28, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

An interesting idea in the context of the "Tragedy of the Commons" is Heller's tragedy of the anti-commons (

Those interested in the privatization programs in Russia might also be interested in looking at Boycko, Shleifer and Vishny's 'Privatizing Russia', which tries to make the case that Russian privatization was successful. Absurd as that may seem, it is an interesting insight into why people like Shleifer (working for US AID) did what they did during the privatization program.

Posted by: noompa | May 29, 2010 1:46 AM | Report abuse

I have to quibble a little bit with your article. The cost of production, technically isn't zero, it is near zero. But in the context of a discussion of mathematical models this is an infinity of difference.

Providers of information online only have finite bandwidth. There are actually ways to use the material they provide in ways that use up that bandwidth that don't involve droves of users. It is just generally the case that individuals don't have the technical skill to use the data provided in that way. (For example, you can end up using a ton more bandwidth if you know how to write a web spider, or even just how to scrape a webpage programmatically)

Posted by: zosima | May 29, 2010 2:23 AM | Report abuse

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