Blog Post

Considering the Commons in the Dirt in Middletown, USA

Hi there. I'm a freshly minted graduate student in geography embarking on a some GIS research into the communal and private edible gardens of Muncie, Indiana. I'll be so bold as to paste below part of an abstract for a project that I'm working on:

"Locating and Understanding the Edible Landscape South of the Tracks in Muncie, Indiana"

Increasingly, GIS researchers have shown that GIS represents more than a tool for spatial data handling, a high-tech means to an end. Qualitative and mixed-methods approaches to GIS work value the suite of GIS methods and technologies as a field unto itself, typically showing a marked sensitivity toward issues of subjectivity, knowledge-production, exclusion, reflexivity, and power relations. In this vein, this study on gardening in my own neighborhood in Muncie, Indiana employs a variety of methods of data collection and analysis that integrates geographic, ethnographic, and visual data into a qualitative GIS.


Discussion of these data center around two themes: 1) the role of gardens as urgently needed common spaces in the "post-manufacturing" milieu in south Muncie and 2) the ways in which gardening practices reflect and subvert traditional notions of the highly scrutinized social structures of "Middletown, USA."


Perhaps the most dominant of several spatial narratives to emerge from the interviews is the idea of gardens as shared commons. While community gardens are clearly structured as shared spaces, gardens in private yards also exhibit a communal purpose (e.g. sharing produce) beyond the boundaries of the gardeners' household. I also suggest that traditional social roles often start to decay when, for example, the household food budget is destabilized by unemployment or health care expenses. Here, gardening acts as a social commons as well as a physical commons.

So what might this have to do with a conversation in the digital humanities? I'll propose here that the "digital commons" has a similar relationship to the now largely corporatized, privately-owned digital world as the "garden commons" has to, say, the corporatized, privately-owned "food space" of the grocery store. Similarly, communally owned resources such as bodies of water, forests and jungles, and the air we breath are circumscribed by strict private property boundaries and other legalized exceptions to collective ownership.

As a backyard (and frontyard) gardener myself and coordinator of a community garden down the street, one of the reasons I and others are gardening is "food security." A cursory look at our food economy through the work of folks like Michael Pollan and Raj Patel (or in a more scholarly vein, Sidney Mintz and Ian Cook), shows the vulnerabilities inherent in such interdependence (unequal distribution, poor nutrition, dominance of commodity crops, environmental devastation, high transportation costs, economic and political instabilities due to trade agreements, terminal seed technologies, etc).

Struggles for communal resources in different spheres:

 *Internet/Cyberspace: corporatization of the internet vs. open source, digital commons

 *Intellectual property: patent, trademark, and copyright laws vs. creative commons, fair use, open licensing

 *Food economy: big business agriculture vs. neighborhood gardens

 *Land use: privately held land, commercial potential vs. parks, lakes and rivers, forests

 *Urbanism: real estate values vs. publicly shared spaces

 *Finance markets: the interdependence of global financial markets vs. the direct sales of local markets

Commonly held resources are protections from these vulnerabilities. Not only do communal spaces provide stability and security as go-to shelters from the uncertainties of privately structured spaces, but they also represent social spaces where humans are not reduced to roles like "consumer," "user," citizen," but are comparatively free to act creatively and do the things that humans do. 

Any thoughts on the validity on these analogies and the relationship between systems interdependence and vulnerability in general? Considerations on infrastructural issues in the digital domain in this age of media consolidation? Not to mention the ever-nagging "digital divide" at intra-national as well as global scales?

I'll leave you with two excellent thinkers on the topic of communal vs. private resources:

Douglas Rushkoff's Life, Inc, his account of the development of corporatization from the Middle Ages to present day, from the marketplace to our daily psychologies.

Vandana Shiva, on resisting food and seed hegemonies.


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