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Governance of the Immaterial Commons

February 10, 2017

[This post is an edited version of a talk I gave in 2016 at the New Economy Conference: activism, enterprise and social change. It’s an idea I expand upon in my thesis (to be submitted this year) and will develop theoretically for publication.] 

Contemporary Work Conundrums

Imagine you’re 25 and listening to the talks over the course of this conference and accept the general propositions. You accept the current game doesn’t make sense, and you want to contribute to a fairer and more sustainable economic system. You want to be the change you want to see in the world – start to model the alternative economic and social relations in your own small way that reflect the larger world you want to inhabit.

And yet you’ve been born into this Schumpetarian world of creative destruction. And you’re cognisant of the looming tsunamis of change. The twin forces of globalisation and technological innovation constantly disrupting industries, changing the culture of work relations. The elevated stature of creative knowledge work in the digital economy, especially the inordinate rewards for the translation of new knowledge into commercial activity.

Imagine you’re searching for meaningful work that can have an impact on these concerns with social equity and ecological health. But you don’t have any property or assets to fall back on, and need immediate income to pay rent.

But you also want to preserve your autonomy and dignity in working life. Perhaps you’ve already seen some evidence of Oliver James’ contention that the dark triadic personality traits of machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy are disproportionately represented in leadership and upper management positions in large organisations.  And you’re cautious of the perceived ignominious exchanges that careerist employment may demand. 

How do you think about the decades of your working life ahead? What do you do next?

Would you enter the public service hoping to shape, say tax policy in a few decades time?

Would you enter the private corporate sector hoping to steer the big end of town towards less corrosive forms of capitalism?

Would you apply for a role in the third sector – hoping to help those left behind by both markets or states?

Well many faced with such choices choose to start their own ventures. To attempt to gain their livelihood through non-standard working arrangements, as freelancers or entrepreneurs doing something they both enjoy and believe in.

And yet despite popular accounts of liberation from ‘the man’, this path can exchange one set of problems for another.

People can escape the iron cage of bureaucracy, only to encounter the challenges of self directed work – isolation, loneliness, precarious income and confusion about what to focus on next. Perhaps part of this common anxiety really is, as Soren Kierkegaard claims, the dizziness of freedom.

Or perhaps ultimately, as Zygmunt Bauman suggests, we’re all looking to maximise both freedom and security, but constantly faced with tradeoffs, we can’t optimise for both.

Coworking is the Answer


These experiences often lead people to Coworking and Coworking spaces.

Coworking is a rather complex phenomenon. On one level Coworking spaces are open plan offices that mobile, independent knowledge workers share as places of work. But Coworking is usually understood as more than mere access to space and facilities. From its inception the emphasis was on social participation and collaborative activity within a bounded community. This is why I emphasise Coworking practices – voluntary cooperation between independent workers. The positive spillover effects enabled by social proximity.

The word originated in 2005 in San Francisco when computer programer Brad Neuberg put out a call for “independent writers, programmers, and creators come together in community a few days a week. Coworking provides the “office of a traditional corporate job, but in a very unique way.”

Since that time thousands of Coworking spaces have grown in major cities across the world promoting these voluntary social relations as their primary value proposition. Now these offerings vary along a spectrum – at the lighter end, simply the positive social pressure tacitly absorbed from working alongside busy people. At the heavier end, an initiation into a trusted, values aligned community in which one might find partners to start new ventures with or engage in ongoing work.

And there is an emerging art in organising a spatiality and sociality that does this well. In my PhD I document many of these distinct social practices that allow Coworking to function – welcoming, introducing, sharing, offering, asking and receiving practices. The wilful blending of the personal and professional – of work, learning and play. The various ways of ‘working out loud’. The discursive construction of boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

Such practices are enabled through an assemblage of platforms:

    • the design of the material environment itself;
    • many spaces also have an internal digital platform (like facebook);
    • programs of formal events & hosted conversations
    • and less formal rituals like weekly shared lunches   

But ultimately it is the Coworking participants themselves that construct the culture – the routine enactment of cooperative social practices helps foster less transactional, more trusting exchanges.

Now we all do versions of this through our interpersonal networks, and many of us actively blend personal and professional relationships. But what’s distinct about these projects is they are not simply confined to existing personal ties. They can be sites that encourage strangers to meet under the aegis of more cooperative social norms; partake in longer encounters than the typical anonymity or polite but brief interactions with strangers in the street. One always risks crossing the weirdo line if you ask too many questions or linger too long in such encounters in public spaces. Coworking spaces, rather, can reside as small villages guided by different social expectations, pockets hidden in plain site within the larger urban environment.

Yet this is only possible when undergirded by a logic of cooperation, a mythos that gives meaning to cooperative rather competitive behaviour. That encourages the funnelling of discretionary effort in the form of intellectual and emotional labour into the space, into the community. As Richard Dennis reminded us yesterday, there’s always an opportunity cost when doing so.

And at least in my own ethnographic research, it worked… or more accurately it did for a while. I was frequently told how important Coworking experiences were in people’s lives.

Up until the point when the undergirding mythos breaks down.

By the end of the four years of my PhD, most of my cohort of research participants had moved away from their original Coworking space. There were many reasons for this, but a common response was ‘it just stopped making sense’; ‘I had to establish some boundaries around giving’; ‘I felt like I was contributing to someone else’s business’.

So I want to end with some reflections on the collective production of culture and consideration of Coworking as a kind of commoning activity.   

Immaterial Production and Appropriation


The term ‘collective production of culture’ might sound like a tautology, but there is a distinction between inherited culture – language and customs – and culture that is the product of intentional labour within a bounded domain. Here we can easily be fooled by the immateriality of culture, and become confused by questions of who creates it, who should own it, and who should benefit from it.   

So here’s a thought experiment that I hope is illustrative.

Imagine I organised a community garden by leasing a patch of land, and then made a public call for others to come and tend it with me; bring their own seeds and seedlings to plant; routinely water and fertilise; all the while supporting public messages that its purpose is to serve the community, that if everybody puts a little in, we will all be richer upon harvest. That the whole we will create together will be greater than the sum of our mere parts. Imagine that this discourse is taken up and propagated by a small cadre of early adopters that advocate enthusiastically for this vision in a variety of public events and private discussions.

Imagine then I begin charging participants a monthly subscription fee for the right to enter the gates and produce the food. Perhaps many would understand and be happy to pay a small fee to cover the costs of access to the land and gardening resources. But consider the likely response if I start to sell the food, hire staff, open many more gardens and travel to international conferences talking up the benefits of the ‘sharing economy’.

Such an ‘innovative business model’ begins to resemble a much older form of feudal tenure, where medieval ‘villeins used to pay fees to work a lord’s land, upon which he would appropriate a portion of the harvest.    

Now this analogy with Coworking is not perfect, Coworkers are not bound to a feudal lord and can always choose to leave. And yet to the extent that we think of the accumulation of trust within a group, those thick social norms as a kind of wealth, it is a common wealth. It is produced by the participants in the community, by the members of the space. And I should say in the case study I observed most closely, much of the care work – watering plants, making chai, cooking food, listening to people’s concerns – was done by women that weren’t busy seeking investment or promoting their idea for a new, disinter-mediating app.

But this recognition sits uneasily with private ownership of a Coworking platform, where the control and benefits are not adequately distributed back into the network. I want to make clear that I don’t believe break down is the inevitable conclusion for such ventures. Indeed examples like Enspiral in Wellington or Gangplank in the USA have explicit protocols geared to sustaining such cooperative interactions.

But it does highlight the danger of attempting to pour new wine into old wine skins. Attempts to foster communal social relations on top of platforms seeking to extract surplus value, and further exchange this accumulated ‘good will’ for financial capital to expand an enterprise, or further the ambitions of founders. 

It also underpins the fragility of a shared mythos that sustains such relations, and I became fascinated by the instances in which people fell out of belief in the narrative. The moments when participants felt the fruits of their labour they had given to a common project were appropriated for  private reputational or material gain. It left a bitter taste for some.

So I believe we need to think carefully about the appropriate models of governance for immaterial commons-based-peer production. Elinor Ostrom’s eight principles of commons design are a good start, but these were largely developed around inherited material, ecosystemic commons – fisheries, pastures and forests.

There is scope to adapt them towards these emerging sites of immaterial Commoning. But if nothing else, my investigations of the Coworking world have convinced me that enterprise models relying on commons based peer production, should be stewarded by commons based models of governance.


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