Peer production and the opportunities and struggles of constructing a more humane production system

By Yochai Benkler, professor, Harvard Law School; and faculty co-director, Berkman Center for Internet and Society

Commons-based production generally, and commons-based peer production in particular, are the most important and surprising organizational innovation to have emerged in networked economy and society. Surprising, because throughout the 20th century our intellectual frame for understanding production was dominated by a binary vision: state and market. By the end of the last century, we had shifted from a view of state- and managerial-hierarchy-based production as dominant to a view of market- or decentralized price-based organization as the dominant model.

In either framework, however, Wikipedia was simply impossible, as were Apache, PHP, Perl, Firefox, the GNU project or Linux. Over the past fifteen years commons-based peer production turned from invisible, to theoretically inadmissible, to an acknowledged curiosity, to a threat, to an inevitable part of the background production system and a normal solution space to a range of information and cultural production problems; all the while projecting the imagination of an utopian possibility-set able to solve the core problems associated with early-21st century capitalist democracy.

The reality is that commons-based peer production is indeed a critical innovation. Conceptually, the successful growth in commons-based production generally has offered important critiques of the core tenets of the neoliberal settlement that reigned supreme from the 1980s until (at least) the Great Recession. It questioned the basic impossibility of self-governance implied by positive political theory and the critique of the logic of collective action. It challenged the necessity of price signals or command as the sole sources of cooperation and coordination.

« Building organizational, technical and cultural systems for the more complex beings we know ourselves to be is harder than it was for the automatons of neoclassical economics, but it is also absolutely critical »

And perhaps most importantly and fundamentally, it contributed real-world examples to complement the intellectual shift that had co-occurred in many and diverse disciplines: from a view of the human agent as usefully modeled in terms of self-interested rational action, to a view of diverse human agents, moved by empathy and solidarity, reciprocity and social signals, moral engagement and a shared sense of purpose alongside the more self-interested motivations.

These shifts present, for now, more challenges than solutions. Building institutional, organizational, technical and cultural systems for the more complex beings we know ourselves to be is genuinely harder and less certain than it was for the mindless automatons that populated the pages of neoclassical economics and positive political theory until a few short years ago. But it is also absolutely critical.

As we celebrate 30 years since TCP/IP and 25 years to the Web, how we integrate the insights of commons-based peer production into our systems going forward becomes critical. The rise of distributed fabrication, or 3D printing, suggests a transition of the organizational transformation to material production as well, but how will depend critically on not only the intellectual property to designs, but also to the infrastructure for the distribution of flexible and more-or-less usable and effective materials necessary for material production.

« How we manage the tensions between the promises of peer production and the threads of power and surveillance will determine the kind of world we live in the next few decades »

The rise of surveillance capitalism, as author and former professor at Harvard Business School Shoshana Zuboff has called it, on the model of Google and Facebook suggests that some of the open data policies that have been closely aligned with peer production and information sharing in the past may come into conflict with the capacity of individuals actually to control their lives.

As Berkman’s fellow Zeynep Tufekci so crisply described for political manipulation, the combination of big data, analytics, A/B testing, the new behaviorism, and rapid platform integration of the results of all of these threatens to make open shared data a source of threats that we will become the objects of manipulation, rather than the autonomous, cooperating agents that the removal of property from information and culture permitted in the past decade and a half.

How we manage the tensions between the promises of peer production, of the commons, and of the humanity we all share in as we work together towards shared goals, and the threats of power and surveillance in the networked environment will determine what kind of world we live in over the next few decades. It is far from clear that our political systems, or our economic systems, will develop along the attractive paths. But at a bare minimum, our continued engagement in, and studying of, commons-based peer production permits us to grab on to a more humane and social view of our selves, and to experiment and build at least some of our world in the image of that more humane view.

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About the Question
How many peers does it take to change a light bulb?

Systems like Linux and websites like Wikipedia are paradigmatic of a particular way of open collaboration known as peer production. Peer producers choose their tasks freely and coordinate their work using open digital platforms. They share the fruits of their labour as part of a global commons, and everyone works according to their abilities and benefits according to their needs.

Is this an emerging form of communism? Or the future of liberal capitalism? Or is it simply a new mode of production? In this blog we want to explore both the benefits and the downsides of such way of working.

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