Interview with Mayo Fuster Morell

 By Rachel O’Dwyer

Mayo Fuster Morell is the Dimmons director of research on collaborative economy at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute of the Open University of Catalonia. Additionally, she is faculty affiliated at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and at Institute of Govern and Public Policies at Autonomous University of Barcelona (IGOPnet). In 2010, she concluded her PhD thesis at the European University Institute in Florence on the governance of common-based peer production, and have numerous publications in the field. She is the principal investigator for the European project P2Pvalue: Techno-social platform for sustainable models and value generation in commons-based peer production. She is also responsible of the experts group BarCola on collaborative economy and commons production at the Barcelona City Council.”

ROD: What brought you to work in peer-to-peer?

MFM: The first time I heard the term peer-to-peer was from an “artivist” friend Leo Martin when we were travelling from the Geneva Contrast Summit to the World Summit of Information Society in Geneva in 2003. In other words, the Internet itself and its defense, and the network as a political metaphor for its decentralized character brought me to work on P2P. Commons appreciation came later.

ROD: What is ‘participative action research’? How have you used it? And what groups have you worked with?

MFM: ‘Participative action research’ refers to research that tends to inform a process in action or depart from explicit aims, and is developed in a participatory manner. This could refer to how the research questions are defined (they could emerge in the context of mobilization), the methodologies (more participative and egalitarian, positioning the researcher as facilitator more than owner of the process) and the distribution of the research outcomes (such as adopting open access and open data). There are different traditions and sensibilities. One of the first books and articles I wrote back in 2004 as part of the collective Investigaccio was on what at that time we called “activist” research and social movements. A later version of this article was published at: Interface: a journal for and about social movements Volume 1 (1): 21 – 45 (January 2009). Fuster Morell: Action research 21 Action research: mapping the nexus of research and political action http://www.interfacejournal.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/interface-issue-1-1-pp21-45-Fuster.pdf

My first action involvement was as part of the global justice movement with the Seattle and Praga mobilization against global institutions like the World Bank, IMF, and European Union. Through that experience I realized how we were generating useful data and how ICTs could contribute to systematizing the knowledge generated in social processes and democratizing access to that knowledge. This brought me to an action research framework.

ROD: You have developed some very interesting research on gender and the commons. In what ways can gender politics inhibit participation in commons-based peer production? And how can we become more aware of it?

MFM: I think it is not accurate to state that I developed research on the commons and gender. There are experts in gender, and gender studies is a specialized field, but I am not one. What happens is that commons theory and practice tend to be dominated by male voices (with the great exception of Ostrom), a lack of engagement with gender perspectives and feminist theories (see for example Bauwens’ work), and an emphasis on class as opposed to identity politics. Sometimes inequality dynamics are even worse than market dynamics (for example, only 1.5 % of FLOSS participants are women, while proprietary software has a 30% female involvement. So in that context, someone like me that has some gender sensibility and feminist appreciation – even if she is not an expert or very involved – becomes the ‘gender voice’ in the room. This makes me feel uncomfortable, because I do not know much and have not written much or made good contributions; my area of expertise is on governance of the commons and public policies for the commons.

ROD: At procomuns, an event that you helped to organize, there was an emphasis on the ways in which women’s contributions had been hidden from peer-to-peer practices. How can we challenge this?

MFM: Regarding how we can change the current gender inequality dynamic of the commons, I think the first step is to recognize that commons approaches have obfuscated reproductive work as much as capitalism. Commons is presented as a third mode of production distinct from the state and the market, but where is domestic work, families and reproductive work – mostly developed by women – in this equation? And where is nature? I really think commons can benefit a lot from engaging with ecofeminist perspectives – with authors like Cristina Carrasco or Yayo Herrero here in Spain for example. This connection can not only bring more justice to the commons but also be very powerful. I think one of the key insights which explains the rise of Barcelona en Comu is the combination of feminism and commons.

What is clear is that there is a lot to be done on gender. I contribute to a wiki for monitoring the inclusion of women in digital commons and ICT conferences, where there are also resources on commons and gender (see http://wiki.digital-commons.net). Conferences with less than at least 35% of women inclusion in the program are shame conferences. The lack of reference to women’s work in the academic literature and in the field literature is even more problematic.

ROD: What distinguishes the commons for you from other traditional hierarchical public and private forms of organization? And do we need a partner state to develop and protect the commons?

MFM: At this moment in time, yes. Neoliberal globalization has constituted an enclosure of global commons, and the expansion of the capitalist dynamic to new areas previously organized through commons and social logics. Digital commons were expanding with the Internet, but now certain layers of the Internet are controlled by corporations, resulting in the enclosure of the digital commons also (see for example the emergence of on demand /corporate collaborative economies and the enclosure of collaborative production online). In this stage of things, I think we need to gain political control over political institutions in order to create public-commons alliances to confront the commons enclosure. A private – public alliance has resulted in the kidnap of political institutions; together they are creating what I call (glossing feminist theory) the “glass ceiling”, working to ensure that the greater capacity for the commons to expand and gain centrality in the digital era is kept under control, and that commons are enclosed for profit purposes. But the process of organizing to gain political power in political institutions should happen in parallel with the reorganization of economic power under commons logic. We need external, social movements to push for policy change, and economical affinity activity in order to be able to perform political changes inside the institution.

ROD: In the last decade we are seeing a growing centrality of forms of commoning and commons-based peer production to capital, particularly in informational and digital spheres. You call this relationship ‘wiki-washing’. What strategies exist to protect forms of commoning from commercial expropriation? Or is this an inevitability? Or maybe not always a bad thing?

MFM: Regarding the case of the collaborative economy, commons collaborative economy was original to the internet with FLOSS, Wikipedia etc. Then we have witnessed several waves of incorporation of collaborative dynamics for capitalism innovation, with the case of platforms like YouTube and Flickr first, and now with the “collaborative economy” of Uber and AirBnb. These have popularized collaboration, but they have also emptied it of its empowering dimension. We should keep working on alternatives that scale (being aware that it is not only a matter of lack of ability, but a ‘glass ceiling’ that I mentioned earlier that ensure such efforts remain small). We must denounce the bad practices of unicorn modalities and their wiki-washing (for a discussion of the use of the wiki ethos to further corporate interests see my article The unethics of sharing: wikiwashing”). Still, we have also to be tactical and take advantage of the situation created – to play the game in our favor. For example, the European Commission did not get interested in commons production until the debate on the collaborative economy gained importance with the controversies connected to the disruption of Uber and AirBnb. I’m often asked to speak about the collaborative economy by organizations who have AirBnb and Uber in mind because they do not know anything else and I take advantage of these opportunities to explain that they were not the first to appear and that there are other running models based on commons logic which can favor a more inclusive economical “growth”.

The capitalist market adoption of commons creativity has ambivalences, and we should be tactical and practical in taking advantage of these depending on the period. This ambivalence of the market can also be applied to social networks. The appearance of Facebook and Twitter was a defeat to autonomous communication alternatives, but nowadays it has also become a tool for social mobilization, and it is right to use it as such. But we also have to keep in mind how we might gain them back for commons governance? There is, for example, a campaign to buy Twitter by the Twitter community and transform it into a cooperative. In sum, politics is done with “what there is”, advancing with the opportunities of each moment – not with great conditions that are not there.

ROD: What does the term ‘digital commons’ mean to you?

MFM: Commons is an ethos and an umbrella term that encompasses many practices and transformative changes. The commons emphasizes common interests and needs. It includes collaborative production, open and shared resources, collective ownership, as well as empowering and participative forms of political and economic organizing.

It is, however, a very plural concept with very diverse ‘traditions’ and perspectives. Some commons, for example, are connected to material resources (pastoral, fields, fishing etc.) and others to immaterial ones (knowledge etc.).

In the area of knowledge commons, the emphasis is on the conditions of access – open access and the possibility to access resources and intervene in their production without requiring the permission of others. It emphasizes knowledge as a public good, a patrimony, and a human right.

I proposed a definition of digital commons as “information and knowledge resources that are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to be non-exclusive, that is, be (generally freely) available to third parties. Thus, they are oriented to favor use and reuse, rather than to exchange as a commodity. Additionally, the community of people building them can intervene in the governing of their interaction processes and of their shared resources” (Fuster Morell, M. (2010, p. 5). Dissertation: Governance of online creation communities: Provision of infrastructure for the building of digital commons. http://www.onlinecreation.info/?page_id=338).

ROD: What do we need to do to cultivate and defend the digital commons?

MFM: The same that we have to do with any common.

At this moment there are, in my view, three key strategies and goals: 1) Create public commons partnerships. Push for political institutions to be led by commons principles and to support commons-based economic production (such as reinventing public services led by citizens’ participation, what I call ‘commonification’). Barcelona en Comu is providing a great model for this. 2) Reclaim the economy, and in particular develop an alternative financial system. 3) Confront patriarchy within the commons – in other words embrace freedom and justice for all, not just for a particular privileged subject (male, white, etc.) and help foster greater diversity in society.

ROD: What for you is the key difference between the digital and the material commons? Do these distinctions hold? Or are they holding us back?

MFM: Over time I think there is less and less of a distinction.

ROD: What do you think of proposals for new forms of technology that scale commons-based peer production such as distributed ledger technologies, the blockchain or new reputation and trustless systems? How do these fit within the broader projects of commons-based peer production?

MFM: Certainly, technological development is important, but much less that what is framed in the blockchain hype. For a period around the early development of the Internet, I thought – and I think this was a general collective feeling – that technological development and creativity towards decentralized modes would be the more effective strategy to gain commons space. I no longer think this (as I previously discussed, I think we have to combine several strategies: political, economical, technical and “genderal”). I think we were wrong. The evolution of the Internet is the best proof of this. This is why I am so surprised by the wave of naïve enthusiasm for the blockchain and its technological solutionism and apolitical vision. It assumes there are not also power struggles and asymmetries in networked and decentralized modalities.

ROD: Can you tell us a bit about your own work on infrastructure governance?

MFM: My doctoral thesis was on the governance of infrastructure for the building of digital commons (the thesis is available here). In this research I challenged previous literature by questioning the neutrality of infrastructure for collective action and demonstrating that infrastructure governance shapes collective action.

ROD: I’ve read that your research challenges the idea that oligarchy, bureaucracy and hierarchy are inevitable products of scaled forms of cooperation. How can we prevent these from kicking in? Are these always bad things? Joe Freedman, for example, writes of the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ and how the ostensible idea of no structure allows for more insidious forms of structural power i.e. gender/class/race to play a key role and to develop oligarchies.

MFM: The research I developed in my thesis provided an empirical explanation of the organizational strategies most likely to succeed in creating large-scale collective action in terms of the size of participation and complexity of collaboration. In hypothesizing that the emerging forms of collective action are able to increase in terms of both participation and complexity while maintaining democratic principles, I challenged Olson’s classical political science assertion that formal organizations tend to overcome collective action dilemmas more easily, and challenges the classical statements of Weber and Michels that as organizations grow in size and complexity, they tend to create bureaucratic forms and oligarchies. I concluded that online creation communities are able to increase in complexity while maintaining democratic principles. Additionally, in light of my research, the emerging collective action forms are better characterized as hybrid ecosystems which succeed by networking and combining several components, each with different degrees of formalization and organizational and democratic logics. Wikipedia is a great example of hybridism. Wikipedia kept its community decentralized, autonomous and allowed open models of organizing to scale, while at the same time having the Wikimedia Foundation with a more hierarchical and labor-based form. Each piece is necessary for the whole ecosystem to scale.

Regarding your question on the tyranny of structurelessness. It is an important question. I think the work of Ostrom questioning Hardin’s conception of the commons is in the same line of what I want to argue here. Ostrom critiqued Hardin’s piece on ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, because the example he used (farmers coordinating grazing rights) was not that of a commons organizational form, but an open field without a social contract around its use, as commons provide. So in this line, yes, there is the need for social organizing in order to preserve resources and organize equality and justice etc.; without structure there is no organization and no commons. Then, the question is what type of organizing, what type of structure and how to govern it. And here I want to recall that network forms are also an organizing structure. But its governance should be transparent and inclusive to all its members. Informality is one of the channels for injustice, such as male domination or corruption, and in this sense I agree with Freedman. It is ok to have open and networked forms, but their governance should be transparent and inclusive. By themselves, network decentralization does not assure power equality (this goes back to the debate on the blockchain).

At the same time, I think we have to go beyond Freedman’s critique and say that it is not that we need structure generally. Structure is not enough to solve inequality, but we need an explicit gender equality plan too. Without a specific set of norms and forms to confront the patriarchy, any commons is going to reproduce it – even reinforce it. The case of FLOSS is very clear here. Studies suggest that only 1.5% of contributors to FLOSS communities are women, while in proprietary closed software production, the proportion is closer to 30%. Similarly, communities that manage natural resources, such as fishing commons institutions in Albufera, Valencia restricted women’s participation until very recently. Equality regarding social and economical dimension is not the only aspect to have present, as it is quite common in commons approaches. Patriarchy is previous to capitalism, and to move towards a commons paradigm, as an alternative to capitalism does not assure a solution to a much deep violent system that works against women and diversity generally.

Finally, the third pillar is the preservation of nature. We have to overcome the current “commons” framework in order to create a new framework based on the confluence of the social and the commons, one that includes gender and diversity feminism, and nature and environmental preservation. Any approach that lacks any of these three pillars explicitly does not have much potential.

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