Network Civilization Video

10Mar10

Michel Bauwens is a world wide promoter of what he calls p2p economy. In this introductory lecture Bauwens introduces the most important building blocks for his thinking. The lecture was given at the College of Social and Behavior Science Center for Communication for Sustainable Social Change on November 25, 2008 and originally called ‘Network Civilization’. I liked the video a lot, although I must say that my limited background in economics does make it difficult for me to grasp everything completely. I will try to be as correct as I can in my summary and commentary.

Summary

In the video Bauwens argues we are at a turning point (a ‘peak oil’ situation) in the organization of our economic system. Systems designed in a peer production way (peer production the non hierarchical organization behind Linux, other open source software projects and Wikipedia) are outperforming those delivered by classical capitalist players. When Netscape disappeared Internet Explorer did not innovate anymore, until Firefox (open source) came along. What is special about these peer produced products is that small group dynamics seem to govern a globally coordinated effort to create value for everyone. How can we explain the success of these open systems?

According to Bauwens motivation plays an important role. In this respect he makes a distinction between 3 social systems. There is a hierarchical system where rulers tell others what to do (e.g. slavery) which capitalizes on an extrinsic negative motivation (I will do this because otherwise you harm me), there is the classical capitalist system which capitalizes on an extrinsic positive motivation (I will do this because with the wages I can support my family) and there is the peer production system which leads to an intrinsic positive motivation (I will do this because I want to contribute to the greater good this way). The last system is a ‘winning’ system because intrinsic motivation is making people more productive. Another distinction that is relevant for understanding peer production is a distinction between ‘sharing systems’ such as YouTube or Flickr and ‘commons systems’ such as open source software communities. The difference is that in the latter type there is a ‘shared object’ – people make something together, creating stronger ties between the people and more sustainable value. While YouTube and Flickr democratize the creation of value (everyone is a journalist, photographer, film maker, tv station owner) they do not democratize the ‘capturing’ of this value (Google and Flickr) own the site.

Bauwens highlights a couple of difficulties with the p2p production system. First, voluntary contribution to a community like Wikipedia is sustainable for the group but not sustainable for the individual. Contributing to Wikipedia does not pay the bills. Attempts to pay people for their contributions in p2p projects have failed because they kill the ‘spirit’ of p2p production. Second, while getting many volunteers together in a ‘for benefit’ project does not take up resources, providing them with the infrastructure does. Wikipedia has difficulties keeping up its server networks because these need to be paid with donations. Linux is supported by ‘real’ companies like IBM to keep up the ‘good work’. This mix of a traditional capitalist model with the new p2p production model seems to lead to an intricate and fragile balance. Finally, while Bauwens believes the p2p production model can be extended to physical products (open source laptop, open source car) the design would be p2p, while the actual production would not follow the commons model.

Commentary

I like Bauwens line of thinking for its thoroughness and innovative feel but it has an utopian touch that I find disconcerting. Surely Wikipedia and Linux are appealing because they have an altruistic, non-hierarchical appeal, but it is also a niche endeavor. Does this scale to society at large? Wikipedia is often seen as a worldwide collaborative effort of millions of people, but in practice the load of the work is done by a couple of thousand enthusiasts. Will this sustain? Indeed, when Netscape went down Internet Explorer stopped innovating until Firefox came along. But once Microsoft woke up, they did a wonderful upgrade, improving substantially on what Firefox had been developing over the eight preceding years. As a long standing end user of Mozilla Thunderbird (open source) and Microsoft Outlook (capitalist) I must say that the innovations have happened at Microsoft’s side, not Mozilla’s. Maybe the innovation is a result of competition between products, not between organizational models? To put it bluntly: maybe big companies have the possibility to invest in terms of money, coordinated effort, usability testing, hiring knowledgeable people etc. while open source communities thrive on highly motivated people improving on each other’s work. In some sectors such as software these models are really competitive, but in other sectors, the classical model may win easily. I am curious to find out which sectors are likely targets for P2P developments and which sectors are ‘safe’. I believe that currently the open source and p2p communities can be successful because the since people build the knowledge and skill that they bring into Wikipedia and Linux in the ‘old’ system. Surely, knowledge and skill are also fruits of the p2p system, but right now I still need to be convinced that this will be possible in a self sustaining way.

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