Morality and Peer Production

In a recent posting, Tim O’Reilly refers to a contribution by Doc Searls about the various kinds of morality.

Doc Searls recognizes the following three kinds of morality:

– Morality of self-interest. This gives us “owning”, “domination”, etc. The Old School. Industrial Age shit. Still prevails in many business plans that are just for killing other companies.

– Morality of accounting. We balance everything. “Paying debts”, “owing favors”. This is our system of justice, by the way. It’s all about accounting. (Note the scales of justice symbol.)

– Morality of generosity. We give. We are open. We love without expectation of reward, or even accounting. (In fact, when you bring in accounting, you compromise it.) Think about how we give to our spouses, our children, without strings. It pays off, too. But that’s fundamentally not what it’s about.

He then goes on to examine Web 2.0 in the context of the morality of generosity and cites the example of Flickr, which allows other projects to use its data. Finally, Doc Searls interprets the whole thing in the context of markets, something he often does, and in my opinion, erroneously.
My response, posted as a comment:

I think we should make the following distinctions.

The market, when it works properly (and it almost never does, at least not in capitalism, which is a system of power that distorts markets, and operates as an anti-market), is a place for neutral exchange, pure impersonal reciprocity (it creates no future obligations).

The gift economy, as it existed in the tribal era, was personalized giving, but it created a future obligation.

The modern forms of peer production, exemplified by free software, which has people volunteering, and created software, or knowledge that everybody can use for free, is properly called non-reciprocal exchange. At least those parts that have both the above characteristics. It is in fact a form of communal shareholding, if we follow Alan Page Fiske’s Relational Model.

Gifting is common to the gift economy and peer production, but in the first case, a return is expected. In the second case, some form of value is exchanged, but the giving itself is the return. Motivation is found in contributing to the common project.

Doc Searls and libertarians always call everything a ‘market’, but it is not at all clear that both the gift economy and peer production are markets. There is, especially in the latter case, no supply and demand, no pricing, no allocation by corporate hierarchy, no exclusionary property format. Why then insist that it is a market?

In terms of morality, the market is pure self interest, though it can have beneficial effects outside of the transaction; in the gift economy the reciprocity is deferred, in my opinion this is a higher form of morality, since gratification is deferred; finally, giving without expectation for return as in peer production, is the highest form of morality there is.

Of course these various forms most often exist in hybrid forms and are often embedded in each other, while individual motivation is also often mixed. But it is conceptually interesting to keep them apart. Wherever there is a economics of plenty, of a distribution of resources instead of a concentration of resources (distribution of intellect, means of production, financial capital), peer production can arise. Morality is thus also a function of objective conditions.

1 Comment Morality and Peer Production

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