Eric Kluitenberg on Mon, 14 Apr 2003 04:52:40 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Constructing the Digital Commons: A venture into hybridisation

dear nettimers,

Following invitations for talks in Toronto and Riga I have been 
working on a text which collates ideas about the notion of the 
Digital Commons as introduced by the RAQS media collective from 
Delhi, with ideas we have been exploring with a number of Russian and 
Dutch artists in the urban / media project "Debates & Credits - Media 
Art in the Public Domain", initiated by Moscow based curator Tatiana 
Goryucheva. The latter project deals very much with urban 
intervention by means of electronic media, and cross-connecting 
physical / urban space with the placeless space of electronic media.
(project web site:
I am trying to figure out how to connect the discussion of the 
digital commons to the attempts to reclaim public space and turn it 
back into community space. I can see that the text as yet does not 
succeed fully in making that connection convincingly, and so I am 
collecting responses and criticism. The attempt does point towards 
something I consider crucial, however: strategies of hybridisation, 
i.e. direct connections between the open channels on the internet and 
the closed channels of mass media (radio, television, satellite), 
connections between electronic media space and public physcial space 
(the city), and finally connections between different disciplinary 
discourses that can each contribute important insights for this 

comments / criticism is welcomed...




Constructing the Digital Commons

A venture into hybridisation

by Eric Kluitenberg
March 2003

Democracy can be understood in two notably distinct ways. In the 
institutional view democracy is understood as the interplay of 
institutional actors that represent 'the people' and are held 
accountable  through the plebiscite; public votes, polls and 
occasionally referenda. The second view on democracy is radically 
different in that it sees the extent to which people can freely 
assemble, discuss and share ideas about vital social issues, organise 
themselves around these issues, and can freely voice their opinions 
in public fora, as a measure for just how democratic a given society 

In the second view the state, as the suspect usual embodiment of 
institutional democracy is not necessarily ruled out. It is, however, 
clearly delimited in its role as the carrier of democracy. Rather, 
the state would be seen here as the unfortunately necessary 
institutional actor that should guarantee the space to exist where 
democracy as understood in the second view can unfold.

We1 can put name tags on both views. We speak here about a shift from 
representational; democracy towards participatory democracy. Implied 
is also a secondary shift, away from the state and towards the by far 
no less problematic notion of community as an organising principle 
for democratic social ordering.

Now, my purpose here is not to write an essay on political theory, 
but rather to prepare the grounds for a discussion of a concept that 
is closely aligned with these macro-political trends, and that has 
surfaced recently in a range of different discussions, and across a 
range of different disciplines and contexts: the notion of the 

Interestingly the concept of the commons has popped up quite 
persistently in discussions about the social dimension of 
communication and networking technology, and the shaping of an 
emerging network society. What all these discussions and projects 
share is a concern that the potential of digital networking to create 
an open and democratic knowledge and communication space is 
squandered in favour of narrow short term economic interests. 
Interests, however, that are promoted by some of the most powerful 
economic and political players on the globe today.

That the figure of the commons pops up in this context may hardly 
come as a surprise. In societies saturated with media and 
communication technologies, social processes cannot be understood in 
isolation anymore, but only in relation to the interconnectedness of 
all social, political and cultural domains through the various 
systems of real-time mediation: television, radio, satellite 
communications, internet and digital networks, cell phones and third 
generation wireless media. Conversely the space of electronic 
communications cannot be separated from the real-life contexts it is 
interwoven with, the remnants of musings about a disembodied 
'cyberspace' now lie dormant in dead websites as pre-historical 
remains, the vestiges of the virtual, much like the palaeontological 
study objects of the various extinct dinosaurs species....

Over the last few years the real-existing powers of vested interests 
have come into play quite dramatically in the on-line world. After 
the dotcom invasion and the general push for commodification of the 
information space, the powers of policing, surveillance and control 
moved prominently into the digital networked domain. The great 
experiment of an unfettered communication space that internet as a 
public medium seemed to provide now seems more like a historical and 
temporary window of opportunity. If we still care about a common 
space of knowledge, ideas and information, mediated world-wide by 
networked digital media we can no longer accept that as a given; i.e. 
as 'naturally' embodied in the Internet. Instead the space of 
interconnected digital networks should be seen as a new site for 
political controversy and struggle, where the open zones, the on-line 
gathering places, the shared resources should be safeguarded and 
protected from the powerful forces that threaten them. There is still 
a huge potential for the digital commons, but it requires the 
formulation of a political agenda that needs to be actively pursued.

All this hints at the necessity for a new set of conceptual tools 
that can help us to understand the conditions under which these new 
social dynamics unfold. The first dynamic that should be grasped is 
that of hybridisation: hybridisation of media and communication 
modes, hybridisation of space, but also hybridisation of disciplines, 
and hence also hybridisation of discourses. Hybridity is a defining 
condition where the figure of the commons should to come into play. 
No clean cuts here, no hygienised or independent cyberspace, no 
virtualisation, but also no stable 'real' that puts our feet on the 
ground -not even on the battle field, even though people still die 
there... No escape from the dirt: the domain of hybridity is a messy 

Defining 'The Commons'

Main Entry:	common
Function:	noun
Date:	14th century
1) plural : the common people
2) plural but singular in construction : a dining hall
3)  plural but singular or plural in construction, often capitalized 
a : the political group or estate comprising the commoners b : the 
parliamentary representatives of the commoners c : HOUSE OF COMMONS
4 : the legal right of taking a profit in another's land in common 
with the owner or others
5 : a piece of land subject to common use: as a : undivided land used 
especially for pasture b : a public open area in a municipality

[Source: Webster on-line dictionary]

The origin of the concept of the commons dates back to the 14th 
century and refers to the notion of "common land" as it emerged in 
England at that time. The idea was introduced together with 
protective measures to tackle the problem that walking paths, 
required to connect disparate villages and regions with each other, 
were continuously transformed into farming land, i.e. privatised, 
thus cutting of the connections between various communities. It 
turned out that for these paths to remain open they needed some form 
of public protection, and this protection had to be enforced for the 
greater good of the "commons".

In their conversation on the digital commons by the members of the 
Raqs video collective, co-founders of the Sarai new media initiative 
in Delhi, Monica Narula recounts that particular history

"I was told by a friend of the ramblers in England - who go on long 
walks for the wonderful pleasure of taking in "mountain, moor, heath 
and down" - that when they walk, they do so partly to keep public 
paths public. Many of these walking routes have emerged from being 
trod by countless people over countless years. By law, if they are 
not used by the public to walk on them, they will revert to private 

by Monica Narula, "Tales of the Commons Culture", in Mute Magazine, 
London July 2001.

So there is an almost Witgensteinian formula here. For the paths to 
remain common land they have to be used, i.e. the common space is 
defined and constructed through use. It is not a given, it is a 
product of living social praxis (indeed like language), and it 
evolves over time. It is not permanent but can be maintained over 
many generations, just as long as the next generation actually cares 
enough about the commons to actually use them.
Importantly the commons here is also not a passive principle, some 
kind of available resource that can be used, or not used, according 
to will. If no one takes responsibility for the commons (here for the 
common land of walking paths, the space of connection) then the 
commons disappear. It is organically interwoven with the very fabric 
of the communities who share this common space .

The commons at first sight is close to the wider notion of public 
domain. In our FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) about the public 
domain, we, a group of writers from Amsterdam, defined the public 
domain as follows in '99:

"The public domain is traditionally understood as a commonly shared 
space of ideas and memories, and the physical manifestations that 
embody them. The monument as a physical embodiment of community 
memory and history exemplifies this principle most clearly. Access, 
signification, disgust, and appropriation of the public monument are 
the traditional forms in which the political struggles over 
collective memory and history are carried out."
Source: FAQ about the Public Domain - a.o. at:

The American writer and policy strategist David Bollier however 
points out that the wider concept of the public domain should be 
differentiated from that of the commons2. The public domain in his 
view implies a passive open space that can be shared by anyone and 
everyone, and thus belongs to everyone and none at the same time. The 
public domain invites the problem of responsibility. Since there is 
no boundary implied, nor any kind of ownership, neither private nor 
collective, nobody feels responsible for the resources that reside in 
the public domain.3

The concept of the commons on the contrary implies boundaries. The 
commons refers to a resource, to common land, to common means of 
production, knowledge or information, that are shared amongst a more 
or less well-defined community. There is ownership here, but the 
ownership is collective, rather than individual. Furthermore, the 
rules of how these common resources are shared, and amongst whom, are 
not necessarily fixed in intransmutable rules. In the case of a 
digital commons, the notion of the commons no longer refers only to a 
territory, i.e. to a geographically situated community, but can also 
refer to a group of people who share a common interest or set ideas, 
yet who may be distributed potentially world-wide. Here we see where 
the hybridity comes in: the commons is extended from a set of shared 
physical resources (common land) to an immaterial domain (ideas, 
knowledge, information), and secondly the commons is extended from 
something that is necessarily geographically situated (walking paths) 
to something that is shared across geographical divides, because it 
is electronically mediated via digital networks. But in all of these 
cases the commons are not entirely 'free'. There are rules and 
mechanism of access, and limitations on use that are defined by the 
shared values of the community sharing these resources.

I do not wish to sketch a parochial image here, there is by no means 
a nostalgia for the traditional (village-) community. The commons 
communities can take a host of different forms, informal, permeable, 
professional, situated, dispersed, formal, or anarchic. But they 
share a set of common characteristics that move them away from the 
free-for-all notion so often attached to the early developmental 
stages of the internet as a public medium. Most importantly the 
concept of collective ownership implies responsibility, and the 
survival of common resources rely on the willingness of people to 
take responsibility for them. Often the commons take their vitality 
from their connectedness to real-life embodied needs and issues, not 
from their separation and disconnectedness from these earthly 
concerns - this fleshes out a further sharp distinction from the 
cyber-utopian discourses of the late 90s. It re-emphasises the need 
to explore the conditions of hybridisation that inform the digital 
commons and that require specific strategies to make them viable.

Hybrid Media

The first immediate strategy to engage this new terrain of hybridity 
is to no longer consider the networked media as separate from the 
rest of the media landscape. On the one hand there has been a much 
discussed technical convergence of media, where the means of 
production of traditional media have become increasingly digital and 
thus promote cross-connections between formerly separate media forms, 
disciplines, and fields of application. But more important and 
interesting is the paradox that while a plethora of new media forms 
emerged because of digitalisation of different media forms and 
because in the course of this development media production tools 
became radically simplified and cheaper, this trend at 
democratisation of the media on the level of its technical 
realisation has in no way threatened the dominant position of 
mainstream media in determining public discourse. So where is that 
dreamt of democratic media space?

In fact enormous concentrations of media production facilities, 
companies and distribution lines in the hands of only a very few 
corporate media giants has pursued the digitalisation and convergence 
of media as much as it supposed democratisation. This move towards 
integration (horizontal and vertical, i.e. not only production but 
also distribution of media products) has seriously diminished the 
diversity of the mainstream media landscape. Standardisation of 
formats and one-sided programming choices are exported world-wide in 
a move towards unification rather than diversification. The 
alternative media have been left behind in a marginalised position, 
not able to communicate to a wider audience beyond their own 
constituency, often relegated to the ghetto of the Internet.

The counter strategy here is hybridisation of the media themselves. 
Where the corporate mainstream embraces hybridisation as a way of 
extending its market share, the 'other' media seek to broaden their 
communication space. It is here where the lessons can be learned from 
the sovereign experiments that have been conducted throughout the 
late nineties by the artistic and subversive media producers: The 
successful mediator needs to be platform independent, must be able to 
switch between media forms, cross-connect and rewire all platforms to 
find new communication spaces. In this context we see where the 
experiments with web casting and cross connections to radio, 
television, cable and even satellite become extremely valuable - they 
become tools to break out of the marginalised ghetto of seldomly 
visited websites and unnoticeable live streams.

All these cross connections can create a sovereign media space that 
is not defined by functional interests (power, money, market share), 
but orient themselves primarily on establishing a new kind of public 
communication space, no longer the exclusive domain of the 
professional media elite...

Hybrid Space

The second strategy is that of hybridising different spatial logics. 
The commons today exist primarily in the sphere of mediation, which 
by virtue of satellite and network connections have become 
potentially global. While places do still matter very much, if only 
because more than 80 percent of the worlds population is disconnected 
from the sphere of electronic and in particular digital mediation, 
social discourse and communication and thus ultimately the language 
of power itself is shaped in this sphere of electronic mediation. It 
has become a common place observation that in war the centres 
electronic mediation and communication, the relay points, have become 
the prime target of any attacking force.

But this electronic mediation only makes sense if in the end it 
reconnects to embodied material reality. If we want to make the new 
sphere of power democratically accountable, and carve out the open 
spaces for unfettered public communication, we need to think about 
models that can address the hybridity of these spaces; the 
connections and disjunctures between the places in which people live 
and the sphere of electronic mediation that increasingly determines 
the conditions under which they live in those places.

There are no simple formulas to describe how these different spheres 
actually relate to each other, the connections are manifold and often 
site specific, yet the complexity is to great to go by them on a case 
by case basis. So we should approach them with necessarily incomplete 
models and descriptions. What we can do is to explore the spatial 
logic and social dynamics of the physical public space and the 
mediated public communication spaces. Rather than theorising them it 
seems more productive to approach them by creating specific 
conditions of experiencing the differences and connections between 
these two spatial logics. This move from discourse to experience 
invariably brings us to the domain of the arts.


In 1999 we, De Balie centre for culture and politics in Amsterdam and 
the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, organised an interesting 
experiment that very consciously explored the relationship of the 
physical public space, in transitory setting and where possible 
connected in real-time to the 'place-less' electronic media space. 
The project called reBoot - a floating media art experiment, put 
about 50 artists (German and Dutch) together on a big party boat for 
a week, which was transformed into a floating media laboratory and 
presentation and performance space. The boat moved between Cologne 
and Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and docked in the cities Düsseldorf, 
Duisburg, Emmerich,. Arnhem and Rotterdam (all on the river Rhine, 
and finally ended up in Amsterdam.
reBoot website:

The interesting experience was first of all the fixity of the media 
location of the project, a web site with a fixed URL, some live 
streams with sound and video material and TV broadcasts mainly on 
Amsterdam cable television. During the week as much material as 
possible was released through these fixed media channels. The 
permanently changing position of the boat and the artistic 
experiments that were conducted on board in reference to the changing 
scenery and context the boat were in sharp contrast with the fixed 
media location. Suddenly the media location seemed to be much more of 
a stable point, a 'place', a reference point, than the physical space.

It introduces us to a reversal of perception that will become 
increasingly strong over the coming years as we stand on the 
threshold of the wide adoption of a new generation of wireless media. 
Increasingly our physical location will become transient and fluid, 
whereas our media location becomes increasingly fixed. There seems to 
be a compelling need to always be connected, to have a fixed and 
continuously accessible media location, while at the same time there 
is a growing anxiety and desire for control over the new fluidity of 
the physical location. As wireless and mobile media become more 
sophisticated they increase the potential for physical mobility 
(since you can now be reached anywhere and you can work everywhere), 
but this mechanism only increases the anxiety about the loss of grip 
on the "other's" whereabouts. Today this is already exemplified in 
the continuous question by mobile phone users "Where are you?" to the 
person at the other end of the line.

Urban Intervention

Where before the social space was the town square, the parks, the 
halls of assembly, the sites of demonstrations and mass gatherings: 
the sites where social discourse was shaped, now electronic media 
introduce a new scale to human affairs and social relationships. This 
is nothing new. It is an on-going process since the invention of 
telecommunications, radio and television, and the many new 
communication technologies that followed them. Yet, the feeling 
remains that whoever controls the city space holds true power. The 
sway of control over public urban space projects a strong sense of 
power that also works in the media environment, perhaps as a sign of 
the lost 'real', who knows?

If you want to have stake in shaping public discourse you need to 
create not only a hybridised presence in the media environment beyond 
the ghetto of the internet, but this presence should also manifest 
itself on the streets. It is in the interplay between these two 
spaces in particular, urban and mediated, that social discourse and 
communication takes shape. If these spaces should be opened up for 
alternative arguments, ideas and participants hybridised forms of 
intervention are required.

I worked together with Moscow based curator Tania Goryucheva on the 
Russian / Dutch art and media project "Debates & Credits - Media Art 
in the Public Domain".  For the project four artists and artist 
collectives from Russia and four from The Netherlands were invited to 
design interventionist media projects for the public urban space. 
These projects were finally executed in the Fall of 2002 in 
Amsterdam, Ekaterinburg and Moscow respectively.

The project was triggered by the obvious crisis of the urban public 
space in Moscow. The city is completely overgrown with commercial 
advertising, a new form of propaganda. Driving around the city one is 
struck by the pervasiveness and aggressiveness of this new urban 
visuality. The advertisements have escalated into a completely 
over-dimensional scale. Billboards transform into giant kinetic 
sculptures, the original structure of the city lay-out at times 
disappears completely in a sea of billboard messages, competing for 
attention. At other times entire buildings are transformed into a 
corporate message, while elsewhere historical buildings and sites are 
re-branded as a monument for a mainstream brand of beer or a luxury 
car producer.

The city space seems out of control, fallen into anarchy... But when 
we started to investigate how to place our artistic projects inside 
this public space we found out that this seemingly anarchic out of 
control space was in fact tightly regulated. So much so that some of 
the projects planned for the Moscow edition of the project had to be 
executed without any permission (and with significant risk), or 
cancelled or reframed.

The project looked at public space deliberately as a combination of 
physical and media spaces. The artists also developed a wide range of 
different interventions that somehow played with this double 
character of social space, from small scale street performances 
(filmed and broadcast on television) to spectacular mobile projection 
actions in characteristic spaces in Amsterdam and Moscow, art works 
prepared specially for TV and in Ekaterinburg also for outdoor 
electronic screens in the city centre, projects for public transport 
sites, wall paintings, but also an internet forum on legality and 
illegality initially connected with street interventions

These interventions, often poetic, at times confrontational, 
sometimes intimate, personal, sometimes spectacular, can be seen as 
attempts to develop models for opening up urban and media spaces for 
other forms of social communication that deviate from the main-stream 
norm. The estrangement of these spaces by the intrusion of alien 
elements in the main-stream public environment breaks the norm of 
these spaces and can (temporarily) open them up for a variety of 
alternative discourses, cultural forms, and ideas.

Debates & Credits - A Dutch / Russian Art / Media Project:

Hybrid Discourses

Finally it is important to note that the figure of the commons has 
emerged across a wide variety of disciplinary contexts. This implies 
that the adoption of this concept by all these different disciplines 
gives rise to hybridisation of different disciplinary discourses. 
Besides the concept of the digital commons as put forward by the RAQs 
and Sarai group from Delhi, two other strong initiatives have emerged 
that embrace the notion of the commons in the struggle for a more 
open and democratic knowledge and information space.

The Information Commons:

The Information Commons is a project that stems from the American 
Library Association that see a big threat in the commodification of 
the digital information space and the imposition of ever stricter 
copyright rules and Intellectual Property Laws. They see this 
development as a mayor impediment to their appointment to make as 
many information and knowledge resources available to the wider 
public as somehow, anyhow, possible. Where technically the digital 
media hold an enormous potential for their mission, the new legal 
frameworks, most notably the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) 
pose increasing limitations on their ability to fulfil their mission.

The Creative Commons:

Similarly, the Creative Commons is another project that reacts to the 
stringent limitations imposed by new legal systems such as the DMCA 
on the digital world. But here the project is coming from the side of 
Information Law. Driven primarily by information law specialists 
Lawrence Lessig and James Boyle, the creative commons offers a set of 
licensing systems that enable people to release their intellectual 
products with various degrees of freedom. Lessig, Boyle, and many 
others are afraid that the ever stricter IPL frameworks stifle 
cultural and intellectual development, and in the end will kill-off 
the creative and innovative potential of digital networking. Cultural 
development has always relied intrinsically on the exchange of new 
ideas and innovations, and should be considered an incremental 
process. New forms and cultural concepts don't just drop out of the 
sky like some deus ex machina, they are created by dialogue, 
contention and disagreement. The question of 'ownership' here is in 
any case questionable, and in many cultures actually non-existent 
when it comes to cultural concepts, forms and ideas.

Beyond the rethorics of innovation it is important to recognise that 
a democratic society and a democratic mode of social communication 
cannot exist without open access to information, knowledge, and 
ideas. Even more so it requires the possibility for citizens to get 
access to this variety of communication spaces I sketched here; 
physical, urban, and mediated. These resources and spaces are no 
natural givens, no passive entities, they need to be created, 
protected and maintained, they are the commons, that what is shared 
by a community of people who care enough to sustain them through 
actual use.


1 "We" should be understood to refer to a number of theorists who 
have circled around this conceptual shift. Most recently Naomi Klein 
critiqued the World Social Forum for loosing sight of this important 
political distinction (Klein, The Hijacking of the WSF, Jan. 20, 2003)
2 See david Bollier's website for further details:
3 There is a further complication that outside of the Anglosaxonic 
cultural sphere the notion of public domain and its translations 
means a host of different things - the concept of "la domaine 
publique" in French for instance refers strictly to the domain of the 
state. The commons as a term remains by and large untranslatable 
since the notion of common land is not a transferable concept, but at 
least it does not give rise to erroneous cross-language 

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