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Hedgerows in the Sky

Evaluating "The Commons" in digital and agricultural contexts
Published onMay 30, 2024
Hedgerows in the Sky

When I tell people I make open source software for farmers, I'll occasionally hear some variation of the reply, "Why do farmers care whether their software is open source?" or "You don't actually expect farmers to read the source code or build the binaries themselves, do you?" They assume that farming and information technology represent opposing world views, that their issues and concerns seldom correlate, and if they do it's by sheer accident.

Lately, I haven't heard this response quite as often as I used to. I attribute this in part to the rise of the closely aligned food sovereignty and data sovereignty movements in North America. Apart from their shared naming conventions, these two movements share a belief that the resources we produce, consume, and depend upon should be controlled at the community level. That goes the same for food, software, hardware, agricultural inputs, or data. When it comes to what kind of software or farming practices the community employs, or how much food or data is imported into the community — or likewise exported — those decisions ought to happen locally, or at a regional scale appropriate to the task at hand. The power to choose should be decentralized and more fairly distributed. Both movements are committed to stewarding common resources, and they don't put restrictions on what those resources might be: common land and the knowledge commons are the commons, one and the same.

Unlike more right-leaning libertarian ideologies, which prevail among agriculturalists and technologists alike, proponents of food and data sovereignty do not insist that local control must devolve to the smallest possible unit of autonomy: solitary individuals. Individual autonomy is an important component for food and data sovereignty, but these movements focus their efforts on achieving community control of resources, where social relations are grounded in trust and a shared sense of belonging. On this basis, clear parallels can be drawn between the two movements' practices. For example, you can compare collectivized farm management to cooperative data trusts. Mutual aid food programs, such as free fridges or group buying clubs, arguably have their counterparts in communally run social media networks, such as the open source Mastodon project or its derivative, Hometown, which is even more tailored to small, localized groups of friends.1 Some food co-ops and farm CSAs offer sliding scale prices or solidarity shares in an effort to introduce more equity into their payment structures. In a similar fashion, open source software projects are commonly sponsored through Liberapay, OpenCollective, Ko-fi donate buttons, or other "pay what you can" mechanisms, while remaining free to use for everyone.

Though the concepts have only recently achieved notoriety in the U.S., food and data sovereignty can trace their origins to several earlier movements that preceded them. I was introduced to food sovereignty by way of my earlier connections to the local food and farm-to-table movements in and around New York City during the 2000s and 2010s. Data sovereignty, also known as information or technological sovereignty, is a comparatively new trend I have seen emerging from older free and open source software (FOSS) communities and the free culture movement.2

Since the turn of the millennium, the small farming and local food movements have fixated on what was near-at-hand, low-tech, organic, provincial and professedly slow. Meanwhile, the free-culture and open source movements set their gaze on global streams of non-rivalrous information liberated by cutting-edge technology. By virtue of their abstractness alone, these bits of data and code were free to move across borders without restriction, effortlessly and instantaneously. With so little in common, there was rarely any dialogue or collaboration between the two camps.

Strangely enough, the metaphor of "the commons" was only adopted by the technologists of that earlier era, not by the foodies and locavores. This is in spite of the term's origin as a form of communal land tenure, practiced widely by peasant farmers. It was this apparent contradiction that first got me looking more critically at the relationship between farming and technology. And it only got more puzzling the deeper I looked.

Over the last twenty years, I have alternated between enthusiasm, loathing, and apathy for the cultures that surrounds both food and tech. Here on America's Eastern Seaboard, the food and tech scenes are never dull; neither their adherents nor their detractors are shy with their opinions; I've certainly clung to a few of my own for too long. But I'm becoming increasingly aware how my very subjectivity has been molded by political narratives that far exceed this moment in both time and place. The conceptual linkages joining food, technology, land, and knowledge run far deeper into history, before human beings even learned to farm.

Food, technology, land, and knowledge: they are the prime constituents of culture, are they not? Does a day or even an hour go by when we don't feel their effects?

The Gathering for Open Agricultural Technology

About a year and a half ago, I sat with a dozen or so engineers, agronomists, designers and soil scientists, clustered around a couple hastily arranged tables. It was an "unconference"3 session titled "Justice for Nature."4 This session given by Samuel Oslund, an independent researcher then at the CAPÉ5 farming cooperative, directed the conversation towards the Amish Ordnung. In essence, Ordnung is a code of conduct or rules each community formulates for itself. It does not ban technology outright, but prescribes a selection process that may include evaluation by community elders, probationary trial periods, and group consensus.6 From our superficial understanding, we saw it as a means of socializing technology adoption, with localized control and intent. The entire community took ownership of any externalities (if they could still be called that), and through collective action they could adjust course at any time. Sam's comments yielded the following prompt: "Could GOAT [Gathering for Open Agricultural Technology] develop a technological assessment framework to help developers consider the impacts of their technologies on nature?"

Genna Fudin, an OpenTEAM Fellow7 proposed that technology should seek to expand access to nature and never restrict it. That did not mean access solely for the individual user, or even all humanity, but for every living thing on the planet. Her remarks struck me like a bolt, catalyzing an array of ideas that had been swimming around my head over the last three days, finally snapping them into place. I struggled to articulate it, so I asked to read aloud some antiquated English folk poetry, which I'd been mulling over earlier in the week.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.8

I'd first heard these anonymous lines in an interview with historian Peter Linebaugh, commemorating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.9 He was discussing its lesser known companion, the Charter of the Forest, which protected the peasantry's rights to forage and graze their animals on common lands. It was the first time I'd heard the longer history of the English commons, how it was enshrined in the English constitution and only phased out by a gradual process called enclosure that took centuries to complete. Enclosure is exactly what it sounds like: closing off common pasture or forest by means of fences, hedges or by blocking roads so that it's no longer accessible to the common peasantry.

Genna's comments on nature’s accessibility fused together the final conceptual links between enclosure and the more erudite legal and socioeconomic theories I'd been reading about recently. There is a strain of communitarian thought, often associated with Murray Bookchin's theory of social ecology, that draws upon the legal principle of "usufruct" as an alternative to absolute property rights. Usufruct grants, as I understand them, give the rightsholder two distinct rights: the free use of an asset as they saw fit, and the ability to keep profits or other material gains that may arise from it. These are termed usus and fructus in civil law, respectively, hence usufruct. Real property ownership grants all of that plus the right to the disposal (abusus) of the asset. That can include consuming, selling, irrevocably altering or destroying it.10

What I struggled with most was this: If someone is entitled to use an asset and its produce however one saw fit, how did that differ substantially from the right to sell or consume it? Weren't those just other ways to use it? It seemed redundant.

When I thought about it in the light of universal access to nature, I remembered another term for this third right, abusus, which usufruct denies: alienation. In a strictly legal sense, to alienate an asset carries little further significance than to "dispose of" it. In a sociological context, however, alienation carries a deeply psychological quality. There is reciprocity between us and nature, a two-way subjectivity that transcends the mere owner/asset duality. A free-market economy, however, requires that elements of nature be made fungible and comply with the rules of commodity exchange. To enclose nature, therefore, means to fundamentally set it apart and have it become an asset or commodity. This was certainly the experience of English peasants who were driven off the commons by enclosure. So not only was the ecological value of the land commodified and sold, but the very social value of the peasantry was itself made into a commodity, measured out by the punch clock, and made divisible as wage shares. Wherever the commons was enclosed, the commoners were duly confined, if not to the factory yard then invariably to the prison yard.11

And Geese Will Still a Common Lack...

While the plight of peasants hundreds of years in the past may seem remote to our modern sensibilities, I think we can still empathize with their position when we consider how the enclosure of digital spaces has been used to alienate us from our social relations and the natural world. The natural world is not limited to the merely physical, but includes things like knowledge, cultural practices, mental abstractions, and emotional affect states. When these parts of nature are enclosed by Big Data corporations or the aptly named "walled gardens" of social media conglomerates, we feel alienated. This alienation, at least according to one interpretation, can be attributed to the mechanism James Muldoon calls data commodity fetishism, defining it as "the perception of certain digital relationships between people [...] as having their value based not on the social relationships themselves but on the data they produce."12

The enclosure of the commons in centuries past was made legal by acts of Parliament, but it could not have been fully accomplished without physical deterrents. State-sanctioned violence may have represented the bloodiest end of that spectrum, but its most visible and pervasive manifestation lay in the hedgerows that hemmed in the former commons. Many of those hedgerows even persist to this day, emblematic of the English countryside and the imagined idylls of yesteryear. In their own time, however, they were at once a symbol of class hierarchy and a physical line of defense. They formed a very real and necessary barrier, keeping the commoners off their erstwhile commons. Hedgerows represented the alienation of common people from their land, from their social relations, and from their traditional ways of farming and husbandry. Intellectual property (IP) is essentially a legal mechanism for enclosing knowledge today, analogous to the enclosure acts of the 18th century. Since the 1990s, these enclosures have rapidly extended their lawful reach through the corresponding expansion of copyright and patent protections.

The most effective means of enclosing knowledge in our time is to consolidate it in vast data centers and server farms owned by just a few tech monopolies. Property rights can be legislated and service contracts agreed to, but their final implementation is only achieved in these physical constructs. Digital enclosure comprises all the silicon, cables, metal, and concrete of those facilities, just as much as the abstract services and data they carry. Only then can access be effectively commodified in the form of subscriptions or advertising fees. The IP owner retains maximum control, with the ability to revoke access or modify the terms of service at any time, often outpacing legal authority to do so. This practice goes by many names. The industry jargon is Software-as-a-Service, while it is marketed to lay users in more poetic terms: the cloud. Opponents of cloud computing and proprietary software have quipped that this is just a euphemism for "someone else's computer." I propose that — trading one grandiose metaphor for another — we instead rebrand the cloud as the modern form of enclosure it truly is: hedgerows in the sky.

The hedgerows that enclosed the English commons of the 16th through 18th centuries did not go unopposed but were actively resisted over many generations. The Levellers were among the earliest dissidents for whom any records survive. They earned that name during the Midland Revolt of 1607 by "leveling" hedgerows in protest. Though some were drawn and quartered for their actions, they were never entirely suppressed. Some 40 years later, they were revived as the True Levellers, or Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley to establish a commune on St. George's Hill in the waning years of the English Revolution. The anonymous bard I quoted above, surely knew something of this struggle, and perhaps even participated in it. Therefore, it's not hard to hear both a warning and a call-to-arms in their final stanza:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

If we were to heed their call, how would we begin leveling today's hedgerows?

Free as the Air to Common Use

There is a tendency among today's advocates for free culture and open source software to limit the commons to what is abstract and non-rivalrous. The hardware and infrastructure required to store, process and move information around are treated as mere accidents or technical details. If they're considered at all they're taken as inconveniences to be worked around in policy, possibly subsidized, but never as substantive elements of the knowledge commons in their own right. Information acquires a supernatural character in this formulation. It is beyond the encumbrances of the physical world. Even the Swedish police who raided The Pirate Bay in 2006 had to concede that there were limits to what could be done to physically impede the flow of information. Since the Internet’s inception, its ephemeral quality has been widely attested. It’s conveyed in the word “virtual” to describe everything from communities and relationships to space itself. It can also be heard in the hacker’s credo, that “information wants to be free,” a slogan often credited to Stewart Brand.

Brand, coincidentally, is the hub connecting two spokes of the baby boomers' cultural history: first their quest in the 1960s and 70s to discover new forms of consciousness through autonomous communities, then their disparate pursuit of free markets and tech-infused neoliberalism that climaxed in the 1990s and 2000s. Fred Turner claims in Counterculture to Cyberculture that while the 60s counterculture can be viewed as a hotbed of radical politics, it also produced a deeply apolitical tendency he dubs New Communalism. Rather than seeking to change society for the better, New Communalists sought to drop out of civilization entirely. The communes seldom lasted more than a year or two, but their utopian dream of intentional communities persisted into the 1980s, when it re-emerged in the guise of the earliest virtual communities. It was in 1985 that Brand, once counted among Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, co-founded one of the earliest Internet startups called The WELL with some former members of a Tennessee commune known only as The Farm. The WELL incubated a number of virtual communities that would eventually give rise to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Wired magazine, Craigslist, and, just to name a few. The utopian dream had become a reality, albeit virtual. When that tech-positive optimism was combined with the laissez faire spirit of the post-history 1990s, it gave rise to a new brand of techno-libertarianism, which pervades Silicon Valley to this day.

As is quite clear to many of us now, this optimism was misplaced. Problems like economic scarcity and social stratification don't just vanish with one wave of the magic wand of virtualization, as Turner warns:

The rhetoric of peer-to-peer informationalism, however, much like the rhetoric of consciousness out of which it grew, actively obscures the material and technical infrastructures on which both the Internet and the lives of the digital generation depend. Behind the fantasy of unimpeded information flow lies the reality of millions of plastic keyboards, silicon wafers, glass-faced monitors, and endless miles of cable. All of these technologies depend on manual laborers, first to build them and later to tear them apart. This work remains extraordinarily dangerous, first to those who handle the toxic chemicals required in manufacture and later to those who live on the land, drink the water, and breathe the air into which those chemicals eventually leak.13

The cost of disregarding information's earthly trappings is further borne out today by the way private streaming platforms have nonetheless managed to enclose the knowledge commons, quite thoroughly and in relatively short time. Jump ahead twenty years from when it seemed like Napster and torrenting would spell the death of copyright, we see subscription rates for platforms such as Netflix steadily rising every year, while fewer titles are available outside premium plans and mid-roll ads become longer and more frequent. This is how today's big platforms rake in more revenue than the premium cable channels of yesteryear ever dreamed was possible. It's also how our common cultural heritage continues to be enclosed.

Tierra y Libertad

Although the commons had become a byword for free culture and open source software by the early 2000s, it was a hollow shell of the more ambitious program for the commons that persisted in other times and places. The new digital commons was static, politically neutral, and devoid of material consequence. Immaterial as it was, it acquiesced so easily to the prevailing neoliberal order, essentially just another "free gift of nature," as Adam Smith might have called it.

There was surely no want of critical discourse on the commons in other fields at this time. One only needs to look at how Elinor Ostrom rose to prominence in those same years, beginning with her highly praised Governing the Commons in 1990, and culminating with the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics for her analysis of common-pool resources. In 2006 Silvia Federici's groundbreaking work, Caliban and the Witch, forever linked the history of the commons and enclosure to the Marxist feminist critiques of social reproduction and primitive accumulation.

Conspicuously absent from this discourse, however, were the local food and organic farming movements that reached their zenith in the U.S. during this very same period. Although the free culture and open source movements' conception of the commons might have been some pretty weak tea, it was at least a vision. To find any mention of the commons or enclosure from self-proclaimed locavores of that time would have been a distinct challenge. There certainly wasn't anything like the rich historical commentaries or nuanced discourse that permeated the anti-globalization movement.

What's confounding about all of it is that the history of the commons is essentially an agrarian history, yet at the same moment when a revitalized image of agrarianism was emerging from the organics movement, it was the technologists, not the agriculturalists, who embraced the metaphor. It shouldn't be presumed that the proponents of organic food and agriculture lagged behind the technologists in political sensibility or acumen — far from it. Their political savvy and organizing ability is attested by the massive public awareness campaigns they launched14 and significant legislative victories they achieved all throughout the 2000's.15 It's debatable whether open source and free culture advocates could claim anything comparable in terms of legislation.16

This may be where the cognitive dissonance arises between these two seemingly sympathetic movements. In an era of tepid U.S. politics, predicated largely on consumer protection, both have been portrayed as more or less progressive movements. This broad assessment, however, smooths over their rugged political contours. Upon closer inspection, each was internally quite diverse, containing fractious constituencies who held disparate motivations that were sometimes directly opposed to one other.

Situated amidst the broader context of contemporary geopolitics, its even harder to ignore the diversity of ideology from techno-libertarians to anti-globalization. Techno-libertarians, then and now, claim to be building political power from the ground up, but it's for the sole benefit of isolated individuals. The complete atomization of society into self-interested agents is not the same as bottom-up organization. It's a lie that merely enables the top-down exploitation of the many by the few. Coincidentally, it is the same alienated condition that the thought leaders at Davos tend to mistake for "freedom." The anti-globalization organizers, on the other hand, came from small, localized bases of power, but they also knew that no individual could seriously challenge the centralized power of global capital alone. Instead, they leveraged their collective agency and organized their communities. They unequivocally championed autonomy for individuals at all levels of society, but they would not sacrifice the autonomy of the community just to preserve some rarefied ideal of absolute individualism.

If the organic and local food movements correspond to one of these two fronts, it's undoubtedly the techno-libertarianism side of the schism, but it begs the question: was there a corresponding collectivist movement in food and agriculture during this period in the U.S., something more in-line with anti-globalization?

At the moment, my personal exploration of the commons is situated within a certain community of practice, principally the Gathering for Open Agricultural Technology, but also Social.Coop and the Skywoman community. I think it's critical to acknowledge this, because my own understanding, and in fact the very content of this essay, has proceeded directly from the conversations I've shared with the people in those communities. Those conversations began long before the gathering in Rhinebeck in 2022, and have continued right up through the time of writing this. All navel-gazing aside, it's not lost on me that this environment, the set of social relations, professional ties, and the friendships of many years that comprise this network of practitioners, is just as much a part of the commons as anything that can be pushed to a public GitHub repository or licensed as free software under the GPL.

In the end, the substance of the commons — whether it is physical or abstract, rivalrous or nonrivalrous, information or land — plays far less a role in making it a commons than we might think. What matters more is the quality of our social bonds, how our obligations to each other also strengthen our commitment to preserve the commons. Enclosure, too, is more than just a simple barrier, boundary, or hedgerow: it is a severing of the ties that connect us to other people and to life more generally, while uprooting us from the land and our sense of place within it. The same is true with the enclosure of knowledge, which estranges us from the markers of culture and our shared ways of doing things.

The commons comes about wherever we collectively acknowledge that although we may use a thing, care for it, and maintain it, that does not give us sole dominion over it, nor over how others may wish to use it. Saying it like that, it comes across as a bit of a platitude, but there's a subtly there that eluded me when I first showed up at GOAT 2022, still struggling to make sense of such high concepts as usufruct and alienation. The commons is not ours to dispose of as we wish. We cannot alienate it from ourselves, nor us from it. We partake of the land or knowledge commons, but ultimately it is something we must give back to the whole.

To read a longer version of this essay, see:

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