Emergence of Peer Production Theory

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George Dafermos:

"The theory of peer production emerged in the new millennium. Israeli-American law scholar Yochai Benkler has been commonly credited with coining the term, which is first introduced in a paper he published in the Yale Law Journal in 2002. In that paper, titled “Coase’s Penguin or Linux and the Nature of the Firm,” Benkler detects in the development model of Linux the emergence of a “third mode of production” on the Internet, which is distinct from both markets and firms, as neither the motivation of participants, nor the coordination of their work, is achieved through “market prices or managerial commands.” Here, Benkler argues for the first time that the development of free and open source software (F/OSS) projects like Linux cannot be accounted for by financial incentives: the majority of participants are volunteers, who are mobilized, above all, by intrinsic motivations such as creativity and self-fulfillment at work. The other main point that he makes in this article concerns the anti-hierarchical organizational structure of these projects. For Benkler, the reason why Linux is paradigmatic of the model of “peer production” is precisely because its developers self-select the tasks they perform and coordinate their work without bureaucrats and bosses. Benkler continued to work on these ideas and four years later he published his magnum opus, The Wealth of Networks (2006), in which he expanded on his definition of peer production, clarifying its characteristics and analyzing its various types and forms. The influence of the Wealth of Networks was enormous: it remains to this day the most influential writing on peer production.

It established Benkler as a leading theorist of commons-oriented peer production and played an important role in establishing peer production, distributed networks and the digital commons as a promising research field in the social sciences, thereby giving many academic researchers an incentive to engage with the subject. However, Benkler was not the only prominent figure in the early years of the development of the theory. Equally influential was the work of Belgian intellectual Michel Bauwens on the other side of the Atlantic, who had already from the early 2000s began to theorize “peer-to-peer” as a new template for society, economy and politics (see, for example, Bauwens, 2002). The views of those two thinkers had much in common. Bauwens’ theories were based on a similar analysis of Linux and F/OSS as an alternative mode of production, governance and property (Bauwens, 2002, 2005). Like Benkler, Bauwens argued that peer production is a mode of production that is neither directed to market exchange, nor governed by bureaucrats and managers. He, too, emphasized that it is inseparable from a commons-based property regime.

The only substantial point on which his views differed from Benkler’s was with regard to peer production's transcendent character: they shared the conviction that the phenomenon of peer production was bound to spread beyond the confines of the software industry, but Bauwens went even further, arguing that peer production has “the potential to succeed capitalism as the core value and organizational model of a post-capitalist society” (Bauwens, 2012). Aside from this crucial point, the differences between their theories do not so much lie in their content, as in their “targeting” and mode of diffusion. Benkler’s work was very well-received by the academic community, but Bauwens’ discourse appealed to a different audience. As an Internet-age intellectual, Bauwens was an active participant in online mailing lists and discussion forums related to peer production theory. His passionate and provocative contributions to these debates influenced many “netizens” much more than Benkler’s dense academic prose." (http://peerproduction.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Chapter-07_Prophets-and-Advocates-of-Peer-Production.pdf)


* Article: Prophets and Advocates of Peer Production. By George Dafermos. Chapter 7: The Handbook of Peer Production. Wiley, 2020

URL = http://peerproduction.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Chapter-07_Prophets-and-Advocates-of-Peer-Production.pdf [1]