The BBC’s long history of innovation and influence position it as a prime conduit through which to forward the idea of a ‘digital commons’ within the British media: a site in which the contradictions, relations and values of public life may be freely discussed
In the summer of 1215 King John made his way to the meadowlands at Runnymede, on the banks of the Thames, to settle accounts with his rebellious barons – who were angered at his high-handedness in raising revenues for his latest foreign adventures. He put his name to two agreements that day. The larger, the Magna Carta, placed curbs on despotic power. The second, the Charter of the Forest, restored ordinary people’s customary rights to use common land. Both have left enduring legacies, but whereas Magna Carta’s provisions are continually evoked in discussions of rights, the animating idea of the commons has been largely lost. We need to retrieve it.
The mediaeval commons was first and foremost a cluster of rights to the resources required to live a full life; rights to gather wood for fuel and building, rights to graze sheep and cattle, rights to gather wild plants for food and medicines. But it was also a web of social relations underpinned by an ethos of shared access rather than personal ownership, of collaboration rather than competition and joint responsibility rather than individual advantage. With the rise of a market economy there was a continual push to exploit the commercial value of collective resources by fencing off the commons and converting it into private property. This enclosure movement began in earnest with the dissolution of the monasteries and was more or less complete by the mid-nineteenth century. The dispossessed then had two choices. They either went to work as labourers for the new agricultural landlords or they looked for employment in the rapidly expanding industrial cities. Those cities then became the site of a renewed struggle for the commons, with new terms of engagement.
The agricultural commons supported a subsistence economy in which access to shared resources was, for many, quite literally a matter of life and death, and where rights were contested in courts embedded in a feudal system that subjected peasants to lordly power. The battle for the urban commons coincided with the long struggle for full democracy rooted in a conception of citizenship that promised everyone the right to participate fully in social and political life and help shape its future forms. Delivering on this promise required both a universal right to vote and spaces hospitable to conviviality, festivity, creative expression, and political debate and demonstration, in which the multiple groups within civil society – the debating societies, adult education groups, community choirs and bands, political and campaigning organisations – could meet and reach a public audience. These organisations were amateur, not in the sense of lacking skill or competence (of being amateurish) but of being run by volunteers. In a second enclosure movement, public spaces were continually under threat from commercial annexation as property rose in value and an emerging consumer culture plastered every available public space with advertising and demolished whole city blocks to build department stores.
This commercial culture spoke to people solely in their role as consumers, presenting market choices as the best guarantee of personal freedom and individual expression. In direct contrast, the idea of citizenship invited people to look beyond immediate personal advantage and contribute to the overall quality of collective life through taxes spent on providing shared resources that would promote a knowledgeable and tolerant society as well as personal development. This ideal funded an arc of public institutions: public libraries, public museums and galleries, subsidised theatre and performance, adult education. There was however a tension between the cultural professionals who ran these new institutions and the people they served. Amateurs were largely excluded from contributing, garnering accusations of paternalism and talking-down.
The BBC, which was launched within two years of the final achievement of the adult franchise, was from the outset caught up in the contradictions of translating the ideal of citizenship into every day practice. On the one hand, the technology of broadcasting held out the promise of universal access to the full range of public cultural provision. It offered a library, museum, seminar room, and theatre without walls. By carrying no advertising it placed itself four-square behind the project of providing the cultural resources required for full civic participation; representing social life in its full complexity, delivering comprehensive and disinterested information on events and issues, providing wide-ranging analysis of cause and consequences, and hosting sustained debate on options for action. On the other hand, broadcasters’ working conceptions of professionalism continued to marginalise amateur contributions generated within civil society. Relations along this fault line have been a constant feature of the Corporation’s history with successive attempts to widen the range of voices and perspectives on offer. The arrival of the Internet as a universal utility changes the playing field fundamentally.
In one of the key moments in the opening ceremony of this summer’s London Olympics, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, is shown sitting in front of a laptop computer with the message ‘This is for everyone’ written in lights around the stadium. As internet access migrates from desktops and laptops to smart phones and tablets we may see almost ‘everyone’ coming on line but the terms of connection are increasingly dictated by commercial dynamics. There are insistent pressures to convert the horizontal network of equal exchange originally envisaged into a vertical, top-down, system of distribution. We are currently witnessing a third enclosure movement as the digital space most people use most of the time is increasingly commandeered by a handful of major corporate players: Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and the ubiquitous presence of advertising.
The web was conceived as an open space supporting multiple pathways with users moving from site to site using hyperlinks in ways that they decided. Smart phones organised around applications replace this with a series of gated communities divided off from each other. By insisting on vetting all ‘apps’ downloaded onto its devices Apple effectively controls what users have access to. Nor is the web entirely open. Google’s almost complete domination of internet searches gives its page ranking system unparalleled power to direct users’ attention.
Google’s revenues, along with those of other key players, are powered by product promotion. Every time someone clicks on their keyboard or touches their screen they are giving away valuable information about themselves which is deposited in the great reservoir of ‘Big Data’ to be mined for clues that will allow advertisers to target them more effectively, with increasingly personalised appeals. The next step is to enlist users as co-producers of promotional material, a move signalled by Facebook’s recent announcement that it reserves the right to use the photographs users post on their personal pages in advertising directed to their on-line friends.
This push towards practical and imaginative enclosure undermines the public cultural sphere in two ways. Firstly, due to a relaxed corporate tax regime, almost none of the profits made are available to be spent on public provision. Secondly, by giving unparalleled space to commercial speech and the dynamics of market choice it further marginalises the ethos of citizenship. The result is a prevalent mode of popular internet use oriented to self-promotion rather than dialogue. At the same time, there are also multiple instances of genuinely collaborative activity, as civil society groups united by common interests or concerns develop new openly accessible expressive and informational resources.
Alongside these initiatives public cultural institutions are using digital technologies to make their holdings and expertise more openly accessible and forge new relations with their constituents. Libraries, museums, galleries, universities, and research communities are all moving online. The BBC has been in the vanguard of this development and its recent initiatives point to three key issues raised by the possibility of building a digital commons: networking, navigation, and participation.
If public cultural institutions digitised their existing and future holdings and made them openly available at no cost, on the grounds that they have already been paid for out of public monies, this would be an enormous step forward but it would not in itself be enough. The radical promise of the internet lies in its ability to connect up previously separate domains. The BBC’s collaborations with the British Museum and the British Library illustrate the productivity of pooling resources but we need to go beyond bilateral or even multilateral exchanges to capitalise on the digital resources offered by the full range of public cultural institutions. Someone interested in the First World War, for example, needs to be able to locate relevant material wherever it is held: in libraries, in museums, in research centres, in visual and oral archives. This in turn requires a new public search engine that replaces the popularity contest that underpins the Google system with criteria based on assessments of social and cultural value. Designing a new navigation system, however, still leaves us with the problem of what should be included in public digital repositories and how to mobilise the energy of vernacular creativity and amateur commitment. Popular photography and testimony is enriching historical archives and contemporary records of key events. Voluntary contributions to sites like Open Street Map are supplementing standardised information with grounded knowledge. Crowdsourcing is contributing to mapping the country’s public art collection and to discoveries in astronomy and other areas of contemporary science. Rethinking the relations between professional and amateur activity, expert and lay knowledge, presents challenges, but they are challenges that need to be met and negotiated if the full potential of digitisation is to be realised.
The BBC has three pivotal roles to play in developing a digital commons. Firstly, it can build on its pioneering role in presenting programmes not simply as events, to be listened to or viewed, but as points of entry into a range of related materials and opportunities for discussion and debate. In the digital age what is available behind the screen is as important as what appears on it. Secondly, because of its continuing ability to command mass audiences it is best placed to develop collaborative projects that broaden access to the work of other public cultural institutions. Thirdly, because it remains widely trusted and has built one of the best used web sites, it offers the optimum location for a general search engine enabling users to navigate their way around the cultural materials stored across all public institutions, not just in Britain but around the world.
This is an ambitious programme. Financing it will require a commitment that goes some way beyond the licence fee and we need as a matter of urgency to discuss new possibilities for funding, such as a dedicated levy on the profits generated by the commercial internet majors operating in Britain.
Against the background of the wholesale decimation of the old infrastructure of public culture, typified by library closures, and the mounting pressures towards the commercial enclosure of the internet, this may seem an unduly utopian proposal. But building an open and inclusive digital commons is the best, and perhaps the only, hope we have of sustaining a public culture that can underwrite and reinvigorate citizenship in increasingly fractured times.