Digging in the Age of Cloud Computing


de paso, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, 2011

The saying "Free like the wind, not like free beer" is a version of the legal distinction known as gratis versus libre. It's an attempt to add some definition to one particularly slippery region of language. Free got complicated in the sixteenth century when it became attached to the monetary system, where it began to be used to denote transactions that took place outside of this system (free as in gratis; without cost).

In mid 1600s England, a small group emerged who began to undermine – literally – the institution of private property. Partly in response to rising food costs and a collapsing social order, the Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, set themselves up to cultivate the common land, and live off what they produced. Winstanley set out his vision for a new society in a pamphlet called The Law of Freedom in a Platform (1652), a radical and eminently practical solution to the crises of his day.

As Christopher Hill writes, "Winstanley’s conclusion, that communal cultivation of the commons was the crucial question, the starting point from which common people all over England could build up an equal community, was absolutely right…. Winstanley had arrived at the one possible democratic solution that was not merely backward-looking, as all other radical proposals during the revolutionary decades – an agrarian law, partible inheritance, stable copy-holds – tended to be." The group was small and short-lived, and their community was constantly threatened by landowners and violent mobs, but they left a legacy of ideas which continues to fascinate and inspire. 

The Diggers are undoubtedly the heroes of The World Turned Upside Down, Hill’s history of forgotten radical groups during the English revolution. He speculates about the "revolution that never happened" ("although from time to time it threatened ...