How should we think of “the digital commons?” The commons is widely referred to as a repository, but as well, it is a space that makes possible democratic discourse and practice. This commons signifies the role played by “public” spaces, wherein individuals can engage in the free circulation of ideas and the common construction of public rules and ethics. Famously, the public sphere concept put forth by Jurgen Habermas meant to secure a space that prohibits undue influence of those with corporate, government and corporatocratic power. This concept was subsequently critiqued for: implying a false separation of public and private; homogenizing the human subject as one or “the other;” assuming that democracy ascribes to consensus, and finally for ascribing privilege to white and upper “class” males. Concerned about the uneven power dynamics that come from “othering,” feminist, postcolonial and post-marxist scholars have offered corrections to the polarizing imaginaries produced by this exclusive commons. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argued that the commons should aim not for consensus but agonism; Nancy Fraser shows that dialogue in publics becomes impossible due to a lack social equality and contends that publics must be complex, diverse and transnational. The digital commons too must reflect on how this space privileges those with greater access and centres industrial capitalist northern states, reifying a problematic narrowness and centredness.
The editors have invited us to discuss the nature of the commons or the communities we craft as digital media scholars. The conflation of the terms community and commons is, for me, a provocation. A commons, if it is to function with diverse agonistic dialogue, must take on issues of access, social inequalities and exclusionary practices that plague how we imagine and act in these spaces. We must think deeply on ways to incorporate diversity, share power and space if we are to manifest community.
The construction of “community” is a pressing problem in academic environments where grants contain objectives that academics engage with “community” to achieve “knowledge transfer” and “innovation.” We are encouraged to “other” community in these project formulations— to collaborate in order to create outward flow to “them.” I have one such federally funded digital project grant in Canada, entitled Efect,1 in which we are working with “community partners” Ladies Learning Code and anti-violence group, METRAC. Space has been afforded and yet we still wrangle with unfair habits of interaction. We struggle to overcome the imagined university/community divide to form ourselves as a community that engages in equitable and agonistic exchange.
To address this, we are writing an Ethics Manifesto for Digital Collaboration, borrowing from feminist, postcolonial and indigenous scholarship that imagine productive and just working relationships that can incite socially responsible digital innovation. We draw on Gayatri Spivak to train ourselves to recognize privilege and to privilege speaking from “subaltern” spaces. We draw on indigenous scholarship to understand the difficulty in finding ethical space (Willie Ermine) and to engage in cross-epistemological discourse (Lee Maracle). Feminist scholarship (Wendy Brown) shows us how to engage in this messy work via self-reflection and rethinking moments where power is grabbed or privilege employed.
The notions of the commons and community share similar burdens fostered by ongoing social biases and inequalities, as well as structural biases constraining access to space— the same problematics that plagued the public sphere plague the digital commons and community spaces where we do our collaborative work. Solutions, we contend, can be found by identifying ethical practices that enable access and diverse voices to these spaces and agonistic work within them.
1 Experimental Feminist Ethical Collaboration Tools