The three revolutions in human productivity

About (roughly) 5,000 years, humanity witnessed a first revolution in productivity. It discovered that you can make people work through coercion (slavery), or by forcing farmers to give away a part of their production. To simplify, the emergence of negative extrinsic motivation was born. The city-state was probably one of it earliest instrument. As it could not produce its own livelihood, it could only exist by extracting a surplus from the surrounding countryside. Civilisation, with its managerial classes and the state, was born, but of course, at a high price. Nevertheless, the core of what we experience today, i.e. the ‘fruits of civilisation’, is the result of this primitive extraction of surplus value from unwilling humans, the ones that lost the battles and were reduced to slavery, or needed ‘protection’ from tribute-demanding lords.

About 500 years ago, a new revolution occurred. It occurred to more and more people that mutual interest, the exchange of equal value, i.e. extrinsic positive motivation, was a more powerful and more productive motivator to extract surplus value. This is the basis of capitalism and its explosion in human productivity. Of course, we should also concede that this equal exchange is in a large part mythological as well, based as it is on unequal power relationships. In order for labour to become a commodity willingly exchanged for a salary, masses of people had to be disposed through the enclosures of their farmlands. Only people ‘freed’ of access to their own productive resources, would be willing to enter in such exchange. Nevertheless, it was an extraordinary leap in human productivity, and again, certainly in the western world, most of what we enjoy is the product of that leap.

As we must conclude however, is that both the previous modes of ‘progress’, were both based on structural coercion, and hence came at a heavy price in human suffering.

About 20 years ago, a third revolution started occurring. Some humans discovered that the permissionless self-aggregation afforded by the internet, allowed humans to congregate around their passionate pursuits. Thus, peer production was born, first in the field of knowledge, including software. It was discovered that when people are motivated by intrinsic positive motivation, they are hyperproductive. We discovered that peer communities do not strive just for relative quality, i.e. being better than the competition, but for absolute quality, making the best possible ‘product’.

Whenever peer producing communities start moving in a particular field of production, say the building of a universal operating system, or a universal encyclopedia, after a few years it would outcompete or better, ‘outcooperate’ those relying exclusively on proprietary strategies. This is not so difficult to understand, if we remember that while barely one in five of corporate workers are passionately motivated, one hundred percent of peer producers are, since the system filters out those lacking it! Moreover, peer producing communities are not hampered by any of the negative strategies that corporate players have to engage in, like planned obsolescence, striving for monopoly, ignoring social and natural externalities, etc…

In other writings we have explained by in the current social form, peer production can only take on hybrid formats, i.e. in alliance with corporate entities, since its non-monetary logic of voluntarily contributing to a universally available commons, cannot sustain itself in a corporate economy. It is therefore the hybrid constructions, combining peer communities, for-benefit foundations managing the infrastructure of cooperation, and the corporate entities extracting or creating new value from the commons for use in the marketplace, which are the current format out-competing exclusively proprietary strategies.

It will take a few decades for this new model to become dominant, with a key social factor being what modalities the social charters between communities, foundations, corporations, and the state, will take in that intermediary period.

In the longer term, we believe humanity will find a way to reorganize its economic and social order in such a way, that pure peer production becomes sustainable by itself. Crucial for this is to translate the value and wealth created by peer production, in a means of reproducing one’s livelihood. This requires that the state, society and the market, and any sphere that benefits from the positive externalities of the peer production communities, acknowledges and funds that value creation, but in such a way that the proper dynamic of peer production is respected.

1 Comment The three revolutions in human productivity

  1. Avatarsivam krish

    Great insight Michael.Its also important to add that products are increasing digital – which changes the nature of products and the way they can be shared.

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