An Introduction to Digital Commons and Commodities

In the essay Playing on the digital commons: collectivities, capital and contestation in videogame culture, Sarah Coleman and Nick Dyer-Witheford elucidate the distinction between commons and commodities. This is evidently paramount, as in the eyes of prolific corporations the latter’s capacity of capital is directly and negatively affected by the existence and continued emergence of the first. Commons are defined as a type of resource that any sort of a particular community is allowed to use, but no single entity may possess ownership; meaning, the emphasis is on accessibility and compatibility, sometimes specifically in an attempt to create a harmonious relationship encompassing empathetic dialogue between creator and user. In direct contrast—even contradiction—are commodities. These are the recourses that are exchanged for the primary purpose of profit; in accord with the consumer, so that he or she may now claim ownership of the product in question.

What immediately comes to mind when assessing the validity of the notion of commons—to what extent it can succeed—is the all too well known concept of “a pre-capitalist utopia” (935). It is remarkable and slightly absurd that the most significant thing such a theory has ever spawned is its antithesis, namely, dystopia. Orwell’s 1984 and Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange immediately come to mind and disturb the initial understanding of what is truly intended. The notion of commons should not be confused as some form of perfect design, nor the seeking of such. It is more concerned with accessibility and equality. Rather than being an end in itself, its service is in both providing and enhancing a podium on which all can interact and be heard. Here the unity is drawn to Raymond William’s illumination of “the shared root of ‘commons’ and ‘communications” (935). Perhaps the only thing worse and more oppressive than not having access to something, is having nobody that cares to listen.

In 1965 Garrett Hardin wrote the tragedy of the commons, “[proposing] that collective resources unprotected by private property rights are inexorably degraded by neglect” (935). Meaning, if people are unable to obtain ownership over something they produce, it is inevitable that the quality of the product will suffer. This does not seem so farfetched, in the same way that one may take better care of personal belongs over their roommate’s. Conversely, digital media theorists have disputed such a notion claiming that “open source software discloses a ‘cornucopia of the commons” (935). This idea is founded on the basis that those who get to choose what they work on will inherently possess more of a passion for the subject, leading to more unique and efficient final products. In essence, if one is required to toil—and honestly speaking, that is what a copious amount of video game creation and testing seems to be—then let it be on something that is of interest. If one must in some way or another suffer for their art, then let there be a desire and necessity to do so; as has been learnt time and time again over the years, this sort of situation—however unhealthy in ways—can produce truly beautiful and fantastic things.

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