By Roland Watson

In this article, I want to explore the idea of a "commons" in more detail. Basically, it means some type of resource that we all own, and can use or enjoy. The reason why this is important now, is that technology is revealing that we have many other commons in addition to simple plots of land.

Media commons

To begin, another traditional commons was the marketplace of ideas, including specific places - such as Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park in London - where people would gather to discuss different things. These marketplaces were also privatized, through the development of the media.

Again, though, this wasn't wholly negative. The desire for a marketplace of ideas fueled two other notable developments, the creation of language, and then printing. And, through the latter, the ideas commons expanded dramatically. However, ownership of these commons also became restricted, to those people who were willing to invest in the new printing and related technologies. It is only now, with the rise of the Internet, that the marketplace of ideas is returning to the people.

This isn't entirely true, though, because certain functions of Internet communications have highly concentrated ownership. This began with the domination exerted by Microsoft's Internet Explorer software, and also more generally - for computer operating system software - its Windows monopoly. Other examples include the control achieved by Google over Internet searches, and Facebook over social media.

What characterizes all of these examples is that they are dominated by specific companies, and which - like all companies - are devoted to market control and profit maximization. They have little or no respect for the idea that computer and communications technology equate to new types of commons, and which should have at a minimum public input, if not ownership and control.

An alternative example here is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, which is designed as a technology commons.

Other commons

I have also described how modern technology reaches so deeply into the organization of life and the universe, that we can never be sure what will result: what the consequences will be. Modern technologies are leading to many new discoveries, and which in turn are revealing their own underlying commons.

For example, the human genome has now been decoded. This has revealed that another commons is our genetic structure.

However, some companies are now attempting to manipulate this genome, and notably for what they call beneficial purposes, such as to solve or avert genetically-linked diseases. These companies are arguing that as part of their research, they should be able to patent the genes that they uncover and manipulate. What few people recognize, though, is that by pushing for this, they are effectively saying that they have the right to privatize the commons that is the genetic design of human life.

Fortunately, although the ruling was more narrow that it should have been, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the idea that human genes can be patented.

A similar example comprises the companies who have manipulated the genes of other species of life, and then patented these genes. Conspicuously, this applies to companies that manipulate the genes of the seeds of plants that we eat for food. These plants are another commons, which again, all people share. But, these companies are saying that through their experiments and manipulation, they now have the right to own, and control, the seeds for our food.

We got here first!

How does all of this relate to the idea of inheritance? What companies who are privatizing new commons argue is the same thing that early humans who found fruitful environments said:

"We got here first. We put in the hard work to get here, or to figure something out, so it's ours. 'We' own it, and, we can pass it on."

Since we do want our society to reward merit and hard work, they certainly have a point. But, a question has to be asked, how far should their ownership claim extend?

There are clearly limits, as a few examples will illustrate. European immigrants to early America not only denied the land commons of the Native Americans, they denied them the status of humanity, of actually being human beings, and then used this position to commit genocide and to steal a continent.

The same thing happened with traders to Africa, who stole the local peoples and turned them into slaves, as well as the early English settlers in Australia, who similarly denied the humanity and commons of the native Australians.

With these as precedents, any new claims to commons ownership obviously need to be carefully scrutinized. For example, and without even considering the ethics of genetic engineering, should the company Monsanto have the right to say that literally every soybean seed in the world belongs to them, and that any farmer who plants soybeans, anywhere, should have to pay them?

Since genetically-engineered soybeans will eventually contaminate all soybean crops, worldwide, even organic, this is effectively what the company is arguing.

Or, suppose a company finds a way to use genetic engineering to either prevent or treat breast cancer. For the first, if such a therapy, like vaccines today, becomes widespread, should every woman who will ever be born from now until eternity be forced to pay that company a fee?

What I am trying to show here is that technology is giving rise to new issues and consequences that we have barely begun to consider. And among these are the effective creation, and simultaneous privatization, of new commons. I contend that at a minimum this should be restricted. The world is already so unfair, for so many people. We need to stop it from getting worse.

Why discover?

What Wikipedia shows is that discovery - discovery that benefits all of humanity, and even potentially all of life - initially, at least, is selfless. A scientist in a lab is fundamentally trying to figure out how something works, to further knowledge.

For many scientists the profit motive, the goal to make money, may be close behind, but the initial goal is always simply to understand. Indeed, science starts with basic research, to understand, then applied research, to do something useful, and it is only here that the profit motive, to benefit financially, becomes involved. Moreover, this final step, the profit exploitation of scientific discoveries, has only occurred because we as a society have failed to recognize, and defend, our commons.

Companies always argue - they are arguing this now - that without the possibility of extreme wealth, they, and by this they mean their scientists, won't do anything.

This is hogwash. However, for Monsanto, even the Obama Administration has accepted, and is promoting, this argument.

I also said that a key issue in our efforts to make the world a better place is to segregate symptoms from underlying problems. This is because while symptoms may be treated, only problems can be solved.

This is the core problem, or question. Must our society always be predicated on personal selfishness and greed, or can it somehow be structured so that people work not only for their own benefit, but for the benefit of everyone?

Said another way, do we even need - should we even allow - the profit motive? And make no mistake, I am not preaching communism here. Many enterprises in society are organized as non-profits, and the people working for them work just as hard as the people employed by companies. Remember, the government, and the military, are effectively non-profits. Their goals are to provide services, not make money. Indeed, soldiers risk their lives for very low pay. They do this - they make this sacrifice - for a noble idea, to serve their nation.

My question is: Can't literally everything be structured this way? Car and computer companies could be non-profits as well, only charging enough for their products to pay their employees decent wages and to fund research and capital investment. I am certain that in companies structured like this, their scientists would continue to work just as hard.

The need to restrict economic power

In conclusion, a society built on personal sacrifice, cooperation, and sharing is a nice idea, and one certainly worth pushing for, but we don't live there yet. Our world is dominated by greed-driven inequality, and which, due to the technological creation and privatization of new commons, is only going to get worse. We therefore have to oppose this privatization, including its inter-generational transfer, to minimize the inequality.

Monsanto should not own the right to every soybean seed, or the seeds of any other crop. No one should own the right to human genes. And, companies should not be able to fund political candidates.

To the extent that institutions such as governments and courts do permit this, the people in the societies in question will need to rise up, and even rebel if necessary, to force a change. The accumulation of extreme wealth through commons privatization must be stopped.

More generally, we need to find ways to implement the principle that just as with political power, great economic power should not be inheritable. Having lived in Sweden, perhaps the most civilized and egalitarian nation in the world, I know that it is possible.

In the next article, I will consider some of the differences between traditional and modern societies.

© Roland Watson 2014