In lieu of that which may never come, some motivated notes on Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm (2002, 78 pages) and Freedom in the Commons: Towards a Political Economy of Information (2003, 32 pages; based on a 2002 lecture). A friend wanted to trial a book group with the former. Re-reading that led me to the latter, which I hadn’t read before. Reading them together, or even just the latter, might be a good alternative to reading The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (2006, 473 pages).
As might be expected from decade plus old internet research, some of the examples in the papers and book are a bit stale, but sadly their fundamental challenge remains largely unacknowledged, and only taken as a byproduct. I would love to be convinced otherwise. Is the challenge (or my extrapolation) wrong, unimportant, or being met satisfactorily?
Excerpts from Freedom in the Commons (emphasis added by me in all quotes that follow):
[Commons-based peer production] opens a range of new opportunities for pursuing core political values of liberal societies—democracy, individual freedom, and social justice. These values provide three vectors of political morality along which the shape and dimensions of any liberal society can be plotted. Because, however, they are often contradictory rather than complementary, the pursuit of each of these values places certain limits on how we conceive of and pursue the others, leading different liberal societies to respect them in different patterns.
An underlying efficient limit on how we can pursue any mix of arrangements to implement our commitments to democracy, autonomy, and equality, however, has been the pursuit of productivity and growth.
[Commons-based peer production] can move the boundaries of liberty along all three vectors of liberal political morality.
There is no benevolent historical force, however, that will inexorably lead the technological-economic moment to develop towards an open, diverse, liberal equilibrium. If the transformation occurs, it will lead to substantial redistribution of power and money from the twentieth-century, industrial producers of information, culture, and communications—like Hollywood, the recording industry, and the telecommunications giants—to a widely diffuse population around the globe. None of the industrial giants of yore are going to take this redistribution lying down. Technology will not overcome their resistance through some insurmountable progressive impulse. The reorganization of production, and the advances it can bring in democracy, autonomy, and social justice will emerge, if it emerges, only as a result of social and political action. To make it possible, it is crucial that we develop an understanding of what is at stake and what are the possible avenues for social and political action. But I have no illusions, and offer no reassurances, that any of this will in fact come to pass. I can only say that without an effort to focus our attention on what matters, the smoke and mirrors of flashy toys and more convenient shopping will be as enlightening as Aldous Huxley’s soma and feelies, and as socially constructive as his orgy porgy.
Let us think, then, of our being thrust into this moment as a challenge. We are in the midst of a technological, economic, and organizational transformation that allows us to renegotiate the terms of freedom, justice, and productivity in the information society. How we shall live in this new environment will largely depend on policy choices that we will make over the next decade or two. To be able to understand these choices, to be able to make them well, we must understand that they are part of a social and political choice—a choice about how to be free, equal, and productive human beings under anew set of technological and economic conditions. As economic policy, letting yesterday’s winners dictate the terms of economic competition tomorrow is disastrous. As social policy, missing an opportunity to enrich democracy, freedom, and equality in our society, while maintaining or even enhancing our productivity, is unforgivable.
Although the claim that the Internet leads to some form or another of “decentralization” is not new, the fundamental role played in this transformation by the emergence of non-market, nonproprietary production and distribution is often over-looked, if not willfully ignored.
First, if the networked information economy is permitted to emerge from the institutional battle, it will enable an outward shift of the limits that productivity places on the political imagination. Second, a society committed to any positive combination of the three values needs to adopt robust policies to facilitate these modes of production,because facilitating these modes of production does not represent a choice between productivity and liberal values, but rather an opportunity actually to relax the efficient limit on the plausible set of political arrangements available given the constraints of productivity.
We are at a moment in our history at which the terms of freedom and justice are up for grabs. We have an opportunity to improve the way we govern ourselves—both as members of communities and as autonomous individuals. We have an opportunity to be more just at the very core of our economic system. The practical steps we must take to reshape the boundaries of the possible in political morality and to improve the pattern of liberal society will likely improve productivity and growth through greater innovation and creativity. Instead of seizing these opportunities, however, we are sleepwalking.
What arrangements favor reorganization towards commons-based peer production? From Coase’s Penguin:
This suggests that peer production will thrive where projects have three characteristics. First, they must be modular. That is, they must be divisible into components, or modules, each of which can be produced of the production of the others. This enables production to be incremental and asynchronous, pooling the efforts of different people, with different capabilities, who are available at different times. Second, the granularity of the modules is important and refers to the sizes of the project’s modules. For a peer production process to pool successfully a relatively large number of contributors, the modules should be predominately fine-grained, or small in size. This allows the project to capture contributions from large numbers of contributors whose motivation levels will not sustain anything more than small efforts toward the project. Novels, for example, at least those that look like our current conception of a novel, are likely to prove resistant to peer production. In addition, a project will likely be more efficient if it can accommodate variously sized contributions. Heterogeneous granularity will allow people with different levels of motivation to collaborate by making smaller- or larger-grained contributions, consistent with their levels of motivation. Third, and finally, a successful peer production enterprise must have low-cost integration, which includes both quality control over the modules and a mechanism for integrating the contributions into the finished product.
Regulators concerned with fostering innovation may better direct their efforts toward providing the institutional tools that would help thousands of people to collaborate without appropriating their joint product, making the information they produce freely available rather than spending their efforts to increase the scope and sophistication of the mechanisms for private appropriation of this public good as they now do.
That we cannot fully understand a phenomenon does not mean that it does not exist. That a seemingly growing phenomenon refuses to fit our longstanding perceptions of how people behave and how economic growth occurs counsels closer attention, not studied indifference and ignorance. Commons-based peer production presents a fascinating phenomenon that could allow us to tap substantially underutilized reserves of human creative effort. It is of central importance that we not squelch peer production, but that we create the institutional conditions needed for it to flourish.
There’s been some progress on institutional tools (i.e., policy arrangements writ large, the result of “political action” above) in the 11 or so years since (e.g., Open Access mandates), but not nearly enough to outweigh global ratcheting of intellectual freedom infringing regimes, despite the occasional success of rearguard actions against such ratcheting. Neither these rearguard actions, nor mainstream (nor reformist) discussion of “reform” put commons at the center of their concerns. The best we can expect from this sleepwalking is to muddle through, with policy protecting and promoting commons where such is coincidentally aligned with some industrial interest (often simplified to “Google” in the past several years, but that won’t last forever).
My extrapolation (again, tell me if facile or wrong): shifting production arrangements so as to favor commons-based peer production is as important as, complementary to, and almost necessary for positive policy change. Commons-based product competition simultaneously changes the facts on the ground, the range of policies imaginable, and potentially create a commons “industrial” interest group which is recognizably important to regulators and makes commons-based peer production favoring policy central to its demands — the likely Wikimedia response to the European Commission copyright consultation is a hopeful example.
There has been lots of progress on improving commons-based peer production (e.g., some trends), but also not nearly enough to keep up with proprietary innovation, particularly lacking and missing huge opportunities where proprietary incumbents real advantages sit — not production per se, but funding and distribution/marketing/cultural relevance making. Improving commons-based peer production, shifting the commanding heights (i.e., Hollywood premium video and massively expensive and captured pharma regulatory apparatus) to forms more amenable to commons-based peer production, and expanding the scope of commons-based peer production to include funding and relevance making are among the most potent political projects of our time.
Wake up. ^_^