The Commons of Experience

Can a commons of creative and artistic works repeat the success of free and open source software, despite the differences between these forms?

Modularity and the Novel

Take the novel. The image I have of the novelist is of someone crouched over a desk alone in the light cast by a single lamp, feverishly writing into the night. There is no commons here – there cannot be, for there is no sharing, no collective.

The novel is probably the most extreme example, but it does seem to be the case that many creative efforts are the product more of individual vision than of group consensus. There are exceptions of course – such as the vast team required to produce a movie. Nonetheless, hierarchy and personal vision are hardly strangers to the film.

Yochai Benkler proposes that modularity and granularity are two essential qualities for works produced collectively in a commons1. These works must be broken up into smaller efforts performed by different people. This practically defines one of the central problems of computer science and software engineering: how to divide & conquer, i.e. how to divide a task into independent sub-tasks.

The novel isn’t modular. Unlike the hidden code from which software is built, the elements that make it up are always visible – from spelling to word choice through style to character, plot and theme. These threads weave through the whole of the work. A change to one has cascading impacts throughout. There is none of the abstraction, encapsulation, or black-boxing essential to complex software design.

A Modular Form

I can think of one form of creative endeavor that is modular (though I don’t claim it’s unique). Pen & paper roleplaying games (RPGs) are most definitely creative, but they are – of commercial necessity – modular. Bear with me: this isn’t really about games; they’re just an illustration.

Roleplaying games are collaborative enterprises of their players. They may play out like war games, but they usually tell a story, complete with plot, character, setting, theme, and so on – elements they share with the novel. The requirement for playing is typically a core rulebook, which details the essential elements for the game (particularly rules and setting information). But the contents of the book leave much of the story and play of the game unspecified. Some of these elements – such as characters and plot – are filled in by the players. Game publishers often also produce additional books further detailing rules, setting, plots, etc. These books are optional (modular); while they integrate with each other, they can generally be used in any combination.

This poses a problem for the publisher, who must integrate the work of multiple book authors in such a way that the game, setting, and so on are coherent. Hierarchical control is not necessarily sufficient or possible – especially in cases where third-party publishers provide additional materials to be integrated into a game, or when fans produce their own materials on the Web.

So RPGs seem to be nothing like the inspired, individual work of the novelist. Perhaps, unlike novels, they are not art. But they certainly are creative. What makes this possible?

RPGs do have one other feature that distinguishes them from most other forms of popular fiction: they are performed. The game in practice is a product of the players who create many of the elements of the game as a necessary part of playing. Playing an RPG is an essentially active and interactive experience. In other words, the players of the game are not just consumers – they are also producers2. This last step offers a solution to the problem of how the various modular elements of the game are integrated: they are bound together in the practice of play.

No Commodity

Wait a minute. If the players of a game are producers, what are they producing? There is no necessary physical product of their play. They are inventing stories and ideas, but these take no physical form and may be rapidly forgotten. Rather, the practice of play results not in a thing, but in an experience. It isn’t really a product at all.

Anthony McCann provides insight here. He argues that the problem with many understandings of the commons is that they see it in terms of resource management, as an alternative way to produce and consume commodities.

Here, then, is a solution to the production of creative works – commodities – in the commons. Forget about production. Concentrate on experience. In the historically anomalous mass media culture of the twentieth century, creativity became a commodity to be bought and sold. In the resurgent commons of the Internet, the outcome of creativity can revert to experience rather than a commodity. The time people spend creating can displace the time they spent consuming (as indeed the Internet draws people away from TV). That is not to say they cease consuming – consumption (of bandwidth, of software, of game materials) is certainly part of the process. But it may be a lesser part.

Blogs are a good example. What is the product of a blogger’s work? Individual blog posts seem to be things, but they are seldom sold. If a blog as a whole were printed out, it would likely make for tedious fragmented reading. In many cases, the real product of the practice blogging is the construction and maintenance of relationships and reputations, and the production of experience. It is because social software is about community not commodity that J. LeRoy (via Nancy White ) is reasonable to suggest that users of MySpace may be perfectly happy to abandon their content and switch to a different service.

One could argue with me, and say that blogs are selling advertising to readers, they enhance the value of the writer who is the real commodity, and so on. There is much truth to this; economics remains a motivating factor. The point I am trying to make, however, is that the success of creativity in a commons environment may lead to very different products from the books, CDs and films of industrial media production.

Although it may indeed produce these things, perhaps we should not look to the commons to produce novels – or commodities at all for that matter. We should look to it as a space for creative practice and experience rather than production and consumption.


1 Yochai Benkler, 2006, The Wealth of Networks, p. 101.

2 This isn’t really unique; audiences are always producers, as I have argued elsewhere.