The New Eco-digital Commons by David Bollier

Friday, May 18, 2012

When thinking about the commons, most people make a sharp division in their minds between natural resource commons (for water, air, land, forests, wildlife, etc.) and digital commons (free software, Wikipedia, Creative Commons-licensed content, social networking, etc.)  It is assumed that these two universes are entirely separate and distinct, and have little to do with each other.  But in fact, these two realms are starting to blur – and we should be more mindful of this convergence and the synergies that it is producing.

The reflexive division between digital and natural resource commons is understandable.  One type of commons deals with rivalrous, finite resources that can be physically depleted, while the other manages non-rivalrous resources – information, creative works, research – that can’t really be “used up” because it is virtually costless to reproduce them digitally.  Most natural resources can be over-exploited if there are too many users, so the challenge is how to manage access and usage.  By contrast, the biggest challenge facing digital commoners is how to curate information and community participation in intelligent, respectful ways.

But the “obvious” logic of this mental map is deceptive – because a new constellation of what I call “eco-digital commons” is using networking technologies to better manage natural resources.  The digital and natural worlds are starting to “co-mingle” in very interesting and constructive ways, suggesting that the more salient differences between the two resources are perhaps less consequential than we had thought.  Indeed, there are many powerful new capabilities that arise.

An example is a new iPhone and Android app designed to help stop invasive species.  It was developed by my friend Charlie Schweik, a UMass professor, in cooperation with the UMass Extension service, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Conservation, the University of Georgia and other partners.  Invasive species are non-native plants, animals, fish, insects, fungi and other organisms that are often quite harmful to an ecosystem.

Where I live, in western Massachusetts, the Asian longhorn beetle is a particular threat to the region’s forests.  The new mobile phone app lets people who spot the beetle while walking in the woods to take a photo of it and send it to state forestry management authorities.  It’s called the Outsmart Invasive Species Project, and it has produced a cute three-minute YouTube video that invites people to download the app.

The idea builds on similar systems used to aggregate spottings of birds and butterflies   Another website, Project BudBurst, invites citizen-scientists to take cell-phone photos of plants at the fruiting stage of their life-cycle, which on a large scale can yield important information about the state of climate change.  A few years ago, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars produced a report, “Participatory Sensing,” chronicling a variety of distributed data-collection projects that could improve the regulatory process and citizen action against polluters.

Participatory sensing is only one of the ways in which networking technologies can help create new bodies of aggregated knowledge that would otherwise be impossible. Consider the System for Rice Intensification, an international collaboration of rural rice farmers who trade advice on the Internet, open-source style, to learn how to improve yields without using GMOs or pesticides. The project has bridged the local and the global, enabling bottom-up, trans-national collaboration to improve rice yields on marginal plots of land around the world.

In India, the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library invites people to contribute to the Library in order to document the existence of various traditional remedies, and classify them.  Once the remedies are so documented, no one will be able to use the international patent system to claim proprietary intellectual property rights in the knowledge.  The database serves as a massive archive of “prior art” that can be used to challenge patent applications that seek to privatize traditional knowledge about medicinal plants and formulations used in Indian systems of medicine.

If the energy grid were treated as a peer-to-peer infrastructure, many environmentalists such as Bill McKibben believe we could reap enormous efficiencies and foster renewable energy sources like solar. It is true that the Internet and computing infrastructure is posing increasing burdens on electricity generation and therefore environmental costs.  But it’s also true that the infrastructure is providing new tools for reducing our eco-footprint.  All the more reason that we should exploit these possibilities more aggressively.

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