A Discussion with David Bollier

David Bollier’s first book, Silent Theft, explored the historical development of commons and how the concept of commons can be used to approach contemporary policy and economic issues. In Silent Theft, Bollier asserts that commons are both tangible assets (like land, minerals, etc.) and intangible wealth (like copyrights and cultural resources). By reaffirming our collective ownership of these common resources we can alter the discourse surrounding property rights and ultimately create a more complex understanding of the market. gnovis recently sat down with Bollier for a conversation that covered everything from municipal wi-fi to subjectivity/objectivity and academic blogging. We were particularly interested in how governments can respond to charges that, by promoting commons, they are “Socialist.” Bollier had two responses, especially as these charges relate to initiatives like municiple wi-fi. First, he asserted that rethinking the commons is a (very) long-term process. Unlike many current social or political agendas, those who support commons need to think beyond short time-lines.Second, the current business model, which emphasizes private companies partnering with governments, will need to be rethought. During gnovis’ interview, as well as his presentation to a class of CCT students, Bollier emphasized that encouraging the commons does not mean negating the market as a concept. Rather, those who support commons initiatives will need to explain that commons are an alternative place for creating value—though it may not be monetary value. Thus, while municipal wi-fi projects have the possibility of creating commons and changing how governments interact with their constituents, at the present time these schemes are untenable.Bollier explained that the commons is a way of connecting individuals to assets in a more moral and personal way. Part of the problem with neo-classical economics is that it does not account for the value companies get for free from publicly owned resources. In addition, the economic concept of “externalities” does not really address the full social and environmental implications of uncontrolled market activity. The model that commons proposes is one of markets related to their communities rather than imposed upon them. Not only will these commons reflect their context, but they will be able to quickly adapt to cultural changes. During a brief discussion of intellectual property rights and piracy, Bollier mentioned that, in communities without film or music corporations, the community members will produce their own music or movies and distribute them. This system of artistic creation and distribution discourages “mono cultures” and allows the cultural product to be “idiosyncratic and neighborhood based.” Although various commons may join together, those partnerships are often need based rather than enforced through corporate mergers or market expansion. Recent growth in awareness of the commons, especially through efforts like the creative commons licenses, express a yearning for local culture and connection to production that is lacking in the current economic structure. Bollier explained that the movement is becoming global—with over 70 countries adopting variations on the CCL—and people are increasingly self-identifying as “commoners.” Finally, we closed by asking David Bollier about his blog and general feelings about academic blogging. Bollier essentially echoed some of the thoughts Brad Weikel, gnovis‘ managing editor, shared in his first blog post on this site. The critical issue, Bollier explained, is that blogging opens academia up to a much larger audience. Perhaps most exciting, if also a little terrifying, is that academic blogging has the potential to “disrupt entrenched genres” of scholarly thought. By granting the freedom to wander, blogging provide academics with a slightly less formal way to engage with questions and issues.


David Bollier, an activist and journalist who edits OnTheCommons.org, visited Georgetown’s CCT program on September 25th, 2007.Learn more about David Bollier and his publications at www.Bollier.org

Ashley Bowen

Ashley Bowen is a former CCT Graduate Student.