The schematic (R) and reality (L) of an open source hardware device called the Keyquencer

In my 20s I had the impression that my reality was fundamentally illegible to the academics of the past.

Making a living from open source hardware meant I was participating in an international network of people who freely shared their “intellectual property” with each other, growing a common resource of benefit to everyone. My peers included a 1970s Californian performance artist, a 12-year-old in a small Spanish town looking for mental stimulation, and a Russian engineer who remixed my ideas and returned them to the Internet extended and improved.

This socio-economic reality was beyond the imagination of Hayek, Keynes, Marx or Smith. As I started to grapple with this void, Yochai Benkler was the first academic to fill in the blank space. Yochai gave a name to the work I was doing: commons-oriented peer production.

FYI he has since been joined on my e-bookshelf by names like Lawrence Lessig, Clay Shirky, Marina Sitrin, Heather Marsh, bell hooks, Doug Rushkoff, Michel Bauwens, Julia Serano, Elinor Ostrom, David Graeber and Paul Mason.

His 2006 book Wealth of Networks exhaustively proves how information technology fundamentally alters the social and economic relationships that make the human world tick.

To me, this book represented proof that information and connectivity force us to re-evaluate the heuristics we use to make sense of the world. In the context of abundant information and connectivity, the old boundaries between state, market, and civil society aren’t so clear. Marx’s formula of ‘land, labour and capital’ is missing some critical ingredients.

Weaving coherence from diversity

Yochai Benkler was invited to give the closing address at OuiShare Fest because our community regards him highly as an expert.

In a conversation with Nuit Debout last night, Hailey Cooperrider reminded me that one role for a experts in a collaborative environment. She said: “experts need to change their mindset from having the answer, to framing the question.”

In the previous article in this series, I shared some of the questions Ezio Mazini brought into the conference which framed our discussions beautifully. And now, on the last day, Yochai Benkler took the stage and delivered a perfect closing address.

For me, he resolved all the ambiguities of the event and lay a very direct challenge for all of us ‘social entrepreneurs’ and ‘sharing economy’ enthusiasts.

He started by noticing and celebrating the gender diversity in the room, which is certainly not the norm for conferences with such a tech focus.

Then he situated us in the recent history of the sharing economy movement.

History of the Sharing Economy

Act I: social production emerges in the early 2000s, with Wikipedia as one of the most notable examples. Lesson: deployed the right way, infotech can dissolve institutions to massive social benefit.

Act II: from about 2010–11, new social movements develop with an absolute commitment to non-hierarchical organising. The ongoing progression of these movements demonstrate it is possible to achieve global coordination without centralisation.

This sets us up for Act III, which presumably starts right about now.

From his observations at the conference, Yochai drew out three tensions that illustrate the challenge and opportunity of the sharing economy.

Tensions in the Sharing Economy

Tension 1: we want to dismantle positional hierarchy, so we need alternative structures to coordinate people effectively

Tension 2: we want to serve the common good, so we need to reverse the accelerating global trend towards privatisation

Tension 3: we need to survive in a competitive environment without postponing our ethical commitments (he called this ‘the tyranny of the margin’)

He invited us to analyse the impact of a ‘sharing economy’ venture along these three lines, using Uber as an example.

When I think about hierarchy, privatisation, and the tyranny of the margin in the context of Uber, suddenly I have a way of expressing my sense of unease:

Uber rides on a brutal hierarchy. Financiers are at the top, then investors and directors, then engineers and managers, then drivers and riders, and finally everyone else, those people known as “externalities”.

Uber doesn’t pay for the cars, maps, driver’s licenses, roads, or the health insurance plans of their drivers. Yet they can build a thin layer of software on top of all that value and use it to hoover as much wealth as possible towards the top of the pyramid.

Uber combines the efficiency of high technology with the leverage of high finance to strangle one marketplace after another. The global ecosystem of cooperative taxi companies is rapidly being replaced by a monoculture of precarious independent contractors. If they have an ethical commitment, it is delayed so far as to be invisible.

It doesn’t have to be this way though.

In Taiwan, civic tech hackers created a mediation space between state, market and civil society.

They negotiated the arrival of Uber into Taiwan to be much less traumatic and polarising than it has been in other jurisdictions. A combination of world-class facilitation skills and bleeding-edge digital technology lead to a set of recommendations with clear multi-stakeholder consensus.

Today the Taiwanese Administration pledged to ratify them all.

Design criteria for social ventures

Over the course of the event, there was a growing sense of enthusiasm, urgency and energy for new ventures. So Yochai closed out with some unequivocal remarks directed at the founders in the room, flipping each of the 3 tensions into design criteria for social ventures:

  1. Centre your venture in social relations: find people to work with you, not for you.
  2. Design the commons into your business model: orient your venture to the common good.
  3. Build your venture to be ethically coherent from the start: don’t delay your ethical commitments.

I’ve had a hunch for a while, and I left the conference feeling more convinced than ever:

Unless technologies are explicitly designed to reduce inequality, they wind up exacerbating it.

So with that, the OuiShare Fest was over. The next day, we headed to Place de la République to meet with activists from Nuit Debout, the latest incarnation of the global movement of movements.

But that’s a whole other blog post…

p.s. for more of my reflections from OuiShare Fest, check out last week’s post Bootstrapping a Bossless Organisation in 3 Easy Steps


Lead image by Rex Hammock.

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