The Beach Ethic[]

Beaches are ordered without being controlled. No one is in charge. Beaches are model civic spaces: tolerant, playful, self-regulating, democratic in spirit, mildly carnival-like. Underlying the beach’s appeal is a simple idea: the beach is a commons where people can self-organise in play. As a day on the beach unfolds everyone takes their spot, adjusting minutely to where everyone else has pitched their towel, tent or windbreak. There are no zoning regulations, fences nor white lines to tell you where to go (admittedly this is not true of some beaches in France and Italy.) The order emerges as each new family joins the throng. Yet that order will not be exactly the same two days running. On the most popular beaches people spend all day in close proximity but they are generally civil and considerate. They do not interfere with one another and disputes between neighbours are rare. Excessive noise is frowned upon. People generally avoid stepping on one another’s towels or invading impromptu football pitches. Other than the odd lifeguard to look after safety no one is in authority. Perhaps precisely because there is no one in control people take it upon themselves to self-regulate. Parents look out for one another’s children. Complexity theorist have a fancy name for this: they call it emergence, when an overall order emerges from a system with many participants; no one person is in charge; each participant is adjusting to their local conditions (the people on the towel next to them); yet a stable organisation emerges from these thousands of interconnected decisions.

Adaptive and self-organising communities rely on more than good communications between neighbours and peers to make sure everything works. An overall order emerges from a mass of localised decisions only if there are some simple norms and goals to provide a skeleton structure. On the beach those norms stem from the common goal of having a good time, relaxing with your family and friends, not being at work. It is easy to understand what everyone else is trying to achieve. That is what helps people to get on. Beaches are egalitarian in spirit. That is not to say there are no posh resorts. But generally a beach is a bad place to show off social status, armed with only a towel and trunks. There is no room for BMWs, Mont Blanc pens and other signifiers of wealth and prestige. Beaches are places where ages, sexes and classes mingle. Both Karl Marx and Queen Victoria liked a trip to the Isle of Wight.

Beaches are democratic because barriers to entry are almost non-existent: having a towel helps but even that it is not essential. People take pleasure not just in their physical surroundings but the atmosphere in which everyone else is having a good time. People read on beaches in droves but few work. Thankfully beaches are hostile to most forms of modern technology. Beach life is egalitarian because the technology is resolutely cheap and simple: buckets and spades, nets and kites, good for toddlers and grandparents. The technological acceleration that has so enriched and disrupted the rest of our lives in the last thirty years has passed the beach by.

Not only do we like what beaches do for us an individuals; we like the kind of society we become on a beach: civil and playful, active and open, above all self-regulating. There are neither managers nor guardians telling us what to do. The public beach is an example of self-organising, peer-to-peer, commons-based production of pleasure. And of course it is not alone: public spaces of all kinds thrive on this ethic of mass self-regulation and participation: festivals, carnivals, parks, libraries exhibit many of the same features.

This book is about what happens when the beach ethic of mass self-organisation gets taken into work. What emerges are highly participatory forms of organisation that function like a latter-day commons, a meeting place and shared resource for millions of independent contributors. But the future is far from certain for these fledgling commons, like Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia and Linux, the open source software project. In England the village commons were enclosed into private property to encourage more private investment to raise agricultural productivity and provide more food for expanding urban populations in the 18th and 19th century. Now the same argument is being used – often quite erroneously – to justify enclosures of the digital commons that are emerging from Internet culture. The argument of large corporations such as Microsoft, and media companies such as News Corporation, is that the digital world will work better if everything can be turned into private property, to be protected and controlled. One of the aims of this book is to show how dangerous and wrong-headed an idea this is. Were these emergent commons to be parcelled up and fenced off then mass, participatory, barefoot solutions could become all but impossible. We would return to our familiar, dull roles as consumers and waged workers, but we would be largely denied the opportunity to be participants and contributors. We could buy, have, make and acquire, but we would find it much more difficult to enjoy collaborating, participating, contributing and playing.

To understand how dire this world of digital enclosures could be, imagine finding your favourite public beach had been bought by Microsoft. You would only get onto the beach by buying Microsoft towels or windbreaks. You would be told where you could lay down your towel according to how much you had paid. If you wanted to surf as well as sunbathe it would cost you more. Kite flying would require a permit. Every two years you would find your equipment was no longer compatible with the beach’s sand. You could not modify your windbreak yourself, because key aspects of the design would be kept secret. You might have a reasonable time but the commons would have been turned into commerce and you would not be a player but a consumer, passive, dependent and no longer in control. Every weekend in corporations all over the world millions of people rush, a smile on their faces, to leave work and get to a beach. Something similar is increasingly happening on weekdays as well as the beach ethic challenges the corporate work ethic. People want to engage with open, collaborative barefoot organisations because they are the working equivalents of the beach. Industrial era organisations thrived on Max Weber’s protestant work ethic and rational forms of scientific organisation presided over by experts. Organisations of the future may well be infused with more of the beach ethic of self-organisation. That is another reason for us to think barefoot in future.

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