Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2253:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we visit the commons. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've been thinking a lot about the commons lately. The commons are those lands, goods, or intellectual properties that we hold in common. It once meant grazing land held in common by a village. When we lived in the village of Crediton, England, the name commons still identified a large central field. But now the young played soccer in it, while their elders did lawn bowling.

Such common ownership has grown, rather than diminishing, as the world has urbanized. Jefferson saw it coming when he helped institute the US Patent Office. He saw patents as means for promulgating new technology, and he knew that technology would be life-blood in the commons of our new republic.

America has long led in inventing new kinds of commons. In the 19th century, we created a fine system of elementary, then secondary, public education. During the Civil war, the Morrill Act literally made education out of grazing lands. It gave 30,000 acres of federal land to each state, for each senator and representative. That land was to be sold, and the money used to create Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.

We expanded the concept again after 1849, when the first state-supported public lending library was formed in New Hampshire. Suddenly our books became a part of our commons -- our own property, held in common, and administered for us. Early in the 20th century, we created our National Park System.

Since then, we've had to add so much to our managed commons -- the water we drink, even the air we breathe. In 1968, Garrett Hardin's famous article, The Tragedy of the Commons, lamented the loss of individual freedom this meant. I can't build my home in Yosemite Valley. I can't make marginal notes in a library book.

Now we have a wholly new commons that no one anticipated back then. The Internet is evolving its own code of co-ownership, even as we watch the push-pull between private and common interests.

Wikipedia leaves everyone gasping at its audacity. It leaves us groping for objections. The idea that our combined common knowledge can create a vast, and accurate, encyclopedia of all knowledge violates every fiber of our belief system. Yet it's happening, and we all use it. I've found a few gaffes and stupidities in it. But, when I go back a short time later, they're fixed.

Of course the commons are always under assault by the greedy. Go on-line to find illustrations, and we often see libraries themselves claiming copyright for images that we own jointly -- ones scanned from old books that've long since reverted to the commons.

So we copyleft the materials we create only to give away -- else mercenaries will steal and sell them. A copyleft is a copyright whose only purpose is to protect free material. As with liberty itself, we need to stay vigilant -- even a bit edgy -- if we hope to preserve the good things that rightly belong to us all.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

I did Episode 1602 on Garrett Hardin's article, The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, Vol. 162, 1968, pp. 1243-1248, in 2001. View this episode as a progress report on the idea.

Wikipedia articles on Commons, Copyleft, and itself, are quite informative: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commons

Photos below by JHL: Crediton and Cambridge Commons, respectively.

Crediton Commons

Cambridge Commons

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.