The Cultural Commons: From Open Land to the Open Internet

"We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune."  ~ Theodore Roosevelt

I just spent the most amazing weekend in the backcountry of the Klamath National Forest. Located just west of Mt. Shasta, one of the tallest mountains in California, I found myself walking amidst beauty that no words can properly explain. To be out in nature, free from all civilization, is a gift.

Long ago, this was the way of the world. All our land was open and free. Cultures moved from one place to another, following the herds of bison, or the warmth of the sun. Like birds, humans were able to explore, hunt and move with the seasons. All land was shared and the idea of owning a tree or a lake was absurd.

Until approximately 12,000 years ago, when farming began. Soon land became someone’s domain to care for and till. A tribe would share a plot of land, but not with other tribes. This gave way in time to kings owning lands and soon hunting was prohibited to commoners. Only the royals, and their court, could roam the land freely and enjoy its wonders. Where land once was sustenance, killing the animals now became sport. Fast forward to today, where virtually every single piece of land is plotted, owned and private. Walking across the nation without the use of roads is impossible without trespassing in some way. Indeed, what was once considered insane is now our reality: every tree is owned. Every part of nature is a commodity.

None of this was lost on me as I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with my husband, knowing that this part of land was mine to cross, if only for legislation that made it so. I have Theodore Roosevelt to thank for this opportunity to explore the valleys, mountains and rivers of the Mt. Shasta region. In 1883, Roosevelt arrived in the badlands looking for some game to hunt. Unfortunately for him, he was too late. The last herds of bison were gone, having been decimated by hide hunters and disease. As he spent time in the region, he was alarmed by the damage that was being done to the land and it’s wildlife. He also knew that it was only due to privilege that he had access to the most beautiful places in our country. Thus, when he became president in 1901, he used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the U.S. Forest Service. During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt protected approximately 230,000,000 acres of public land.

Thanks Teddy, I needed that.

In our day, these commons are important. They are places where we can be free with nature and ourselves. They provide a space where all are on common ground and wealth and politics mean nothing. But these are not the only commons worth protecting.

The digital world is also a cultural commons. We’re at the beginning of this age, creating and making a virtual world where at the moment, the playing field is open. All who can gain access to this commons are welcome to express themselves and share their content. The internet is a virtual commons similar to the national forest system, which is our natural commons. At the moment, we’re like natives, roaming freely within the digital world we’re creating.

But our freedom within the digital commons is threatened. Miners, farmers, kings and elites all want a share. They want to own the hardware that provides the broadband, control it, and give it rules and fees that they can make their own. What is now open and accessible to all is slowly being eroded by business interests, not unlike the business interests that cordoned off the land, rendering it unavailable to those who once used it for food and solitude.

The time has come once again for a president to step up and use his power to protect a most glorious heritage. The internet, and all the technology springing forth from it, is an inheritance and we must act to show we’re worthy of it as a nation. Like Roosevelt, President Barack Obama could create legislation that keeps net neutrality in tact. He could protect it from pure economics and instead see the use of the internet as more than yet another aspect of our world to turn into a commodity.

Like nature, the internet surrounds us and provides us with an opportunity to share ourselves with others. It’s a cultural commons, a place where stories live and news is reported. Allowing businesses to own it and turn it into only commerce is like logging a virgin forest—we can do it, but we loose a bit of ourselves in the process. If we had no free, open land, we’d be nothing more than caged animals.

If we have no free, open internet, we’ll loose yet another frontier for human expression. Roosevelt saw businesses in his day ruining the land he so loved, changing its landscape and virtually destroying entire species of animals. I don’t think it’s a leap to say that something similar could happen with the digital landscape if economic needs are the only ones we cater to.

If Roosevelt protected 230,000,000 acres of public land during his presidency, how many gigabytes of public bandwidth could Obama protect?

For the good fortune of our nation, and the cultural commons we need in order to share in our humanity, I think it’s time our leaders stepped up conservation efforts in the digital landscape. For if they don’t, business will claim every byte, and soon trespassing will become a virtual problem for all.

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