The Decline of the Commons? Not Really.

Michel alerted me to this post provocatively entitled ‘The Decline of the Commons, 1760 to 2000, as Plotted by Google‘. It looks as an interesting search engine Google have developed that looks though millions of books for words and gives you a graph of their use over time. So the post author put in the word commons and got:

The implicit conjecture that this result, the decline of the use of the word, may also mean the decline of the idea is in no way accurate. This tool could be used to track ideas, yes. But more than that it tracks the language we use to express ideas. So what we mean by ‘commons’ has developed, expanded and diversified over time to include ideas like ‘open source’, ‘free software’ and ‘peer-to-peer’. You’d need to aggregate all the words and terms used to track the idea and this post does not do that. Now that would be an interesting result…

(Also posted on my blog too)

3 Comments The Decline of the Commons? Not Really.

  1. AvatarPoor Richard

    tomas, your suggestion to extend the search parameters/keywords would surely make this more interesting. AS you noted the terminology changes over time with old ideas getting put in “new bottles”.

    Still there is little doubt that over the course of the 1800’s the pre-capitalist commons were rapidly being replaced with capitalist commons called corporations, trusts, etc.

    Other terms to include might be guilds, lodges, societies, commonwealths, cooperatives, partnerships, communities, communes, etc. But many of these terms would have to be qualified to tease apart the different kinds of ownership or values that can exist under the same names.

    A formidable challenge.

    The trick for a Google to pull of would be this: replace the idea of key words with the idea of key documents. The engine would make a semantic and logical analysis of the key documents and then look for matching patterns independent of terminology. This might be similar to the approach that has been so successful in improving machine translation.

  2. AvatarSepp Hasslberger

    Since this is a long term statistic and it shows a great increase in buzz around the word commons some time around 1750, and then a gradual decrease, I think it does have significance.

    We can’t really say like ‘open source’, ‘free software’ and ‘peer-to-peer’ have taken steam out of the use of the word commons. Those are relatively new terms and would barely make a blip, except they’d show up as a spike at the end of the graph.

    I find it quite significant how there has been much discussion of the commons and how this has waned over a relatively long time span. Rather than rationalizing that it’s not real, we should try to understand why it was that the term commons fell into disuse over the course of a few centuries, to where it was practically unknown until just a few years ago, when the p2p movement rediscovered it and brought it back into use (not even visible at the end of the graph yet).

    What was it that replaced the commons as an important part of our life?

    I tend to agree that the rise of the idea of capitalism and its emphasis on private property, as well as the corporations that replaced – to some extent – the commons, had something to do with that trend.

  3. Avatarhappyseaurchin

    nice 🙂
    including your warning about word/idea distinction

    the same idea or concept constellation
    can come garbed in all manner of jargon and popular nomenclature

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