ⓘ Commons-based peer production


ⓘ Commons-based peer production

Commons-based peer production is a term coined by Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler. It describes a model of socio-economic production in which large numbers of people work cooperatively; usually over the Internet. Commons-based projects generally have less rigid hierarchical structures than those under more traditional business models. Often - but not always - commons-based projects are designed without a need for financial compensation for contributors. For example, sharing of STL design files for objects freely on the internet enables anyone with a 3-D printer to digitally replicate the object saving the prosumer significant money.

The term is often used interchangeably with the term social production.


1. Overview

Benkler contrasts commons-based peer production with firm production, in which tasks are delegated based on a central decision-making process, and market-based production, in which allocating different prices to different tasks serves as an incentive to anyone interested in performing a task.

Benkler first introduced the term in his 2002 paper "Coases Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm", whose title refers to the Linux mascot and to Ronald Coase, who originated the transaction costs theory of the firm that provides the methodological template for the papers analysis of peer production. The paper cites Eben Moglen as the originator of the concept.

In his book The Wealth of Networks 2006, Benkler significantly expands on his definition of commons-based peer production. According to Benkler, what distinguishes commons-based production is that it doesnt rely upon or propagate proprietary knowledge: "The inputs and outputs of the process are shared, freely or conditionally, in an institutional form that leaves them equally available for all to use as they choose at their individual discretion." To ensure that the knowledge generated is available for free use, commons-based projects are often shared under an open license.

Not all commons-based production necessarily qualifies as commons-based peer production. According to Benkler, peer production is defined not only by the openness of its outputs, but also by a decentralized, participant-driven working method of working.

Peer production enterprises have two primary advantages over traditional hierarchical approaches to production:

  • Great variability of human and information resources: leads to substantial increasing returns to scale to the number of people, and resources and projects that may be accomplished without need for a contract or other factor permitting the proper use of the resource for a project.
  • Information gain: Peer production allows individuals to self-assign tasks that suit their own skills, expertise, and interests. Contributors can generate dynamic content that reflects the individual skills and the "variability of human creativity."

In Wikinomics, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams suggest an incentive mechanism behind common-based peer production. "People participate in peer production communities," they write, "for a wide range of intrinsic and self-interested reasons.basically, people who participate in peer production communities love it. They feel passionate about their particular area of expertise and revel in creating something new or better."

Aaron Krowne offers another definition:

commons-based peer production refers to any coordinated, chiefly internet-based effort whereby volunteers contribute project components, and there exists some process to combine them to produce a unified intellectual work. CBPP covers many different types of intellectual output, from software to libraries of quantitative data to human-readable documents.


2. Principles

First, the potential goals of peer production must be modular. In other words, objectives must be divisible into components, or modules, each of which can be independently produced. That allows participants to work asynchronously, without having to wait for each others contributions or coordinate with each other in person.

Second, the granularity of the modules is essential. Granularity refers to the degree to which objects are broken down into smaller pieces module size. Different levels of granularity will allow people with different levels of motivation to work together by contributing small or large grained modules, consistent with their level of interest in the project and their motivation.

Third, a successful peer-production enterprise must have low-cost integration - the mechanism by which the modules are integrated into a whole end product. Thus, integration must include both quality controls over the modules and a mechanism for integrating the contributions into the finished product at relatively low cost.


3. Examples

Examples of projects using commons-based peer production include:

  • GNU, a computer operating system generally used in conjunction with the kernel Linux
  • Community Garden, where people work together to grow things and then share the fruits of their labor.
  • Zamphyr, a free education school for computer science
  • Firefox, a free and open source web browser
  • Pirate Bay, a shared index of bittorrents under legal scrutiny in Sweden as of February 2009
  • Wikiprogress, a project for collecting information and data on measuring the progress of societies
  • Linux, a computer operating system kernel
  • RepRap Project, a project to create an open-source self-copying 3D printer.
  • Appropedia, a project for the development of open-source-appropriate technology
  • Sourceforge, a software development organization
  • SETI home, a project which searches for extra terrestrial life
  • Sensorica, a hardware development network-organization using the open value network model.
  • Ushahidi, crowdsourced maps
  • Clickworkers, a citizen science program
  • Slashdot, a news and announcements website
  • OpenStreetMap, a free map of the world
  • GROWL, a degrowth education network producing open materials and curricula
  • Kuro5hin, a discussion site for technology and culture
  • Open Source Ecology, a project for designing and building open source industrial machines, fabricated by eXtreme Manufacturing
  • Distributed Proofreaders, which proof reads public domain etexts for publication on Project Gutenberg
  • Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia


4. Outgrowths

Several outgrowths have been:

  • Cross-fertilization: Experts in a field can work on more than one project with no legal hassles.
  • Technology Clustering: Groups of products tend to cluster around a core set of technology and integrate with one another.
  • Longevity: Once code is released under a copyleft free software license it is almost impossible to remove it from the public domain.
  • Technology Revisions: A core technology gives rise to new implementations of existing projects.
  • Customization/Specialization: With free and open-source software small groups have the capability to customize a large project according to specific needs. With the rise of low-cost 3-D printing, and other digital manufacturing techniques this is now also becoming true of open source hardware.

5. Related concepts

Interrelated concepts to Commons-based peer production are the processes of peer governance and peer property. To begin with, peer governance is a new mode of governance and bottom-up mode of participative decision-making that is being experimented in peer projects, such as Wikipedia and FLOSS; thus peer governance is the way that peer production, the process in which common value is produced, is managed. Peer Property indicates the innovative nature of legal forms such as the General Public License, the Creative Commons, etc. Whereas traditional forms of property are exclusionary "if it is mine, it is not yours", peer property forms are inclusionary. It is from all of us, i.e. also for you, provided you respect the basic rules laid out in the license, such as the openness of the source code for example.

The ease of entering and leaving an organization is a feature of adhocracies.

The principle of commons-based peer production is similar to collective invention, a model of open innovation in economics coined by Robert Allen.

Also related: Open-source economics and Commercial use of copyleft works.


6. Criticism

Some believe that the commons-based peer production CBPP vision, while powerful and groundbreaking, needs to be strengthened at its root because of some allegedly wrong assumptions concerning free and open-source software FOSS.

The CBPP literature regularly and explicitly quotes FOSS products as examples of artifacts "emerging" by virtue of mere cooperation, with no need for supervising leadership without "market signals or managerial commands", in Benkler’s words.

It can be argued, however, that in the development of any less than trivial piece of software, irrespective of whether it be FOSS or proprietary, a subset of the many participants always play - explicitly and deliberately - the role of leading system and subsystem designers, determining architecture and functionality, while most of the people work" underneath” them in a logical, functional sense.


7. Commons Based Peer Production & Capitalism

  • A socio-economic shift pursued by CBPP will not be straightforward or lead to a utopia, it could help solve some current issues. As any economic transition, new problems will emerge and the transition will be complicated. But, moving towards a CBPP production model will be ideal, a step forward for society.
  • Commons Based Peer Production CBPP represents an alternative form of production from traditional capitalism. Nevertheless, to this day CBPP is still a prototype of a new way of producing, it cannot be called a complete form of production by itself. CBPP is embedded in the Capitalist system and even though the processes and forms of production differ it is still mutually dependent to Capital. If CBPP triumphs in its implementation the market and state will not disappear, but their relationship with the means of production will be modified.
  • In a society led by commons the market would continue to exist as in capitalism, but would shift from being mainly extractive to being predominantly generative.
  • CBPP is still a prototype of what a new way of production and society would look like, and can’t separate itself completely from capitalism: commoners should find innovative ways to become more autonomous from capitalism.

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