Law in the Internet Society

Social Production: Here to stay or just a passing fad?

The authoring of The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler has placed questions of social production and the liberal society front and center. Skeptics of Benkler might argue that once a kibbutznik always a kibbutznik; and that perhaps Benkler, once the treasurer of kibbutz, is just harking back to his past when he writes that social production can succeed anew in the networked internet society. However sympathetically one might view his claims, and I have significant sympathy for them, I still wonder whether the model of peer production is sustainable and whether it will be crowded out? (In my earlier paper I examined why it appears to be working in the production of free software whereas in this paper I consider social production from a broader perspective.)

A reasonable critique of social production ideas are that prior experiences shows they have not continued in the long run. Here the arguments fall into two groups

(1) Properties internal to such systems make them unsustainable by design and result in failure in the long run.

(2) An external factor results in their decay and consequent crowding out.

I will deal with the arguments in sequence and argue that the problems with social production in the past are not present when considering the production of digital property in the internet society.


In the past experiments in shared property and communal production have occurred in specific geographic locations. Two good examples of these efforts are the Shaker and Kibbutz movements. Even today, where there are few Shakers, the early leadership of Ann Lee is credited with generating a communalism which left the world with prized furniture and innovations such as the flat broom and the circular saw. The Kibbutz movement which started in the early 1900's when, arguably, sole proprietors could not have survived as agriculturalists in what is now modern day Israel has had more success and morphed with the times and though nowadays doesn't resemble its earlier incarnations it continues exist in Israel.

Crowding Out

The crowding out argument is one easily leveled at modern social production processes. Here the argument goes that even though the kibbutz has survived for the most part it has done so by acceding to capitalist processes – members have been assigned shares which they can trade or bequeath just like any other property; Shaker production methods have not been adopted by non shaker groups as they are just less competitive. Traditional English common land, though it still exists has gradually been enclosed and replaced by ownership of parcels by individuals. The argument is that it is only a matter of time before these methods become part of history as they are simply less efficient than individualistic processes.

Despite the failure of the Shaker movement and the morphing of the kibbutz movement both of these examples suggest that communal ownership structures can have both efficacy and survive through generations, though only if leadership can pass from generation and with norms which provide for generative redevelopment or innovation of the communal concept. The Shakers' lack of sustainability was not a result of productive failure but rather because of the celibacy requirement, and a change in government regulation that stopped adoption of children by religious groups. In many ways the Shaker case could be seen rather as lending credence to the idea that a charismatic leader, a strict creed, and responsiveness to the outside environment rather than anything else. The Kibbutz case can be read similarly - It is isn't that these processes can't work it is that they need to have certain properties which have been difficult to sustain.

Sustainability and crowding out of digital social production

What is not accounted for in these examples is the case where the productive output of such activity is given away or compulsorily shared (as in the case of software produced under the GPL) with even those not involved in its production. Moreover, in none of these examples is the marginal cost of such a gift effectively zero. These two new norms alongside a community structure that is, in its population and complexity, on a different scale and geographic range than previous experiments virtually eliminates the likelihood that the experiment will be unable to innovate in response to outside pressures or internal changes. Moreover, by preventing the subsequent enclosure of the property created, as digital sharing licenses do, much as Shakers didn't patent their inventions, it suggests perhaps that digital sharing communities are premised on the same generous nature of contributors of past communities. Moreover, as a result it is possible that they self-select participants who are better at collaboration in the now almost frictionless world.

Can't we see social production in the economic sphere as an extension of social production in other spaces?

Perhaps these norms of sharing, though they are in defense of a mode of production, are perhaps more easily compared to folk art or possibly architecture. Folk art prized not for its originality, but produced as a cultural artifact to be shared is not something that succeeds through enclosure. Public physical architecture maybe an even closer analogue - an architect can come up with a form or concept but ultimately the working space could not operate, or come into being or gain importance without the acceptance of many actors who are not paid. The architect is only paid once and after handing over his drawings could not imagine extracting rent from those who walk through it when it is built and use it on a day to day basis.

Perhaps it is not so surprising that networks of peer producers are developing the software architecture of the next century using modes of organization that owe more to the public private partnerships, community engagement processes and participation required in the development of a lived space since software is digital architecture. I wonder if in the digital fields communal production norms might crowd out the traditional 20th century mode of production - the joint stock company.

History suggests that those aspects which have resulted in failure of communal production experiments are not as present in the internet society. Moreover, there are other analogies which suggest its success.

-- TomGlaisyer - 10 December 2008

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r8 - 23 Dec 2008 - 21:03:45 - TomGlaisyer
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