By Maxigas, researcher, Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3-UOC).
Peer to peer superpowers
In this blog entry I summon the Light Side and also the Dark Side, then ask what binds them together. So my answer to the Open Thoughts 2014 Question ― How many peers does it take to change a light bulb? ― is “3”. Namely, Rebel General Dodonna, the Emperor Palpatine himself and Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Open Thoughts for Open Force!
1. General Dodonna: “May the Force be with you”
Peer production is about creating and maintaining common resources collaboratively. The Internet enables informal mass collaboration on immaterial goods like software codebases and knowledge bases. It helps self-organisation to scale more widely and self-management to cut more deeply, reaching a potentially global population and addressing problems of unfathomable complexity. Collaboration on an equal footing and the self-selection of tasks means that people with very different motivations and levels of commitments can all contribute.
Peer production addresses two grave ills of late modern capitalism: alienation through fluid and flexible organisations, and exploitation through making results available to the general public¹. Work is for the common good: for a commons. Although a commons is managed by a user community, it transcends the distinction between private and public property.
« Peer production addresses two grave ills of late modern capitalism: alienation through fluid and flexible organisations, and exploitation through making results available to the general public »
Project Gutenberg, a pioneering peer production initiative, was founded in 1971 by Michael S. Hart. Its aim is to digitise public domain books and make them available in durable open formats as ebooks. Everything people are willing to work on: from Shakespeare to its founders’ original works, or the first 100.000 prime numbers. Through a distributed network of volunteer typists, editors and proofreaders, it has published over 45,000 ebooks to date. Texts come out before their listed release date to give time for proofreaders: “Yes, we are about one year ahead of schedule”.
Incidentally, voluntary association, the rejection of authority and the critique of private property are also the defining traits of revolutionary movements such as anarchism and communism. For all practical purposes, peer production is the cover name of anarchy: the only difference between the two is that anarchy “would never work”. As social anthropologist Jakob Rigi declares: “communism is currently emerging as a new mode of production, namely, peer production”.
2. Emperor Palpatine: “There is a great disturbance in the Force”
A finance minister once declared that “the rise of internet-enabled peer production as a social force necessitates a rethink about how policy and politics is done in Australia”. Peer production is feared by the Empire, bearing all the mythical irreversibility of modern technological progress. It is not only possible, but historically necessary.
Perhaps it is nothing more than the incremental update to the Californian ideology ― a geopolitically rooted world view founded on a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of information technologies, held by (would-be) technological elites which posit that entrepreneurial individuals with the right initiative can enable self-organising socialities through a perfect market. Resulting socio-technical systems will prove more vigorous than “old capitalism” and eventually Solve All the Problems. Such a repackaged mindset of American imperialism is deployed globally with ADSL and 4G networks, so now it looks like that “it is coming from the Internet”. Being able to contribute to the commons, gathering and catering for a growing community becomes the obligation of the good citizens and employees world wide.
« Peer production is feared by the Empire, bearing all the mythical irreversibility of modern technological progress »
Messianistic formulations of peer production ― what I call deep peer production² ― posit a New Man: a new morality of capital. Morality serves as a legitimation for the selection and screening of individuals, crucial in crisis times of increased exploitation. From one era to the next, the idea of virtue has never been anything but an invention of vice.
Thus, deep peer production is a recuperated version of the hacker ethic, where meritocracy is the legitimate grounds for the unequal control over resources, and eventually, social exclusion. For this reason it is crucial to ground peer production research in the investigation of current struggles and everyday practices of resistance, not theoretical explorations of technological potentials. When you look at the dark side, careful you must be… for the dark side looks back.
3. Obi-Wan Kenobi: “It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together”
Collaboration of individuals based on trust is part and parcel of human civilisation in all its manifestations. Borrowing books from the library is a practice that spans millenia. In fact peer production and the ideals of the academia align closely — since in some interpretations both revolve around a moral economy driven by reputation. It can be argued that peer production is realised everywhere when you remove centralised, hierarchical oppression and work discipline from social organisation. Conversely, even the most hierarchical red-tape operations would fail without the informal sharing and coordination between participants from minions through acolytes to Emperors.
Sophisticated folk culture and popular traditions have evolved without the aid of Internet-era information and communication technologies, including anthropological universals which are consistent across the face of the Earth. The commons, taking its name from pre-Capitalist land in communal use³, was more wide spread and tangible in the Middle Ages than now. Perhaps what modern technology did was to help people operationalise voluntary collaboration on shared resources. From this perspective, peer production can be conceptualised as the original folk science: incremental developments made by users who copy directly from each other in an informal way.
Can we change it?
So like the Force, peer production has something for everybody, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum. The discourse of peer production starts out as a business plan for the 21st century network society, passes through a vision of the “partner state” envisioned by Michel Bauwens and perhaps being realised in Ecuador right now, and ends in an outright revolt against state and capital. “Disruptive” is an adjective recuperated enough to describe its contradictions. As the credits roll past, we draw the conclusion that the interpretation of peer production is itself a contested field, where a war of position is fought between varied visions of the future.
1. George Dafermos on the Peer Governance of Open Source Projects, THE THING, INC.
2. After the deep ecology movement.
3. Specifically, medieval English law.