For many years I subscribed to CoEvolution Quarterly, the periodical that Stewart Brand founded and which inherited much of its DNA from Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogs.
The cover of the winter 1983 issue featured a caricature of Ivan Illich plugging his ears amidst a storm of falling computers and electronic devices. His essay, Silence is a Commons, was subtitled “Computers are doing to communication what fences did to pastures and cars did to streets.” Illich describes the history of pastures and roads being converted from commons owned and used equally by all into resources controlled by a few. He then relates a story about the first loudspeaker arriving on the Island of Brac, off the coast of Croatia, in 1926:
Few people there had ever heard of such a thing. Up to that day, all men and women had spoken with more or less equally powerful voices. Henceforth this would change. Henceforth the access to the microphone would determine whose voice shall be magnified. Silence now ceased to be in the commons; it became a resource for which loudspeakers compete. Language itself was transformed thereby from a local commons into a national resource for communication… The encroachment of the loudspeaker has destroyed that silence which so far had given each man and woman his or her proper and equal voice. Unless you have access to a loudspeaker, you are now silenced.
I hope that the parallel now becomes clear. Just as the commons of space are vulnerable, and can be destroyed by the motorization of traffic, so the commons of speech are vulnerable, and can easily be destroyed by the encroachment of modern means of communication.
Commons can exist without police, but resources cannot. Just as traffic does, computers call for police, and for ever more of them, and in ever more subtle forms.
I believed that Illich was misconstruing the effect of computers on communication. My response was published in CoEvolution Quarterly’s spring 1984 issue:
I have read Ivan Illich’s article “Silence is a Commons” several times carefully, and I have to admit I’m baffled. He certainly conveys a disturbing sense of menace about computer-based communication, but what exactly is the threat he perceives? Maybe Ivan is so far-sighted he can see something I can’t, but if so it doesn’t come across in his article. His analogy between loudspeakers and computers is quite misleading. A loudspeaker doesn’t give you any new capabilities, it simply gives you an edge over someone who doesn’t have one when you are competing for the attention of the same ears at the same time. Computers, on the other hand, introduce some fundamental new options in human communication, such as the ability to hold a discussion among a large group of individuals widely separated in space and time. Take a look at CompuServe or Delphi or the hundreds of tiny, free computerized bulletin boards, and you’ll see people communicating in new ways with people they’ve never met, swapping recipes, exchanging advice on child rearing, writing collaborative novels, you name it. What we are witnessing is nothing less than the creation of a new commons, one that is inherently more egalitarian than the traditional mass media. Anyone can enter the world of computer bulletin boards for less than the price of a color TV. By contrast, how many people can air their views on the cover of CoEvolution Quarterly?
La Jolla, California
When I wrote this response in 1983, the web did not yet exist. Neither I nor Ivan Illich could foresee the future well enough to envision how the internet would evolve. What seems clear now is that the web is both a commons and a resource. There are lots of big-money, privately owned spaces on the web, and the big players can generally draw a lot more attention than the bit players. But space on the web can be had almost for free. Anyone can put their own thoughts out there for the world to see.
What Ivan Illich could not foresee is that, unlike roads and pastures, this new electronic commons would be infinite. And that silence would always be available. Just close your laptop.