Peer production between real utopia and naive Coaseanism?

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell and others recently held a book seminar to discuss Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway. The symposium led to an extended discussion between Henry, Cory, Henry again, and Yochai Benkler about Benkler’s early work on commons-based peer production, spaces of resistance in the contemporary information economy, and the state of peer production a little over fifteen years since Benkler introduced the term. This (far too long) post summarizes some of their key points as a way of starting to collect my own thoughts on these questions.

I haven’t read Walkaway yet (downloaded my DRM-free digital copy, but the fiction slot in my brain is currently occupied by Philip Pullman’s totally engrossing La Belle Sauvage), but I can’t wait to get to it. Cory says the book started as an exercise in projecting how the sociotechnical transformations Benkler laid out in Coase’s Penguin might facilitate the spread of utopian energies at the periphery of radically unequal societies not so different from our own:

It’s been 15 years since Benkler made the connection between “commons-based peer-production” and Coase…

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom projected Slashdot karma and Napster superdistribution across a whole society as a way of illuminating the strengths and weaknesses of both. Walkaway tries to do the same with commons-based peer-production: what would a skyscraper look like if it was a Wikipedia-style project? How about a space program?

As a Coasean tale, Walkaway is one the battleground between the technological, Promethean left—which has promised to lift peasants up to the material comfort of lords—and the de-growth green left, which promises to bring lords down to the level of the peasants in the name of saving the planet.

and later:

This is (in my view) a Utopian vision. It supposes that the Bohemian projects that even the most buttoned-down societies allow at their margins can breed real discontent and nurture and sustain it into something that genuinely challenges its host… They provided real-world lessons on which tactics worked and where the weaknesses were. They were battles, not the war. The only thing more extraordinary than a social justice prevailing at all is for it to prevail on its first outing, or second, or third.

In his contribution to the seminar, Henry points to Cory’s assumption that “exit” (in Hircshman’s sense) remains viable in a society pervaded by vast power inequalities, surveillance capabilities, and an (increasingly weaponized) disregard for privacy:

Again, Doctorow’s book isn’t an exercise in predictive science – he’s not saying that things will be so. But he is saying, I think, that things could and should be so, or sort-of so. Walkaway is quite unashamedly a didactic book in the way that earlier books such as Homeland were didactic – he has a very clear message to get across. In conversations with Steve Berlin Johnson years ago, I came up with the term BoingBoing Socialism to refer to a specific set of ideas associated with Doctorow and the people around him – that free exchange of ideas unimpeded by intellectual property law and the like, together with transformative technologies of manufacture, could open up a path towards a radically egalitarian future. Unless I’m seriously mistaken (in which case I’m sure that Doctorow will tell me), Walkaway wants to do two things – to argue for why such a future might be attractive, and to suggest that something like this future could be feasible.

For Henry, the implications boil down to questions of power and the role powerful entities play in shaping the lives of even the most peripheral, socially excluded groups within a society. He also (later on) expresses skepticism at the political prospects of the revolutionary vision of “BoingBoing Socialism” that adopts a rhetoric of contingency and self-marginalization as its platform for change.

Ronald Coase. 2003, U of Chicago Law School.

In a followup post, Henry elaborates a claim that Benkler engaged in a sort of naive Coasean disregard for power relations when he laid out the definitional statements on peer production. Henry says Benkler emphasized transaction cost and efficiency-centric explanations for the potential of peer production to substitute for firm or market-based modes of knowledge production and exchange:

Power relationships often explain who gets what, and which forms of organization are taken up, and which fall by the wayside. In general, forms of production that are (a) more efficient, but (b) inconvenient or unprofitable for powerful actors, are probably not going to be taken up, since those powerful actors will block them. Yet if one starts from an efficiency perspective, it is very hard to build power relations in, since one believes that change in practices and institutions is not driven by power relations but by efficiency.

and later:

What this means, if you take it seriously, is that Coaseian coordination is a special case of bargaining. Broadly speaking, Coaseian processes will lead to efficient outcomes only under very specific circumstances – when the actors have symmetrical breakdown values, as in the first game, so that neither of them is able to prevail over the other. More simply put, the Coase transaction cost account of how efficient institutions emerge will only work when all actors are more or less equally powerful. Under these conditions, it is perfectly alright to assume as Coase (and Benkler by extension) do, that efficiency considerations rather than power relations will drive change. In contrast, where there are significant differences of power, actors will converge on the institutions that reflect the preferences of powerful actors, even if those institutions are not the most efficient possible.

and finally:

In short – we need to distinguish between the rhetorical claims that technological change will bring openness along with it, and the (far more sustainable) claim that technology will probably only have openness enhancing benefits in a world where we are already dealing with the underlying power relations.

Benkler responds that Farrell is right to question his (Benkler’s) approach to power, but wrong in that the failure of his (Benkler’s) arguments in Coase’s Penguin and The Wealth of Networks is not driven by naive Coaseanism, but a different dimension of power entirely:

My primary mistake in my work fifteen years ago, and even ten, was not ignoring the role of power in shaping market patterns, but in understating the extent to which the new “market actors who will build the tools that make this population better able…” will themselves become the new incumbent market actors who will shape the environment to increase and lock-in their power. That is certainly a mistake in reading the landscape of power grabs, and I have tried to correct over the intervening years, most recently by offering a map of what has developed in the past decade…

In other words, today’s Benkler argues that yesterday’s Benkler underestimated the adaptive capacities of various incumbent powers as well as the way that a continuously shifting technical, regulatory, and political environment would alter the landscape along the way.

All of this speaks to an ongoing conversation Mako and I have been having about the past, present, and future of peer production. A pessimistic account might run like this: peer production thrived from ~1995-2008 in part because incumbent firms and private actors had not figured out how to capitalize on the possibilities for community-based provision of resources unlocked by the diffusion of digitally networked communications infrastructure. Now that increasing numbers of firms have done so, there is no going back. Large firms as well as their venture-funded spawn will continue to eat peer production communities’ lunch, undermining their viability as well as their autonomy. Peer production as we know it will eventually disappear, becoming a curious relic of a more naive era when the electronic frontier remained an unsettled, experimental space.

Another possibility, arguably more optimistic, can be seen in Benkler and Doctorow’s contributions to this exchange. Rather than consigning peer production to the dustbin of history, they both suggest that room for maneuver (or “degrees of freedom” in Benkler’s terms) will remain at the margins of the networked information economy and that communities of “walkaways” may persist in experimenting with “real utopian” autonomous alternatives to the more extractive, winner-take-all models of “supercapitalist” knowledge production and exchange. Doctorow’s fiction seems to explore the (hopeful) potential of these walkaway communities to generate radical, systematic transformation. Benkler, in his more recent writings, holds out some hope, but of a highly contingent, tenuous, and circumscribed sort.

The original posts are worth a read.

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