Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I met N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Indian who is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a scholar at Brainstorm last year. He left a great impression on me with his great stories. This year during the session on the Commons, we were all talking about the economics of who manages the commons. He said that language was a commons and that stories that have been passed down through generations lived in these commons. I had never thought of language itself as a commons, but it's a great example.

He also said that from a Native American perspective, land was a commons and language was a commons. Land was where we come from and return to. Language was where we lived. (He said it much more poetically than I can, but I can't remember exactly what he said.)


It's cute, it's clever, but it isn't correct. Not in a general semantics sense, not in semiotics, and anyone that's tried to introduce new terms or langauge shifts also recognizes it just ain't so.

care to elaborate Michael?

I love using language as an example of commons because it makes certain points really clear.

Imagine if the first speakers had copyrighted the words they created. If I came up with "I", then you couldn't use it unless you payed me. And Joi maybe came up with "us", but I can't us it unless I give Joi some meat. I'm more then willing, but its damn hard for us to come to agreement as Bill Gates has the copyright on "meat" and he wants both of us to pay a yearly fee before we can say the word. So instead we just growl and scrach our heads in confusion, this language thing is getting way too expensive for its own good....

I'd also like to hear Mr.Wilson expand on his definitive point of view.

Are you to mean, sir, that language is NOT defined by useage?

Language is as much a commons like an unmoderated bulletin board hosted by a commercial organizaiton. In other words, it's free to use and modify but only within acceptable limits and some parties could halt that practice at any time. Think trademarks. Spam, microsoft, apple, amazon, sony, moveable type, etc. are all part of our daily lingo but they're not free to use in the commons. Even metaphors like "red pill" or "blue pill" used in pop culture originated from outside the commons and you can bet that Warner Bros would sue if a competing studio used the metaphor as the cornerstore for a film or other endeavor.

Undoubtably we do get new words, metaphors, etc. that are free to use for better or for worse ("Lewinsky") but language is no longer a commons.

Trademarks and litigation based on them is a *very* new phenomenon, and predominantly American (and starting to appear in other locales which follow "a-bit-too-free-market" business practices).
How this has ANY bearing on the juggernaut that is language and culture... well... let's just say "strength in numbers". Does anyone really believe Disney will be around in 100 years? I seriously doubt it. Step back and look at it from a bit more historical perspective. Evolution does not bear restricitive constructs. It routes around them, under them, and eventually, kills them.

If you (or we all) lie down in front of the trademark holders, then we give up the right to our commons. Saying "well that's how it is now" is defeatism.

In the long run, human culture will route around proprietary ownership of myths (what Disney does for a living). In the medium term, though, societies thrive or starve based on their choices and practices. The Ottoman Empire chosed to strictly limit printing by licensing a small number of printing presses, at the same time that the scientific revolution transformed Europe.

Language is indeed a commons and will help us to reclaim those other commons which have been enclosed.

I can say something like "that modem setup sure is Mickey Mouse" without having to pay a cent to Disney and people do know what I mean.

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Just a quick rant and drive-by-insult. Nota Bene: The following was written in an inexplicable ranting frenzy of annoyance. I went a bit far, I admit, and apologise. I do not, however, retract. Joi speaks of language and land as Read More