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Our neglected wealth

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For a preview of the next big turn of the political wheel, we might consider a drama that is unfolding in the realm of computers and the World Wide Web.

For years, tech gurus touted the Web as a new frontier of freedom. Yet something very different has occurred. Fences and toll booths are going up all over. Marketers collect dossiers on us without our knowledge. Ads assault us at every click. The push increasingly is not to liberate information, but rather to contrive new ways to make us pay for it.

At the same time, the main portal of this new computational realm – the Windows operating system – is governed by a secret and proprietary code. Individuals can't fix their own problems or share improvements with others. All innovation must come down through a corporate hierarchy instead.

This is not what high-tech pioneers had in mind when they designed the basic architecture of the Web. Today, they feel a little the way the American colonists did when, having settled a vast new land, they found themselves still dominated by British government. The result has been a renewed interest in an old economic concept – namely, the commons.

The commons is the part of life that is neither the market nor the state, but rather is the shared property and heritage of us all. It includes the gifts of nature, such as oceans and atmosphere, wilderness areas, and the quiet of the night. It has a social dimension, too, such as language and culture, the stories and games of childhood, the street life of a city, the accumulated knowledge of humanity. Nobody owns these. The government does not control them. They are open and free to all.

"The commons is not a relic of some pastoral age," writes David Bollier in his new book, "Silent Theft." It is, rather, a "reservoir of valuable resources."

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