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. [â€¦]
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 â€” 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 youâ€™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, whateverâ€¦) 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 â€” 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. Thatâ€™s why I also use the term â€œeffort sharingâ€ to refer to this mode of production.
2. Peer production is based on commons and possession (not on property). Benkler talks about â€œcommons-based peer productionâ€ 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 arenâ€™t employed for financial gain. And, as noted above, participation in peer projects is motivated by use value, not by exchange value â€” 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 â€” 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 â€œpeersâ€.”