Beyond Digital Plenty (1)

Building Blocks for Physical Peer Production

Journal of Peer Production[Originally published in Journal of Peer Production, Issue #1: Productive Negation, July 2012.]


Commons-based peer production has produced astonishing amounts of freely usable and shareable information. While that is amazing in itself, many people think that it is all, arguing that peer production flourishes in the digital realms of the Internet—and only there. This would mean that peer production could never be more than a niche phenomenon, since nobody can survive on information alone. This article challenges the conventional viewpoint, arguing that the potential of peer production extends far beyond the digital sphere into the sphere of physical production and that corresponding developments are already under way.

The article contrasts the plenty of the digital world with the apparent scarcity of the physical world. It explains the difference between scarcity and limitations and why is it necessary to distinguish between different meanings of the word “plenty” when thinking about the possibility of plenty in a limited world. It shows that firm- and market-based capitalist production is unable to produce plenty for everyone due to its inherent traits, but that commons-based peer production is very different in this regard. It sketches building blocks for the generalization of peer production into the physical world, referring to examples that exist today. Finally, questions of fairness in a peer production–based society are discussed.

Digital Plenty Versus Natural Scarcity?

The Internet as a Place of Plenty

The Internet has become a place of plenty—plenty in different meanings of the word. The first meaning of plenty is “lavishness” or “wastefulness.” I might spent all day clicking through photo sharing sites, looking endlessly at pictures of any people or topics (say, Mount Everest), even though at some point they’ll start go get fairly repetitious and I have seen everything of interest—I can continue nevertheless.

I can use BitTorrent to download tons of movies—that’s usually illegal, but it works—until I’ve filled my hard disk with movies, even though I might never find the time for watching them. I can install any number of free software programs, endlessly trying new ones, even if I don’t really use any of them. It’s easy to waste time on the Net.

But plenty also has another meaning: “getting what I need, when I need it.” The Internet offers plenty in this sense, too. Just try to remember (if you’re old enough to do so) how cumbersome it was to research something before the Internet. You had to visit a library to find books on the topic; if none existed, you had to try locating articles in journals or finding out whether there were experts somewhere that you could reach and that responded to your queries. Today, doing initial research has simplified enormously: just enter some search terms in Google or read the Wikipedia article on the topic, then follow the most interesting links for further reference. It has become so easy to find information on practically any topic that it is hard to remember how it was before.

Solving problems has likewise become much simpler. Since you are hardly the first person with any specific problem, you can search the Internet. Usually you’ll find others who had the same problem and wrote about it. You can check the solutions they came up with; if that’s insufficient, it’s often easy to get involved and ask for help. In the past, it was very hard to find and cooperate with people with similar problems or interests, unless (maybe) if they lived in the same city or area as you. Not anymore.

When looking for a specified piece of music or a particular video, I’m quite likely to find it on YouTube or elsewhere online. And I can download and watch the movies I’m interested in—usually not legally, but still. I can find free software programs to do specific tasks or to solve specified problems—whether for Web surfing, watching videos, editing photos, videos, or music, playing games, developing programs—almost anything is there. Thus, the Internet is also very good at providing plenty in the sense of “what I need, when I need it.”

It might seem as if the plenty originates in the digital nature of the Internet itself. But that would be a wrong impression. Digital technology is only the foundation; the producers of the plenty are the people who use the Internet and make it all happen. I will return to that issue, but prior to doing so I will look a the limitations of the physical world which make it appear so different from the digital plenty of the Net.

The Ecological Footprint: Is Scarcity “Natural”?

One issue that might seem to make the concept of plenty—plenty for everyone—in the natural world hopeless has become known as “ecological footprint.” The ecological footprint is the amount of land necessary to generate all the resources consumed by a human population and to absorb and render harmless the corresponding waste. It is measured in “global hectares,” meaning hectares (one percent of a square kilometer) of land of average fertility.

Today, the ecological footprint of humanity is about eighteen billion global hectares, but the Earth’s total biocapacity is only about twelve billion global hectares. The disparity is obvious: our current lifestyle would require one and a half Earths to be sustainable. We consume resources much faster than the Earth can replenish them. Since such overuse is impossible in the long run, we live at the cost of future generations.

But not everybody does. In many countries, the average footprint per person is very low. In Bangladesh and Afghanistan, it is just 0.6 global hectares per person; in India and Yemen, 0.9 hectares; in Iraq and the Philippines, 1.3 hectares. In these and many other countries, resource usage is below the sustainable average that can be calculated by dividing the twelve billion hectares of available biocapacity among the seven billion people alive: 1.7 hectares per person.

The actual global average is about 2.7 hectares per person, more than 50% higher than sustainable. My own country, Germany, uses almost twice as much: 5.1 hectares per person. Most other European countries have similar values. The average footprints of the USA and some Arab countries are highest: 8.0 hectares per person, or more (see Wikipedia 2011). We who live in highly industrialized countries, thus not only live at the cost of future generations, but also at the cost of people in other parts of the word. Our consumption patterns are only possible because people elsewhere consume much less.

Scarcity, Limitations and How (Not) to Produce Plenty

It is clear that to remain possible and sustainable in the long run, all production is bound to the limits of the available biocapacity. This constraint holds regardless of the social form of production. The limit of currently 1.7 global hectares per person can be surpassed for some and for limited periods of time, but not for all and forever. Such limitations must be respected, but limitations, as Stefan Meretz points out in his contribution to this volume (Pattern 2) are not the same as scarcity. Scarcity means that there is not enough of something, hence it depends, first, on how much of a good is needed (and by whom) and, secondly, on how much of a good is produced (and by whom). Scarcity is thus a social phenomenon, never a natural one.

Above I distinguished two concepts of plenty—unlimited wastefulness versus “getting what I need, when I need it.” It’s easy to see that unlimited wastefulness will quickly collide with the limits of our planet. It won’t be possible for everybody to have five cars in their garage, or use everything just for a little while and then throw it away.

But plenty in the second sense is a different matter. Things that are quickly discarded won’t satisfy more needs than things that are used for a long time; and you don’t need five cars to reach your destination quickly and conveniently—depending on the situation, one car, an (electric) bicycle or good public transportation will do as well or better. This concept of plenty isn’t focused on the accumulation of things, but on the satisfaction of needs.

Is it possible to produce “what you need, when you need it” for everybody, on this limited planet? That question cannot be answered without considering the social form of production.

Capitalism is the mode of production that dominates today. For this mode, the answer must be no. Capitalism is good at producing plenty for some, but it does so at the expense of others. Most people in the Global South are excluded, and many poor people in the “rich” countries are largely excluded as well. This is not just an empirical fact, there are also theoretical reasons why it must be so.

First, the goal of every capitalist entity, every investor and every company, is to “make money,” that is, to turn money into more money. Making money is only possible if somebody produces something (though that relation may be quite indirect and far away), and production always requires resources. And if the goal of “making money” is reached, as a result there is more money that must be invested again in order to make even more—and so on. The capitalist process thus has a built-in, infinite urge to grow, to produce more and to use more resources. Over-exploitation of the biocapacity is the logical result. With capitalism, the only alternative to growth is crisis: investments fail, leading to a loss of capital with companies going bankrupt. People lose their job and thus the possibility to benefit from the limited plenty which capitalism produces for those who can afford it. Neither alternative is good: crisis causes people to suffer, but permanent growth necessarily comes at the expense of nature.

Moreover, plenty for everybody is impossible because companies produce goods in order to sell them—that’s how they make money. But things can only be sold if they are scarce, if they don’t exist in sufficient quantity. Otherwise, if supply is higher than demand, prices tend to fall towards zero. This makes the market in question unattractive for producers since it becomes hard or impossible to “make money.” Some producers will withdraw or go bankrupt, finally leading to a situation where supply falls below demand and the situation of scarcity required for successful investments is restored. If capitalist corporations are not the only source of goods, but people can get them for free from nature or from other people, commercial exploitation will face ongoing problems. This is the situation the music industry finds itself in, since the Internet facilitated the noncommercial sharing of music. In such a situation, the affected companies will desperately try to smash the noncapitalist alternative, just as we see today.

Finally, there is a conflict between plenty for everyone and the core principle of capitalist markets: competition. Competition means that whenever someone wins, someone else loses. It doesn’t matter whether companies compete for market share or people for jobs: some will be successful, but the rest will fail, going bankrupt or becoming unemployed. There may be plenty for the winners, but the losers won’t get more than some modest handouts from the government, if at all.

Commons-based Peer Production: A Different Mode of Production to the Rescue?

Thus, plenty for everybody is only a possibility with another mode of production. But how might such a mode of production work? Indeed, what becomes of the concept of “work”? In capitalism, work is usually a means to an end: companies employ workers in order to produce salable products; people work to earn money that they need in order to “make a living,” i.e., to survive. When politicians talk about “increasing the incentives to work,” they mean increased sanctions about people unable or unwilling to find work. Work seems to be something that you only do if you have to, if it’s forced upon you by economic necessity or social pressure.

But does it have to be like that? Let’s return to the way in which plenty is produced on the Internet. Not all of the digital plenty we can find there, but a large part of it is a result of the process we call commons-based peer production—the very topic of this journal.

In many cases, peer production differs considerably from the conventional model of work as a means to make money. Innumerable people help writing and editing the free encyclopedia Wikipedia, without expecting financial compensation. Others make music, take pictures, or publish texts, freely sharing their works online. People create and share free software such as the GNU/Linux operating system and the Firefox web browser. Others set up wireless community networks and still others devise open hardware and open designs, freely sharing designs and blueprints of furniture, clothes, machines and other items.

Commons-based peer production is no longer a marginal phenomenon, but an essential part of the modern world. The Internet largely runs on free software; Wikipedia has become a primary source of information for many people.

Peer production is benefit-driven: in contrast to capitalist production, the goal is not to “make money” (turn money into more). Instead, the specific needs, desires, and goals of the participants determine what happens. This changes the nature of the activity: many of the participants don’t get involved in order to make money (though that happens as well), but because they like doing the things they can do there or out of an interest in the goods produced (e.g. the free software developed in a project). Other frequently pursued goals are to learn something or “to give something back to the community” (cf. Lakhani and Wolf 2005).

Such peer production is no longer “work” in the traditional sense. The Wikipedia works only because its founders managed to replace the tedious and monotonous work of encyclopedia writing by a process that’s easy to start with and that people enjoy doing.

Rather than creating commodities that can be sold with a profit, peer producers jointly create, maintain and foster commons: resources and goods that are developed and maintained by a community and shared according to community-defined rules. It’s important to note that the community makes its own rules—they aren’t predefined or imposed from above. Commons are usually shared among the community members or beyond—free software and free content are commons that everyone can use and improve, without exclusions. Free licenses (such as the GNU GPL and the Creative Commons licenses) codify these community rules in a way that makes them legally binding.

Since cooperation in peer projects is voluntary, no one is forced to handle specific tasks. The way of distributing tasks in such projects is often called stigmergic (cf. Heylighen 2007). Participants leave hints about tasks they have started and things they would like to see, encouraging others to take over. Bug reports in software projects and “red links” (pointing to missing articles) in the Wikipedia are examples of such hints. These hints provide orientation to newcomers and to participants that have completed some tasks and are looking for something new. The more participants care for a task, the more visible the hints pointing to it will become, increasing the chance that somebody starts working on it.

Can peer production achieve that which capitalism cannot: produce plenty (in the sense of “what you need, when you need it”) for everyone? Not just in some specific areas (e.g. software) and not just for some people, but in all areas, for everybody?

To make this possible, peer production needs to grow beyond the immaterial into the material world, producing not just information, but also physical goods and services. But is that even possible? “An abundance of information about how we might make things is not the same as an abundance of things—it is an abundance of recipes not an abundance of food,” the economist and community activist Brian Davey (2010) argues, complaining that commons-based peer production can produce only the information (recipes), but not the physical things (food). The underlying notion, shared by both proponents and critics of peer production, is that it excels in the sphere of information, which is so easy to copy and change, but fails in the material world, which isn’t.

But this argument misses the fact that it’s not an inherent property of information that makes it so easy to copy, but rather a question of infrastructure. 30 years ago, only corporations with extremely expensive specialized machinery were able to losslessly reproduce music, as Glyn Moody (2010) points out. Only the spread of broadband Internet connections and sufficiently large hard discs made it commonplace.

Similar developments regarding the production of physical things are not only possible—in some areas, they are already under way. The reproduction of physical things is possible if three conditions are met: you need access to the complete design, to the required resources and to the necessary means of production. In the following section, I will try to briefly outline how generalized peer production may become able to fulfill these conditions.

[Second part]

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