At the beginning of the 21st century, a new world is emerging. Not since Marx identified the manufacturing plants of Manchester as the blueprint for the new capitalist society has there been a deeper transformation of the fundamentals of our socioeconomic life. A new commons-based mode of production, enabled by information and communication technology (ICT), what we now call digitisation, redefines how we (can) produce, consume and distribute. This pathway is exemplified by interconnected collaborative initiatives that produce a wide range of artifacts, from encyclopaedias and software to agricultural machines, wind turbines, satellites and prosthetics…
As recently as two decades ago, most people would have thought it absurd to countenance a free and open encyclopaedia, produced by a community of dispersed enthusiasts primarily driven by other motives than profit-maximisation, and the idea that this might displace the corporate-organised Encyclopaedia Britannica and Microsoft Encarta would have seemed preposterous. Similarly, very few people would have thought it possible that the top 500 supercomputers and the majority of websites would run on software produced in the same way, or that non-coercive cooperation using globally shared resources could produce artifacts as effectively as those produced by industrial capitalism, but more sustainably. It would have been unimaginable that such things should have been created through processes that were far more pleasant than the work conditions that typically result in such products.
Commons-based production goes against many of the assumptions of mainstream, standard-textbook economists. Individuals primarily motivated by their interest to maximise profit, competition and private property are the Holy Grail of innovation and progress – more than that: of freedom and liberty themselves. One should never forget these two everlasting ‘truths’ if one wants to understand the economy and the world, we are told. These are the two premises of the free-market economics that have dominated the discourse until today.
So, is GNU/Linux, the free and open-source software that drives those 500 supercomputers, an exception that proves the rule? What about the Apache HTTP Server, the leading software in the web-server market, or Wikipedia? The legal scholar Yochai Benkler at Harvard University was one of the first to observe that such commons-based projects are by now too common to be considered anomalies. Already a decade ago (when smartphones were a novelty), Benkler argued in The Wealth of Networks (2006) that a new mode of production was emerging that would shape how we produce and consume information. He called this mode ‘commons-based peer production’ and claimed that it can deliver better artifacts while promoting another aspect of human nature: social cooperation. Digitisation does not change the human person (in this respect), it just allows her to develop in ways that had previously been blocked, whether by chance or design. [Continue reading…]