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Essay of the Day: Peer Producing Plenty in the Physical World

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
28th November 2012


Excerpted from Christian Siefkes:

“Peer production needs to grow beyond the immaterial into the material world, producing not just information, but also physical goods and services. But is that even possible? “An abundance of information about how we might make things is not the same as an abundance of things—it is an abundance of recipes not an abundance of food,” the economist and community activist Brian Davey (2010) argues, complaining that commons-based peer production can produce only the information (recipes), but not the physical things (food). The underlying notion, shared by both proponents and critics of peer production, is that it excels in the sphere of information, which is so easy to copy and change, but fails in the material world, which isn’t.

But this argument misses the fact that it’s not an inherent property of information that makes it so easy to copy, but rather a question of infrastructure. 30 years ago, only corporations with extremely expensive specialized machinery were able to losslessly reproduce music, as Glyn Moody (2010) points out. Only the spread of broadband Internet connections and sufficiently large hard discs made it commonplace.

Similar developments regarding the production of physical things are not only possible—in some areas, they are already under way. The reproduction of physical things is possible if three conditions are met: you need access to the complete design, to the required resources and to the necessary means of production. In the following section, I will try to briefly outline how generalized peer production may become able to fulfill these conditions.”

If we consider at contemporary forms of peer production, we find that the used resources and means of production tend to be commons or distributed widely. For digital peer production, knowledge and information are the most important resources. They are generally treated as commons that everybody can use, share and improve.

This philosophy is nicely expressed by the Wikimedia Foundation (2011), the organization running the Wikipedia and related wikis:

- Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.

Open design (also called open hardware) is the kind of knowledge most important for producing physical things. Open hardware projects design physical things, freely sharing their designs and blueprints with everyone. This area of peer production is quite young, but recent years have seen a multitude of project emerging. The Open Hardware Directory of the P2P Foundation (2011) lists more than 300 projects, and there are many areas of open design (e.g. clothing and textiles) which it doesn’t even track. Producing and sharing free knowledge about how to fabricate, maintain, repair and recycle things is the first building block of physical peer production.

We have seen that peer production tends to treat essential resources as commons. Extending this logic to physical production implies that natural resources must become commons too, since they are certainly essential.

More than a hundred years ago, Karl Marx (1894, ch. 46) arrived at the same conclusion:

- From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.

Treating natural resources as commons means that nobody can claim exclusive rights over them and that they must be preserved in their substance—they can be used, but not used up. Since nobody has privileged access, the sum of resources is to be shared among all. The ecological footprint provides some guidelines about how much everybody can use while still leaving enough for others. In this way, it’s possible to deal with the limitedness of Earth’s resources in a manner that doesn’t exclude or disadvantage anybody.

Preserving and sharing natural resources as commons is the second building block of physical peer production. Switching from the capitalist logic of treating almost everything (including most natural resources) as somebody’s property to treating resources as commons will be a huge challenge, since it radically disrupts the existing control and exclusion rights of the current “owners” of these resources. We already see a lot of such struggles going on the digital realm today (should information be considered a private property or a commons?) and we can expect much more and heavier struggles about commons versus property for the future.

No production is possible without means of production, such as the machines used to produce. In the field of digital peer production, the means of production are usually owned by lots of different people. People writing free software or Wikipedia articles do so on their own computers. That’s very different from capitalist production, where the means of production are usually owned by a company that employs people and uses both (people and machines) to make a profit.

If somebody else owns (and thus controls) the means of production you have to use, you are dependent on their decisions. With distributed ownership, such unilateral dependency relations are avoided. Nobody can stop others from becoming active, or dictate them conditions they have to fulfill.

Similar developments start to occur in the area of physical peer production. Decentralized, self-organized productive infrastructures are emerging, created and run by people who use them to satisfy their productive and consumptive needs. The goal is benefit, not profit. And ownership of these infrastructures is spread so widely that nobody can effectively exclude others.

Mesh networks are an example of this trend. The classical model of network access is hierarchical: each provider connects thousands or hundreds of thousands of people (customers) to the Internet.

The provider is a single point of failure and control. It can disconnect customers who cannot pay or violate arbitrary “terms of service”; it can monitor its customers’ behavior and censor what they can see and do. If somebody orders or forces the provider to go offline, all its customers are offline too (as happened in Egypt during the uprising in early 2011, when the government shut down almost all Internet connections for several days).

Mesh networks, on the other hand, are distributed networks where all nodes (connected computers) are equal. Typically, every node uses wireless connections to directly communicate with the nodes in its neighborhood; if the target computer is too far away, nodes that are physically between source and target node act as relays, transmitting the message to its destination. There are no central servers that could be turned off to disable service, and if individual nodes disappear from the network, the nodes near them automatically determine new routes around them. Thus, there are no central authorities that could monitor or censor the network.

The inhabitants of the town of Scarborough in South Africa have set up a mesh network that gives them Internet and telephone access. The required hardware is distributed among many people—everyone can contribute by buying a wifi router, antenna, or other equipment and making it part of the mesh. The network runs entirely on free software and parts of the equipment are developed as open hardware, allowing everyone to share and improve the designs (cf. Rowe 2010).

Similar solutions should be possible for energy generation and access to water. Projects organizing water supply as a commons already exist in South America (cf. De Angelis 2010).
Hackerspaces (see hackerspaces.org) are another example—self-organized meeting points of people that use them to develop free software, create free content, to learn and share their knowledge, or just to relax and have fun. Most hackerspaces are funded through contributions of their members, but usually everybody is welcome, even if you don’t pay.

Fab Labs are organized along similar lines, but their goal is physical production. By now, there are more than 60 Fab Labs in all continents (cf. MIT 2011). They host various production machinery that can be used by people in their neighborhood for localized production. Usually there are computer-controlled (CNC) milling machines and laser cutters for “subtractive manufacturing,” forming a piece of material (e.g. wood or metal) by removing the unnecessary parts through cutting or milling. Many Labs also have “fabbers” (3D printers) that can additively manufacture items by “printing” multiple layers of e.g. plastic, one above the other.

So far, much of the required equipment is still proprietary and quite expensive to get, hence most Labs need the sponsorship of a university or other organization. But this is gradually changing, since a multitude of peer projects developing production tools as open hardware have emerged during the last years. There are free and open CNC routers like the Kikori (sindrianarts.com), laser cutters like the Lasersaur (labs.nortd.com/lasersaur/), fabbers like the RepRap (reprap.org) and the Ultimaker (ultimaker.com). While most of these tools are not yet competitive with commercially manufactured, proprietary equipment, the gap is getting closer.

Once the used machines are itself the result of peer production, they can be freely reproduced by anyone with the right equipment. And if the open production hubs—more advanced future “Fab Labs”—themselves host the equipment necessary to reproduce their tools, things become exciting, since it means that the open network of production facilities can grow without requiring much input from the market. In this way, a partial decoupling from capitalist production becomes feasible. People cooperating as peers would no longer be required to buy almost everything (which means that they also have to sell something, e.g. their labor power, in order to get the necessary money).

Instead, they could jointly produce what they need. Thus, the self-organized fabrication and utilization of the means of production becomes the third building block of physical peer production.

None of this would be possible without the people who contribute their time and effort to share their knowledge, to design and make useful things, to organize and run hackerspaces, Fab Labs and other hubs for peer production. People self-select to contribute in some ways that fit their preferences and desires. Such voluntary contributions of peers are the basis of any kind of peer production—whether it is software, cultural works, designs, or physical things that are thus produced. They are the fourth and most important building block of peer production.”

Siefkes continues:

“Could a society based on self-organized peer production really work? Or wouldn’t it at least be incomplete, staying dependent in some aspects on more traditional forms of social organization, such as governments, police forces, or markets? Especially in regard to matters of fairness (or justice), many people are quick to point out the presumed necessity of centralized regulatory bodies.

One critical point is access to resources. The logic of peer production postulates that resources be treated as commons that can be used as long as they are substantially preserved for the future and everybody gets their fair share. But what if some try to violate this principle, using much more resources than a sustainable ecological footprint allows, thus living at the cost of others (either now or in the future) who would have to do with less?

It may seem that some kind of governmental institution is necessary to prevent and sanction such behavior. But the practice of peer projects shows a different way of dealing with misconduct (as perceived by the community): participants react by “flaming and shunning” (cf. Lehmann 2004).

People will publicly criticize and admonish the wrongdoer—often friendly at first, but increasingly turning to aggressive, scolding “flames” if the critique is ignored. If these warnings are ineffective, people turn to “shunning” the wrongdoer, starting to completely ignore them and refusing to cooperate with them any longer. In extreme cases, the shunned person is officially banned from the project.

But everybody needs others, regardless of the form of society one lives in, and in a society based on peer production this mutual dependency would be even stronger. Without others, it would be difficult to survive and a good living would be out of the question. Hence, if there is a broad social consensus of not accepting certain kinds of behavior, still engaging in such behavior becomes almost impossible (and almost certainly not worth the social price one has to pay for it).

The distribution of tasks is another potentially problematic area. For peer production, the usual mode of task distribution is stigmergic self-selection. Everybody chooses for themselves how to get involved and what to do, inspired by other people’s hints about what is needed. But how can peer producers deal with tasks for which this doesn’t work—tasks which nobody, or not enough people, are willing to do?

The first question to ask is whether these tasks are indeed necessary. If nobody cares about a task sufficiently to be willing do to it, maybe one can simply do without? If that’s not the case, another possible solution may be automation. Since the start of the “industrial revolution,” automation has had tremendous effects; most productive processes have became automatized partially or fully. Most suitable for automation are tasks that are monotonous and repetitive—and therefore often quite unpopular. Activities that require intelligence, creativity, and intuition are harder or impossible to automatize, but they are usually less of a problem anyway, since the nature of these tasks tends to make them sufficiently interesting and appealing.

However, in capitalism, the height of wages limits the potential of automation—the worse paid a job is, the more difficult it is to automate without incurring extra costs (which wouldn’t make sense from the capitalist viewpoint). But the salaries paid for many unpleasant occupations (e.g. cleaning) tend to be specifically low, making them unattractive to automatize in capitalism. In a peer production–based society, the situation would be different. If almost everybody wants to have a task done, but nobody wants to actually do it, the incentive to fully or partially automatize it becomes very high. And in such cases it should be much easier to find volunteers for designing and creating the necessary workflows and equipment (a more interesting and challenging activity) that allow automation then for the tasks itself.

A further option for dealing with unpopular tasks is to reorganize them in a way that makes them more pleasant—more entertaining, more interesting, easier. In capitalism, the working conditions of low-paid and unattractive jobs are usually very bad (e.g. office cleaners have to start extremely early in the morning). However, such conditions are not an inherent part of the tasks. With peer production, the (potential) volunteers decide how to organize their activities and what circumstances to accept. They don’t have to accept circumstances dictated by others and can do away with such unattractive conditions.

If neither approach is possible, the unpleasant tasks could be shared in a fair manner. If everybody (or everybody who cares) does a small part of such tasks now and then, they can be dealt with without causing much trouble to anybody.”

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