Rebirth of the Commons

Some historians of culture have hypothesized that the great flood stories surfacing as early as the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic and later in the Old Testament are the written traces left from thousands of years of oral traditions describing an actual event. The event would be the creation of the Black Sea when the Mediterranean broke through the Bosporus and created in a geologic nanosecond a huge, new body of water. That geologic moment has been estimated to have lasted perhaps 2 years, the time it took to fill a basin formerly populated by thriving land based ecosystems and, so the story goes, human beings.

Radio and television, democratizing forces before co-option by corporations, offered an experience of the commons. Though these were one-to-many communications, content often served the many instead of the few. There was a shift as the few successfully guided the message of media to be about how profits could be best achieved.

Radio and television learned to encourage a common frame of reference — a personality-based consumer culture — that offered none of the experience of the commons. Producer/advertiser and consumer formed an exhibition/evaluation feedback loop, not unlike the dynamics of runaway sexual selection. Producers/advertisers created mountains of consumables as consumers exercised discrimination choosing amongst what seemed like an infinite display of alternatives.

For almost three generations, American personal empowerment has been about our ability to make choices among the many alternatives we’re being offered to consume. We’ve developed a highly refined sensitivity to nuance and a culture able to serve up content for our craving to materially embrace what was offered. Allowing the corporations the power to mediate the experience has been easy for us since corporations have been so responsive to our signaled desires, yet they’ve controlled the commons. They have controlled the conduits through which communication or information travels.

In just the way that the waters broke through the Bosporus, a commons has come crashing into our consumer culture, interrupting the relationship between producer and individual. Whereas until recently we felt empowered by all the consumables we perceived we were being offered, other kinds of choices are now emerging. The Internet is suggesting a different kind of relationship. Experiencing many-to-many communications, we are having experiences not characteristic of profit-driven, one-to-many communications. We are discovering that there are deeply rewarding features of the commons.

A dam is breaking. Such a geologic nanosecond is the time in which we live. Except, instead of destruction, new territories are being uncovered and explored. Populating spectrum, occupying bandwidth obliterates no species, murders no aboriginals. We bring with us no diseases that cut down civilizations that have no written language. Nevertheless, this is an age of exploration with staggering ramifications for our species and the world.

A new Black Sea is forming, but this time it’s an ocean, with no clear limits to its reach. Millions of trained, highly discriminating, former consumers are being empowered by an ability to create and control content in their own communications; find unique content that wasn’t created specifically to sell to a large number of people; form evaluations unrelated to purchases; and have an experience of feeling mirrored by other individuals, not a message on a screen.

This is a space not controlled by family, church, school, corporations or government. It is the commons. It is where we go to be renewed.

Andrew Lehman owns and runs a web development firm though his background is in illustration and design. He is active in the anti-war movement in Chicago and a co-director of the network of networks,, which serves over 900 peace, justice and environmental organizations. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Andrew, or visit Andrew's website.