Dialogue with Christian Siefkes: Understanding Material Peer Production (1)

Christian Siefkes, author of the landmark book on the Peer Economy , has started an important dialogue on peer production and how to extend it to the physical economy. I’m really enthused to have this conversation starting.

His contribution, the first of a series, is here.

Christian starts by citing my own view:

In my interpretation, non-reciprocal peer production is by definition impossible in physical production, except for the open design phase. […]

What is crucial here: peer to peer is characterized by the non-reciprocal logic of communal shareholding, as described in the relational grammar of Alan Page Fiske: free contributions, free availability”.

However, he then challenges it, citing Bittorrent as a counter-example.

Here’s the citation:

BitTorrent is not based on non-reciprocal, unconditional free availability — instead, you are expected to contribute your part to the overall goal (efficiently distributing files): the more bandwidth you provide for upload (allowing others to get the files they want), the more bandwidth you’ll get for download (allowing yourself to get the files you want).”

Now I fail to understand how this undermines my definition. The bittorrent system does not undermine free contribution, nor does it undermine free availability.

The only thing it does is to introduce an internal governance mechanism, i.e. pertaining to the participatory process, which aims at encouraging participation. Indeed my definition has 3 parts: free contributions as input, a participatory process, and universal availability”. I actually accept that this universal availability is subject to certain conditions, as most physical common pool resources in fact are. What is important is not that these are totally unconditional, but that the members of the ‘group’ have all access to it, and do not have to pay for it. Obviously, for immaterial collaborative goods, payment is not useful at all, though certain conditions may strengthen participation even more, and that is fine, an integral part of peer production.

My conclusion is that Bittorrent would only be a counter-example, if access would be restricted, and universal availability restricted.

Siefkes then proceeds to give a definition, with which I can wholeheartedly agree!!

I consider this definition to be very valuable, and very clear, and it indeed covers the three phases of my own understanding, i.e. open input based on contributions, a participatory process, and universal availability through a commons.

This series by Siefkes will be continued and I eagerly await further postings.

Christian Siefkes Definition of Peer Production:

1. Peer production is based on contributions (not on exchange). Peer projects have a common goal (produce a software, share content, discover extra-terrestrials, whatever…) and every participant contributes to this goal in some way or other. People contribute to a project because they want it to succeed, not because they need or want to make money — it is use value, not exchange value, that motivates participants. Sometimes contributions are tied to benefits (as in the case of BitTorrent), sometimes they are not (as in the case of free software), but in any case the effort required to reach the common goal is shared among those who care enough to contribute. That’s why I also use the term “effort sharing” to refer to this mode of production.

2. Peer production is based on commons and possession (not on property). Benkler talks about “commons-based peer production” to emphasize the important role of the commons (goods and resources without owners who can control how they can be used). Generally, commons such as free software and open knowledge play an important role as input or output (or both) of peer projects.

Where things are not commons, they generally matter as possession (something that can be used), not as property (something that can be sold). In current peer projects, resources such as computing power and Internet access are typically privately owned, but they are used and shared for reaching the goals of the projects, they aren’t employed for financial gain. And, as noted above, participation in peer projects is motivated by use value, not by exchange value — goods are produced to be used (as commons or possession), not be be sold (as property).

3. Peer production is based on free cooperation (not on coercion or command). Nobody can order others to do something, and nobody is forced to obey others. This does not mean that there are no structures — on the contrary, usually there are maintainers or admins who can decide, for example, which contributions to accept and which to refuse. But nobody can compel others to do anything they do not want to do. Moreover, you are never forced to accept the existing structures as they are. If participants of a project are unhappy about some aspects of the project they can try to convince the others to change them. If that fails, they can still fork the project: they can break away from the others and do their own thing. This absence of coercion and command is probably the reason why Benkler talks about cooperation among equals, about “peers”.”

4 Comments Dialogue with Christian Siefkes: Understanding Material Peer Production (1)

  1. Christian Siefkes

    Indeed my definition has 3 parts: free contributions as input, a participatory process, and universal availability”. I actually accept that this universal availability is subject to certain conditions, as most physical common pool resources in fact are. What is important is not that these are totally unconditional, but that the members of the ‘group’ have all access to it, and do not have to pay for it.

    Well, obviously I misunderstood your reference to “free contributions, free availability”. Concerning your definition, we’re in full agreement 🙂

  2. Michel Bauwens

    Hi Christian,

    I guess it would be most useful to hold a view of a polarity between totally rival goods and totally anti-rival goods. The latter may be the most apt for pure non-reciprocal approaches, while the more you approach rivaly, the more urgent it becomes to find solutions to cost-recovery, which may take various solutions such as reciprocity-based (gift economy or ‘equality-machting’ logic as defined by Alan Page Fiske) or exchange based mechanisms (the market).

    Commons that deal with less than pure anti-rival sources must take measures to regulate access, which as long as it is doesn’t require an obligatory person to person reciprocity or a market price, would still be a form of peer production, or at least communal shareholding (the latter can exist without the former if nothing is really produced). But like water that is boiling to eventually become ‘vapour, at some point the increasing conditionality may boil over in something which is no longer peer production at all, but a gift economy or market.

  3. Dmytri Kleiner

    I too agree with much of what Christian Siefkes explains in his book and these comments, however, there are a few areas where he strays, in my opinion mistakenly, from much richer and more mature libertarian socialist analysis.

    In particular, his emphasis on “based on contributions not on exchange” seems to consider “adjusted time units” as a means of allocating productive output to be categorically different from money, is, as I understand it, actually just a type of money, his idea that employing “auctioning” to determine prices is categorically different from a “market” system, which I don’t think it is, as an “auction” requires a “market,” the market system determines prices by supply and demand, which is what an auction measures.

    Siefkes, is in essence, proposing a system based on both money and markets, only disguising this fact by. For me this is not a problem, as it is not money qua money, nor markets where the problems of Capitalsm lies, but property, which Siefkes does not include in his model, making his model, in my opinion, quite agreeable.

    In my opinion “the landmark book on the Peer Economy” is Kevin Carson’s “Studies in Mutualist Political Economy,” ideas in which I expect to be further developed in his current effort “Studies in the Anarchist Theory of Organizational Behavior,” I book I will buy and read the minute it is available in print.

    Siefkes’ work, much of which I agree with, lacks the political and economic depth to be anything more than a introductory text. And that, however, is already a valuable contribution. I look forward to more work from Siefkes.


  4. Pingback: Christian Siefkes on hint-based stigmergic systems » P2P Foundation

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