Book of the Week: Towards an Economy of Contributions (1)

Book: Christian Siefkes. From Exchange to Contributions: Generalizing Peer Production into the Physical World. 2007. (download)

We mentioned and introduced this book on a number of occasions, but given its importance, we are giving it some extra attention
as book of the week, with two excerpts. Today, author Christian Siefkes presents the first ‘hard problem’, i.e. How to Coordinate the Producer Side with the Consumer Side?

Tomorrow: Problem 2: How to Allocate Limited Resources and Goods?

See also this review by Stefan Meretz of Oekonux.


A new mode of production has emerged in the areas of software and content production during the last decades. This mode, which is based on sharing and cooperation, has spawned whole mature operating systems such as GNU/Linux and various BSD systems as well as innumerable other free software applications, some of which form the backbones of the Internet or the core of various enterprises; giant knowledge bases such as the Wikipedia; a large free culture movement often based on Creative Commons licenses; and a new, wholly decentralized medium for spreading, analyzing and discussing news and knowledge, the so-called blogosphere; among others.

Yochai Benkler has coined the term peer production to describe this collaborative and open mode of production which has become typical for the Internet in recent years (Benkler, 2002; 2006). […]

Peer production […] is based on contributions. People contribute to a project because they want it to succeed, not because they need to earn money or have to realize some previously established plan. Some peer projects require contributions (peer-to-peer distribution networks such as BitTorrent require downloaders to upload), while others are open even to non-contributors (you do not have to write any free software to be allowed to use it). […]

While Benkler has identified social production and peer production as important phenomena, he appears to consider them relevant only for certain niches of production, such as information goods. In this text we will discuss whether this limitation to niches—even important niches such as information goods—is justified or whether it under-estimates the potential of peer production. To put it in other words: Is a society possible in which peer production is the primary mode of production? If so, how could such a society be organized? […]

There appear to be two fundamental problems that would need to be solved to generalize peer production into further areas of the physical world, beyond information production:

1. How to coordinate the producer side (“fun and passion”) of peer production with the consumer side (“needs and desires”)?

2. How to allocate limited resources and goods?

Problem 1: How to Coordinate the Producer Side with the Consumer Side?

How to Obtain Contributions

Current peer projects usually rely on voluntarism […]. Voluntarism is very reasonable for the production of certain goods, especially those that can be duplicated at near-zero cost, such as information goods—it would not make sense for the Wikipedia to exclude non-editors from reading articles. However, it is unclear how it should apply to the production of material goods where the production of additional units does cause additional non-trivial costs. A peer project aimed at producing cars (not just the design, but actual running vehicles) will hardly be able to hand over a car to everyone who wants one, whether they contribute anything or not—even if the contributing members of the project were willing to do so, they would lack the necessary resources, so they will have to ask for some contribution in return. […]

A simple way to do this would be to ask all participants to contribute a certain amount of hours (per month or some other suitable unit) to the project, letting contributors choose which tasks they want to handle. While such a flat labor approach might be suitable for some projects, it fails to address the observation made above: while people have widely different preferences about what they do and do not like, there are some tasks that nobody or almost nobody likes to do, because they are annoying, dirty, dangerous, or just plain boring.

If a project wants to be successful, it needs a way to cope with such tasks, and generally to take people’s preferences into account.

Weighted Labor (Task Auctioning)

Can the members of a peer project find a way of matching their collective preferences as producers with their collective preferences as consumers that allows everyone to choose which tasks they prefer to do and still ensures that all the required tasks will actually get done?

To answer this question, we need to realize that there is another dimension in regard to which preferences differ: time. People’s preferences vary not just in regard to the tasks they like to do, but also in regard to the time they are willing to spend for a project. An unpleasant task gets more pleasant if it takes a shorter amount of somebody’s time, giving them more time to pursue other interesting projects, to socialize with or make love to other people, or just be lazy. If I have to decide whether I prefer spending the same amount of time on a task I like more (say, writing software) or one I like less (say, removing garbage), it won’t take me long to choose the former. But if the question is whether I spend 20 hours a week writing software or five hours a week removing garbage, I’m likely to have second thoughts. […]

A peer project can set up a task auctioning system where the participants can choose the tasks they prefer doing among all available tasks. Tasks that don’t attract sufficient volunteers are then weighted higher (i.e., people picking them up will have to do less work for the project) until there are enough people willing to accept the time/task trade-off. Similarly, tasks which are more popular than necessary are weighted lower, so the people who want to do them will have to reconsider whether they prefer spending more time with this task or whether there isn’t another task they also like doing that gives them more time for other activities.

Thus, a weighted hour of labor could be used as unit for measuring contributions. During a month or a year, all the members of a project [except those who cannot contribute] will be expected to contribute the same amount of weighted hours—the amount that is necessary to ensure that all tasks have been handled. Depending on the tasks people choose to do, this equal amount of weighted hours will correspond to an amount of actually worked hours that might be considerably higher (for very popular tasks) or lower (for unpopular tasks).

Such a task auctioning mechanism is a way to ensure that all relevant tasks are handled, while at the same time allowing everybody to freely choose the activities they prefer; nobody is forced into doing or not doing certain things. It takes care not only of unpleasant tasks, but also of tasks that require special talents or skills that only few people possess.

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