The produsage revolution: a stellar new book

Axel Bruns. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.

Axel Bruns has been so kind as to send me the manuscript of his new book on Produsage, and I must admit that while reading it I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. This is nothing less that the book I have been waiting for all along, and that I wished I could have written. It is based on a large body of empirical evidence, full of cases and examples, but also analytically sound and crisply, very clearly written. While it is not what Capital was for industrial capitalism, it strongly reminds the reader of the efforts by Marx to think through all the ramifications of the commodity form. What we get here is an examination of all the ramifications of the ‘produsage’ form, key characteristic of peer production.

Of course there have been important books about the emergence of peer production, a concept that Bruns rejects, we will see later why. I’m thinking of Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, which outlines the conditions for commons-based peer production to arise, and when it can be successful. I’m thinking of Steve Weber’s The Success of Open Source, which I consider the study of the governance processes of open source production. And there is Code, an edited collection of classic essays by Rishab Ghosh, which is the first primer on peer property, though there I would prefer to list a still missing monographical treatment.

There has been the landmark treatment of user-led innovation, by Eric von Hippel, The Democratization of Innovation, and the description of business adoption of open and participatory practices, by Don Tapscott’s economics. We Think by Charles Leadbeater focuses more on the societal effects of a process of mass amateurization and how it ends the era of the rule of the experts.

I’m tempted to say that these books are all ‘about’ peer production, still written by observers from the outside. But what the book by Bruns represents in my eyes, and why I believe it is historically important, is the coming into awareness of the peer producing communities themselves. It produces the effect of being the first, fully self-aware treatment of produsage by produsage itself, rather than being a voice of the past trying to understand the future.

When I first heard of the concepts of produsers and produsage I must admit I first thought they were a gimmick, and I frankly found them ugly neologisms, perhaps chosen out of crass media opportunity motives. But after reading the manuscript, I fully understand their usefulness and necessity. Concepts like produsers and produsage do not distract from our understanding, but are an essential condition for it.

Without going into details, as this is what the book does, examining in all its consequences, in a systematic way, the characteristics, principles and consequences of produsage, Bruns convincingly argues that what is happening is a complete overturning of the industrial value chain. There is no longer a separation between production, distribution, and consumption, but rather a fluid co-creation of social artefacts (not products!), always unfinished but infinitely augmentable, part of a field of intercreativity of informational hive communities, which may or may not temporarily be used as alternatives to industrially produced ‘products’.

Bruns therefore also wants to reject the concept of peer production itself, and I will not follow him in that. His reason is that it is misleading to call a process which does not create products, as ‘production’, and he obviously wants to stress the discontinuity of the social innovation that it represents. However, if we want to stress the continuity of the discontinuity, if you get my drift, then it is necessary to place it in a overall history of modes of production, and there is no doubt, in my mind, that produsage also produces, and that it is a new way, not just of creating content, but of organizing the overall way of producing value, artefacts, AND products. This is so because every physical production process, which presumably will still need to also make ‘products’, also involves a design phase, and this design phase, will more and more be using produsage processes. History will decide if peer production/produsage is a contained/containable phenomenom, important but bounded as part of an overall human market economy, or rather, as I would content, the new core logic of society and civilization itself. I’m not implying by this that Bruns does take the former position, but most authors on peer production do. It is in any case that positioning which creates the boundary of the project of the P2P Foundation.

So my take on it, is that peer production is characterized by produsage, and I hereby proudly did perform my act of semantic imperialism, incorporating Bruns’ insights into the P2P Theory framework (and in true intercreative style, Bruns is free to do the opposite)! Kidding aside, while I immensely appreciate his upcoming book, I do not think it fundamentally alters the understanding that Benkler, or myself, expressed before. We were very aware of the innovative and discontinuous nature of peer production processes, though Bruns undoubtedly adds to our understanding by providing a fuller tapestry of its characteristics. For us, it is simply a matter of stressing the continuity of the evolving ways in which humanity organizes itself, and in this context, peer production represents both a third mode of contemporary production, and the succeeding core logic of what is coming next. I do believe that Benkler still sees peer production too much as only a part of a larger market economy, and my feeling in reading the preliminary chapters is that Bruns perhaps also underestimates the eventual consequences of physical production, though he clearly hints at its possible expanded possibilities. I also believe that the crucial conceptual distinctions that I introduced in P2P Theory, differentiating between peer production, peer governance, and peer property, allows for a differentiated and detailed examination of the manyfold aspects of ‘produsage’. Peer governance, by the way, is called Adhocacry by Bruns, so again I will say that adhocracy is the form that peer governance takes.

The future will tell which concepts will catch the social imagination, and it is entirely possible that produsage indeed catches on, or alternatively, that the trilogy peer production/governance/property eventually spreads its memetic wings. I believe that both approaches are valid, and complement each other, and that in any case, we are no longer in an age of monological frameworks but precisely in an epoch in which we are also exchanging frameworks in a flexible way. I will take the liberty to use both, and to see produsage and adhocracy as expressions and characteristics of peer production and peer governance, letting the one illuminate the other. Without any doubt, the book shows that the Bruns framework has shown itself to be intellectually and scientifically productive.

My conclusion is the following: if you have the slightest curiosity about the future of human organization, if you want to understand what is going on NOW, then reading the Bruns book is a must. When your grandchildren will ask you where you where doing the days of change, you will remember when it was that you read that book.

You will find more info about the book at http://snurb.info/

8 Comments The produsage revolution: a stellar new book

  1. Paul Salamone

    I agree, “produsage” is a bit clunky of a word, but the concept is more or less analogous to p2p. Sounds interesting. Are advance copies of the book available to the general public yet?

  2. Sam Rose

    Wow, what an amazing and thought provoking review. I will be buying this book.

    One of the theories that I playing with is based on the work of http://clarewgraves.com, which is something and someone that I often talk about and invoke.

    I am starting to basically think that the arguments about “peer production” and those that come out opposed to “peer production” are both right, and make sense through the lens of Clare W Graves’s theory of understanding human nature.

    Put very basically and simply, those of us who have a tendancy to want to solve problems of existence with groups of people, will focus on the “group” aspect. While, those of us who are more “self” directed, will focus on how these emerging phenomenon evolve and change the way that people develop and express the “self”.

    The real “take away” from Graves’s theories is that both are happening at once, because people exist who solve problems in an “I”, and a “We” way.

    For the new human “paradigms” to emerge, I think we’ll need to make space that allows for both ways (“inner drected”, “outer directed”) to contribute without clashing, and allowing for both to maximize production in their ways of solving problems. So, this is why Bruns’s position is valuable, to remind us that many people will continue to exist that do not want to work with others so much, and that will opt not to focus on problem solving in a group way.

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