Digital technologies and the common good

Lucy Bernholz

Managing resources in common in a world of digital/physical intermingled experiences requires new systems of governance, new systems for building trust, and new processes for repairing failures

Fifty years after early techies welcomed each other to ‘cyberspace’, we are still grappling with the implications of lives lived simultaneously and persistently online and in physical space. Scholars and pundits debate the internet’s implications for democracy as authoritarianism rises around the world and disinformation generated by and passed from bot to bot defines online communications. As difficult as it is to define and pursue the common good in the physical world, it is insufficient to do so. Citizens of modern, electrified economies live in hybridised worlds made of online/offline, analogue/digital interactions. The pursuit of the common good needs to account for the dynamics of both the physical world of institutions, norms, and laws; the digital world of privatised discourse monitors, boundaryless spaces, timeless storage, and endless remixability; and the interactions between the two. To pursue the common good in our hybrid world we need to redirect the powers of digital technologies towards our shared purposes. To do so will require reinventing how we govern ourselves and our resources for shared purposes. In other words, it will require reinventing organisational governance.

Digital governance is key to ensuring common access, use and purpose. Credit: Shutterstock

Everyday activities such as commuting, purchasing and preparing food, paying bills, learning, working on factory floors and in office buildings, organising worship and protest activities, all involve mixes of the digital and the physical. Elinor Ostrom’s groundbreaking work on commons governance provides a firm footing to guide efforts at both managing physical resources and managing knowledge. Given its ephemeral nature, lessons learned about managing knowledge in the digital world can be extended to think about efforts to achieve collective well-being or the common good. The entanglement of digital and physical requires that we consider both; in Ostrom’s and others’ work we find that the entangled solutions can be applied ever more broadly.

The importance of governance

Thus, governance becomes key to pursuing the common good. When those early wayfarers into cyberspace called for the internet to be free from all governments, they left the digital frontier at the mercy of capitalism. As a result, we live in a world where a few dozen corporations control both digital spaces and the tools we use to navigate them. Pursuing common goods and commons governance will require developing alternatives to both market and government control.

This points us away from the ‘what’ of a common good towards the ‘how’. The common good does not rest in the substance of a thing, a service, a place, a resource. The commonness of physical/digital good is determined by how it is governed, not what it is.

Governance defines whether something is shared and available for common use. From the early common pastures that preceded both private enclosure and corporatised ownership to today’s global commons of knowledge, the role of users in controlling and making decisions over the resource is a critical determinant of commonality. Governance is key to ensuring common access, use and purpose.

In the earlier, physical-only world, nonprofit corporations developed to provide the most common alternative to government or market-based opportunities but nonprofits struggle to protect common digital resources from the enclosing and privatising energy of the modern internet because they were not designed to do so. Nonprofits and civil society organisations around the world have worked for decades to offer digital alternatives, and there has been success. The ecosystem of knowledge supported and made available by Wikipedia, Creative Commons, the Internet Archive and Mozilla, along with countless open-source software and hardware tools, is impressive in its scope. Each of the organisations in that list has a clear role to play in a global, multilingual, low-cost cultural and information commons that thrives alongside much bigger market-based and government solutions. In these opening days of publicly useful artificial intelligence, we see a similar ecosystem of nonprofits and research organisations working to develop AI tools, as well as the requisite support systems for fighting fraud, providing due process, and protecting individual and collective rights (see the Digital Civil Society Lab’s database of civil society AI organisations for more information).[1]

Into the ‘fediverse’

But individual nonprofits cannot do it all, nor are they designed to manage digital resources well. That many have done so is testimony to the talent and dedication of individuals in the sector but the success of this nonprofit digital information ecosystem offers hints as to what we need for a purpose-built, thriving, digital/physical commons. One early example of what’s possible can be found in the fediverse – a system of independently governed and interoperable servers that enable social media engagement. Anyone with the technical skill and financial resources can add a server to this system of open-source software and protocols, set the governing procedures for that server, and become part of a global, collective, social media landscape. There are two key differences between the fediverse and social media providers such as Meta or X: first, the institutional governance systems are vastly different and, second, the fediverse relies on people, not algorithms, to sort and organise information – that is, humans, not algorithms, rule over the information itself.

This level of decision-making – using algorithms, automated processing, or crypto-based contracts to manage digital resources – is the next step in the evolution of commons governance. Developing algorithmic or automated digital decision-making that preserves and protects the rights of individuals and collectives, that manifest a flexibility for cultural and linguistic fit and that are trusted by those who use them (not just those who build them) is now the goal for many nonprofit organisations. Places such as the Distributed AI Research Institute (DAIR), Metagovernance project, RadicalXchange, and Project Liberty are all parts of this emerging landscape. They are taking on the challenge of designing and implementing technical protocols that reproduce the governing values of a community of people, over time, and across the globe. This work is particularly difficult because of the diversity of human values, the small number of people capable of documenting those values in software code, and the need to invent new mechanisms for due process and auditing of the technical artifacts.

The role of civil society

Not surprisingly, the imagination and experimentation to develop new governance mechanisms for our hybrid digital/physical world is coming largely from civil society-based actors. This is because commercial enterprises and governments have little incentive to distribute control or reimagine governance mechanisms towards openness. Civil society is home to experiments in trusted data intermediaries, data trusts, new DAOs (decentralised autonomous organisations), open collectives, and a growing number of other new institutional forms built of both human and software ‘rules’. The opportunity is enormous: we have the chance to redesign governance to purpose-fit the possibilities of digitised data, global connectivity, and near-infinite storage while providing protections for personal and community privacy, collective control, and both safety and serendipity. This is civil society (and philanthropy’s) great chance to set forth organisational opportunities that will hold and nurture and generate common benefits and enhance our common well-being. Most of the internet that most of us know is one that serves best the purposes of commercial and government-based actors. The opportunity to invest in and care for our common humanity is now upon us – and it comes in the form of governance innovation for the common good.

Lucy Bernholz is founding director of Stanford University’s Digital Civil Society Lab.


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