Material Peer Production — Part 0: Traits of Peer Production

'From Exchange to Contributions' Cover[Update: es gibt jetzt auch eine komplette deutsche Übersetzung dieses Artikels — danke, Stefan!]

Is it possible to generalize peer production into the physical world and to produce material goods and services in the same way as free software and open knowledge? Is it possible for peer production to become the primary mode of production, obsoleting markets and capitalism? In my „Peerconomy“ book, I argue that it is indeed possible and discuss how it can be done. This is the first part of a short series explaining my core ideas. It was triggered by discussion on the English Oekonux list. This article documents my first mail.

Michael Bauwens wrote:

In my interpretation, non-reciprocal peer production is by definition impossible in physical production, except for the open design phase. […]

What is crucial here: peer to peer is characterized by the non-reciprocal logic of communal shareholding, as described in the relational grammar of Alan Page Fiske: free contributions, free availability.

Well, if you make unconditional „free availability“ of the produced goods a condition of peer production, then, as you say yourself, material peer production is by definition impossible. A project producing software can make the produced software freely available to everyone who wants it, since doing so doesn’t cause them any additional cost. The same holds for a project producing bicycle designs. But a project producing actual bicycles will hardly be able to do so (even if it was willing to try): sooner or later they would run out of resources, or the people assembling the bicycles whose loose interest and stop producing even more bicycles for others.

So, with this definition, peer production is only possibly for goods that can be freely copied — peer production could only be extended to material production if the material goods themselves could somehow be copied freely. Thus, your only hope for material peer production are „personal fabricators“ (fabbers) that promise to make material goods as easily reproducible as information. But, while the developments in this area are interesting, it would still require a huge technological breakthrough to turn this hope into a reality — not only would personal fabricators need to become extremely versatile to produce all (or most) material goods, they would also need to somehow become freely available to everyone, and the required resources would need to somehow become freely available too. Otherwise, there still wouldn’t be material peer production that satisfies the „free availability“ criterion, and those who aren’t wealthy enough to obtain a fabber and the required resources would still be out of luck.

But is this really the only way? Yochai Benkler, who has coined the term „peer production“, uses it in a way that doesn’t quite match your definition. For example, Benkler also considers peer-to-peer distribution networks such as BitTorrent as examples of peer production (though in this case „peer distribution“ might be the more appropriate term). But BitTorrent is not based on non-reciprocal, unconditional free availability — instead, you are expected to contribute your part to the overall goal (efficiently distributing files): the more bandwidth you provide for upload (allowing others to get the files they want), the more bandwidth you’ll get for download (allowing yourself to get the files you want).

Benkler also considers distributed computing projects such as SETI@home or Folding@home as peer production efforts. While any results of such projects are indeed free, they are probably of little direct use to your typical participant. Hence, what matters here seems to be less the free availability of output, but rather the cooperation for solving a common problem or pursuing a common goal (which might be scientific, humanitarian, or fun).

What else, then, do these different kinds of peer production efforts have in common?

A first point that is important is that Benkler makes it quite clear that he considers peer production as a third mode of production that is fundamentally different from both „market production“ and „planned production“ (or „firm production“). Markets are based on equivalent exchange (buying and selling), while both capitalist firms and the so-called „socialist“ planned economies (such as the Soviet Union) rely on hierarchies and organized planning to distribute tasks and resources. If you produce something for selling it on the market, or if your production follows some hierarchical planning process, you are not peer-producing — Dmytri’s proposal is out.

But a negative definition is hardly enough. What positive traits do the different forms of peer production have in common? I think there are at least three:

  1. Peer production is based on contributions (not on exchange). Peer projects have a common goal (produce a software, share content, discover extra-terrestrials, whatever…) and every participant contributes to this goal in some way or other. People contribute to a project because they want it to succeed, not because they need or want to make money — it is use value, not exchange value, that motivates participants. Sometimes contributions are tied to benefits (as in the case of BitTorrent), sometimes they are not (as in the case of free software), but in any case the effort required to reach the common goal is shared among those who care enough to contribute. That’s why I also use the term „effort sharing“ to refer to this mode of production.
  2. Peer production is based on free cooperation (not on coercion or command). Nobody can order others to do something, and nobody is forced to obey others. This does not mean that there are no structures — on the contrary, usually there are maintainers or admins who can decide, for example, which contributions to accept and which to refuse. But nobody can compel others to do anything they do not want to do. Moreover, you are never forced to accept the existing structures as they are. If participants of a project are unhappy about some aspects of the project they can try to convince the others to change them. If that fails, they can still fork the project: they can break away from the others and do their own thing. This absence of coercion and command is probably the reason why Benkler talks about cooperation among equals, about „peers“.
  3. Peer production is based on commons and possession (not on property). Benkler talks about „commons-based peer production“ to emphasize the important role of the commons (goods and resources without owners who can control how they can be used). Generally, commons such as free software and open knowledge play an important role as input or output (or both) of peer projects. Where things are not commons, they generally matter as possession (something that can be used), not as property (something that can be sold). In current peer projects, resources such as computing power and Internet access are typically privately owned, but they are used and shared for reaching the goals of the projects, they aren’t employed for financial gain. And, as noted above, participation in peer projects is motivated by use value, not by exchange value — goods are produced to be used (as commons or possession), not be be sold (as property).

If we want to extend peer production to material production, it is these traits we have to preserve. In my book, „From Exchange to Contributions“, I discuss in detail how this can be done. I’ll try to give a short overview on this mailing list. Still, the topic is too complex for a single mail, so there will be three more mails to follow, one for each of the three traits.

Next part: Effort Sharing.

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