A phone showing the word "Commoning"
Print zine imagery by Christopher Goggs

In the latest provocation for The Cost of Convenience, Deborah Thomas explains why the commoning of technology is essential to building technologies and systems of knowledge that are environmentally and socially just.

While commoning involves collective action by communities and people groups; the institutions, governance frameworks, and rules required for such action are based on systems of knowledge.

It is these systems of knowledge that shape environmental discourses and resultant action at nested levels of governance, both of the community as well as the state.

I posit that commoning of technology (data, information and digital systems) is essential to building technologies and systems of knowledge that are environmentally and socially just.

The idea of commoning, as an alternative socio-economic and governance paradigm, provides a framework for actors at nested levels of governance to self-govern and determine the future of tech.

It refers to the participatory governance mechanisms that we should build around data, information/knowledge and digital systems. Since each of these constituents of digital tech have their own logics and political economies, it is necessary to delineate what commoning means for each.

Environmentally just data involves countering the extractive logic that separates data from provenance (of people and lands) and reinforces power hierarchies.

Power is embedded in each stage of the data lifecycle, and hence environmental data justice would mean that questions of access, production, infrastructure, governance are to be asked at each of these stages.

A Commons framework which is premised on ideas of self-governance and collective action, mean that communities determine what data is digitized, ensure that data stories (provenance and metadata) are ground-truthed, and can mobilize data to challenge environment policy that is premised on extractive logics. It can also lead to data infrastructure and production methods that are participatory, equitable, and transparent.

Going by Fritz Machlup, information, and subsequently knowledge are built over the foundation laid by data (or, raw facts). While it is necessary that this information is not digitally barricaded, the social systems that assimilate this information into knowledge and enable its use in decision making, are equally crucial.

The evolution of these social systems, in ways that embed considerations of local livelihoods and ecology, can be fostered by the participatory processes that commoning entails.

Finally, digital systems themselves, both hardware and software, must also be ‘commoned’.

Both design and technology management practices are central to ensuring that tech does not cause unintended harm and that the knowledge systems intermediated by tech reflects pluralism.

Common forums between technologists, their end users, and other stakeholders, leading to collective action that debates visions of social good, prevents centralization and shifts power, could provide avenues where the true costs of convenience are judged.


Deborah Thomas, Fellow, Young Leaders in Tech Policy, University of Chicago & Foundation for Ecological Security

This provocation is from the new zine from the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, exploring the ‘cost of convenience’ and the opaque impact that digital technology has on the environment.

Read the Cost of Convenience Zine