A Self-Sustaining Knowledge Commons
June 29th, 2007

Danah Boyd’s recent article about the attitudes in academia towards open knowledge applications like Wikipedia raises some points worth considering:

  • Traditional organizations do not lead the way to mass access to knowledge
  • teachers have an ethical responsibility to produce knowledge
  • Wikipedia and other open access publications give an efficient way to build and distribute knowledge that crosses traditional barriers
  • One of Danah’s other main points is that “academics (as teachers) have an ethical responsibility to distribute knowledge”. Yet, our society is driven by market economics, that demand that producers of goods, public or otherwise, see some form of value reciprocated for the time they invest in producing and distributing knowledge, even as a public good. otherwise, those knowledge producers may very well starve, or at least struggle financially.

    Our society (in the US) largely does not recognize the need to publicly fund and maintain knowledge as a public good. Therefore, avenues of self-sustenance must be sought for the emerging public-good knowledge commons.

    Open Knowledge and Open Value Exchanges

    Open access also can mean “open” compensation of some type given to those who produce the knowledge. It could easily become a cultural norm for people to tithe money, or actively seek to reciprocate those who produce knowledge or technology public goods that they benefit from. For those who share valuable knowledge, some value can be reciprocated back easily, and automatically, if the tools and will existed to do so.

    Types of potential reciprocal value include:

  • revenue/profit sharing
  • attribution and to some extent network affiliation (such as references, introductions, etc)
  • open knowledge exchange (learning)
  • Feedback, access to tools and resources (barter of resources for knowledge)
  • In-kind contributions (contributions to the same project or body of work)
  • (It also is possible to create a timed release of knowledge, so that people on cutting edge of knowledge can be funded to stay on cutting edge, but that once knowledge is not valuable, it can automatically become a public-good, and part of the knowledge commons.)

    Among those of us who recognize the value in knowledge as a public good, there could be a rather simple system for declaring, tracking and exchanging value around these public goods, based on the examples of reciprocal value above. The idea could work something like this:

    The knowledge or technology public good producer declared in some fairly universal way how they hope to be reciprocated for their contribution to the commons. Those who also use knowledge from the commons may just declare “I will use knowledge from the commons in return for my contribution to it”. Others may ask for shares of revenue if they are earned with contributed ideas, or attribution. Some may ask for access to tools and resources that is the equivalent of the value of their knowledge contribution. Some people may ask for feedback, or “in-kind” contributions. People could declare this in their blogs, or in the space where they contribute.

    These “declarations” would not be “licenses” or contracts. Instead the declarations of hoped for reciprocation, and the reciprocations themselves, would be a voluntary economy of value exchanges, possibly aided by certain technologies that make accounting and exchanging easier. It’s time to make this a social norm in the online knowledge economy. As normal as placing a “creative commons” license on your work. Personally, I ‘ve made money off of open source software, and open access knowledge. I’ve also benefited in my life in quite a few ways by knowledge shared online. So, I see it as my personal duty to explore ways to create networks of reciprocation of value, whether that value be money, knowledge, resources, or something else. People should be able to define a fair “price” for their contributions. And, users of contributions should see it as normal to pay that “price”, if it is fair.

    This is kind of like the “tip jar” for a blog, or the donation link for an open source software project. Only, in this case, people actually DO tip or donate. Or, they make some sort of other contribution of value to the project or blogger (such as giving feedback, linking to the blogger, promoting or trying out the software, giving attribution, etc). Right now, these exchanges could be happening, but they are often hidden, so it’s an economy that is hard to track. Eventually, there can, and should be, a vibrant, and transparent mixed economy of monetary and non-monetary value exchanges around the knowledge commons. This visible economy of exchanges will help create more multi-way exchanges, which can potentially increase both the quality and overall value of the knowledge commons, and increase the likelihood that people will remain engaged and committed to contributing to and maintaining/sustaining this commons globally, whether or not it is funded by governments. It is time to work towards making the knowledge commons self-sustaining.


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