In Doughnut Economics, a manifesto for a way of doing economics that upholds human dignity and works within ecological sustainability, Oxford University economist Kate Raworth laments the loss of the “commons”. From the land seized and still held by wealthy landowners since the time of the enclosures, to the social commons of present times, there has been a trend towards the appropriation of public goods for private profit. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the online world, where, Raworth comments,
Instead of promoting a diversity of web-based enterprises and information providers, the Internet’s strong network effects (with everyone wanting to be on the networks everyone else is on) have transformed individual providers – like Google, YouTube, Facebook, eBay, PayPal and Amazon – into digital monopolies that sit at the heart of the network society. They are now effectively running the global social commons in the interest of their own commercial ventures, while aggressively arming themselves with patents to guard that privilege.
The seizing of commons by the Internet giants and the using of them for personal profit is a practice that long predates the land grabs by the aristocracy. Religion was once a common, people and communities shaped their own beliefs and traditions regarding the meaning of their lives and the purpose of the events they experienced. The seasons, the agricultural year, the phases of human life, the occurrence of unforeseen events, people devised their own narratives and their own ceremonies for dealing with whatever might befall them. The religious common cane to an end with the arrival of the church.
Kate Raworth describes the Internet giants as aggressively defending their control of the aspects of the World Wide Web which they now control by patent, but their aggression is as nothing compared with the ferocity of the medieval church in its claims to be the exclusive provider of religion. Crusades, pogroms, burnings at the stake, imprisonment, banishments, excommunications, the methods available to the corporate lawyers are as nothing compared to the oppressive powers once available to the bishops. The common of religion became aggressively enclosed by clerics whose self-aggrandisement and opulent lifestyles were a far remove from that of the First Century itinerant Palestinian preacher they professed to follow.
It took centuries for the oppressive power of the church to be gradually eroded, remnants of its influence are still to be removed in some spheres of life. Religion has again become a common with people free to pursue their own beliefs and shape their own traditions. Given the accelerated speed of change in a technological society, it will hopefully not take as long to regain the online commons from the grasp of the Internet giants.