Political Economy of Information Production in the Social Web

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PhD Thesis

* PhD Thesis: The Political Economy of Information Production in the Social Web: Towards a “Partner State Approach”. By Vasilis Kostakis. TUT Press, 2011.

URL = http://digi.lib.ttu.ee/i/?610 (download version)

Thesis at the Tallinn University of Technology Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Public Administration, Chair of Governance


Summary

In a globalised world, where a considerable number of nations move on towards information-based structures of society (references in article ΙΙΙ), it becomes obvious that the impact of the Internet extends beyond a restricted technocratic sphere. In this research project, some of the interrelations of Internet (with a focus on Social Web), Society and Democracy are discussed, on a dialectical spectrum. This study looks, within an ambivalent context that does not ignore the problems and threats, for the possibilities for human progress, with the aim to contribute to the understanding of the phenomena under investigation (with a focus on chances and positive results), following the approach of the Frankfurt School and especially Horkheimer’s thought.

First, I explain how the essential concepts of “information production” and “Social Web” are understood and used here. Then, I assume that information production on the Web is mainly taking place within either proprietary-based or Commons-based platforms. The productive processes of these two distinct “workplaces” of information production not only share certain characteristics, but also have several crucial differences. Light is shed on the structural relationships of information production with a focus on certain essential concepts for political economy, i.e. labour, property and governance. In proprietary-based platforms, it might seem that we have a win-win model with profit generation for the owners and satisfaction of users’ higher needs such as communication, reputation-building and knowledge gain. (article I, ΙV) The owners of the platforms renounce their dependence on the regime of artificial scarcity, celebrating an age of information abundance while enabling social participation. (article I, ΙV) However, the architecture of proprietary platforms combines open and closed elements to ensure a measure of profit and control. (article I) This makes proprietary platforms dangerous as trustees of the common use value. (article I) Moreover, issues and problems such as privacy and electronic surveillance; commodified virtual communities and exploitation; and online manipulation and control, come to the fore due to owners’ speculative nature. (article I)

On the other hand, the information Commons economy includes new modes of production, property and governance (see articles II, III, IV) that seem capable of contributing to the transformation of modern capitalism into a consensual form of socio-economic life. This Commons-based paradigm suggests ways of allocating resources without the guidance of either state-planning or markets (articles II, III, IV, V) and producing information use value through collaborative, social production models. (articles I, II, III, IV, V) It becomes evident that the Internet and its Social Web platforms exhibit both emancipatory and exploitative aspects, and the political struggle of online communities and users is to foster the one over the other. (article I)

Next, I attempt to provide answers to the question whether, in spite of the fact that new forms of control, censorship and exploitation are emerging, the new Commons-based modes of labour, production, property and governance can nevertheless redefine modern democracies. It is stated that the information Commons, which can be considered to be a distinct sector of economic production and social experience, both complement and compete with markets, being an arena of social association, self-governance and collective provisioning: “In a sense, the commons sector is a recapitulation of civil society, as described by Alexis de Tocqueville, but with different capacities.” (Bollier 2009, 295)

Then I address those capacities with their deficiencies, arguing and showing how the Commons-based modes of labour, production, property and governance can permeate and impregnate states and markets, giving rise to the concept of the Partner State and getting closer to the realisation of a democratic Utopia, which, according to Horkheimer (1993, 21), “has as its object human beings as producers of their own historical form of life.” The Partner State Approach (PSA) is a cluster of policies and ideas whose fundamental mission is to enable and empower direct social-value creation by user communities and to focus on the protection of the Commons sphere (both physical and information) as well as on the promotion of sustainable models of entrepreneurship and participatory politics. While people continue to enrich and expand the information Commons, building an alternative political economy within capitalism, by adopting a PSA, the state becomes an arbiter, retreating from the binary state/privatisation dilemma to the triarchical choice of an optimal mix amongst government regulation, private-market freedom and autonomous civil-society projects. (Bauwens 2010) Thus, the role of the state evolves from the post-World War II welfare-state model to the Partner-State one, which embraces win-win sustainable models for both civil society and the market.

Next, not neglecting the ambivalent context within information Commons’ flourish and using Bauwens’ thought as a point of departure (2009), I try to systematise the concept of PSA around two crucial spheres of human social life: economy and politics. Moreover, in relation to the debate about the concept of the Neo-Weberian State (NWS) and the demise of the New Public Management (NPM), I argue that although NWS takes into consideration the genuine lessons learned from the NPM experience, it may tend to go back to top-down forms of governance, which are too rigid and inflexible to meet citizens’ increased demands as generally postulated. (Dunn and Miller 2007) One could also claim that the NWS is, after all and in spite of any updates, a historical concept, and as societies and individuals substantially change over time and have indeed experienced great changes under the influence of technology (article IV), most recently and still currently ICT, new claims and expectations should be counted in the formulation of PA reforms, because they address human living-together today and thus must adapt to them. (Drechsler 2011) Thus, I articulate that these new claims and expectations can be found in a particularly strong and pronounced way in the political economy of the Commons-based peer production (article IV): “With attention to the specific local reality” (Drechsler 2005a), the aforementioned offers interesting chances for successful PA reform stressing the essence and the importance of abundance, distribution and intrinsic positive motivation (article IV) for the Horkheimerian perspective of a just society.

Furthermore, I discuss what effects the Commons-based information production can have on enhancing and enriching the modern democratic structures in a PSA. The dangers of such a shift in the democratic process are described, and it is attempted to examine whether and how participatory ICT can facilitate an environment for peer production in the political field. In article III, I introduce the concepts of open-source democracy and wikipolitics, which are discussed under a critical eye. On the one hand, it has been realised that modern ICT offers new ways for humans to produce and organise their economic, cultural and political lives, as the economically advanced world seems to shift towards new paradigms, which are apparently less hierarchical and more transparent, based on an ethos that entertains openness, participation and co-operation in various fields of human activity. (article III) However, based on literature and on the study of four distinct cases (articles ΙΙ, ΙΙΙ), I conclude that despite the fact that open-source democracy introduces new forms of democratic practice which constitute a ray of hope for a consensual form of social life, it has to go a long way towards rebuilding what can be criticised as the intolerant, alienated civilisation of the modern world. While ICT is rapidly evolving, and the actual application and practices are quite recent, and reliable empirical data are rare, it becomes, or remains, considerably difficult to assess the future of democracy. (article ΙΙΙ) It seems that it is good advice to “take a step back and look at the issue from the perspective of what the human person can and should be, and then consider what network technology generally … does.” (Drechsler 2004, 16)

Just lifted from its cradle, a PSA requires much public debate, time, experimentation as well as numerous political struggles to take place. These are not (and should not be) battles in which a class merely fights against another class, but creative struggles where the multitudes strive for the Commons sphere. From the struggles for the independence of the Internet and the sustainability of peer-production projects (see article Ι) to the promotion of distributed energy production (see article V), it is necessary for the masses to realise that their seemingly irrelevant political agendas actually share a common purpose: The enforcement of the Commons sphere. At the same time, seeing that Commons-based production is more productive regarding the immaterial field (references in articles ΙΙ, ΙV), states should enable and empower direct social-value creation (article IV); promote Commons-oriented modes of entrepreneurship; and experiment with open-source democracy and wikipolitics, for the moment, in small-scale projects (see article III). Hopefully, the theory of PSA could connect with those tasks, “which in the particular historical moment are taken up by progressive social forces”, i.e., not by “the whole mankind … in the first instance” but by “those groups which are interested in the tasks” (in Held 1980, 192), and capture Horkheimer’s strife for human emancipation in order to create rational social conditions, as described in his work.

More Information

The dissertation is based on the following original publications:

I Kostakis, Vasileios. 2009. “The Amateur Class, or, The Reserve Army of the Web.” Rethinking Marxism 21 (3), 457-461.

II Kostakis, Vasileios. 2010. “Identifying and Understanding the Problems of Wikipedia’s Peer Governance.” First Monday 15 (3), March. Available at http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2613/2479.

III Kostakis, Vasileios. 2011. “The Advent of Open Source Democracy and Wikipolitics: Challenges, Threats and Opportunities for Democratic Discourse.” Human Technology: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Humans in ICT Environments 7 (1), 9-29.

IV Kostakis, Vasileios. 2011. “Commons-Based Peer Production and the Neo-Weberian State: Synergies and Interdependencies.” Halduskultuur – Administrative Culture, xxx - xxx (forthcoming).

APPENDIX

V Papanikolaou, George and Vasileios Kostakis. 2011. “An Essay on P2P Energy Policy.” In R. Smite, A. Medosch, K. Mey and R. Smits (eds). Acoustic Space No. 8: ENERGY. Riga: RIXC; Liepaja: LiepU MPLab, 26-30.


Paper

  • Essay: The political economy of information production in the Social Web: chances for reflection on our institutional design. Vasilis Kostakis. Contemporary Social Science. June 2012

URL = http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21582041.2012.691988


Abstract

"This paper is based on the idea that information production on theWeb is mainly taking place within either proprietary- or Commons-based platforms. The productive processes of those two ‘workplaces’ of information production do share some certain characteristics, but they also have several crucial differences. These two modes of production are discussed here and it is investigated how production is organised in each case. In addition, the paper concludes by articulating the lessons taught by the investigation of the structural relationships of information production for enhancing modern societies’ institutional design."


Excerpts

Introduction

Vasilis Kostakis:

"The idea that the main body of information production on the Social Web is taking place within either proprietary- or Commons-based platforms is used in this paper as a point of departure. The purpose of this paper is to discuss this seemingly contradictory distinction, focusing on the common characteristics as well as the essential differences of these two modes of production, and it argues that the lessons taught by the investigation of their differences can be of a particular interest to social policy. To become more specific, it is articulated that what sets Commons-based peer production apart from the proprietary-based mode of production—the ‘industrial one’, according to Benkler (2006)—is its mode of governance and property, whose foundation stones are the abundance of resources, openness, commons ownership and the underestimated, from the Standard Textbooks Economics theories, power of meaningful human cooperation that delivers innovative results, such as the Mozilla Firefox browser, BIND (the most widely used DNS software) or Sendmail (the router of the majority of email). This paper’s narrative begins with some succinct definitions of the central concepts to the discussion that follows. It is then described how the information production in both proprietary-based and Commons-based platforms is organised, arguing that the latter mode inaugurates an alternative path of economic development—building on Bauwens’ (2005a, 2005b) triptych of peer production, governance and property. Concluding, it is claimed that the processes of Commons-based peer production can offer interesting insights for a more productive and meaningful institutional design of the modern, information-based societies while new technological capabilities, such as desktop manufacturing, are developing."


Instead of conclusions: chances for reflection on our institutional design

Light has been shed on the structural relationships of information production with a focus on certain essential concepts for political economy, i.e. labour, property and governance. In proprietary-based platforms, it might seem that there is a win–win model with profit generation for the owners and satisfaction of users’ higher needs such as communication, reputation-building and knowledge gain. The owners of the platforms renounce their dependence on the regime of artificial scarcity, celebrating an age of information abundance while enabling social participation. However, as mentioned, the architecture of proprietary platforms combines open and closed elements to ensure a measure of profit and control.

This makes proprietary platforms dangerous as trustees of the common use value. Moreover, issues and problems such as privacy and electronic surveillance; exploitation; and online manipulation and control, come to the fore due to owners’ speculative nature. Hence, the Internet and its Social Web platforms exhibit both emancipatory and exploitative aspects, and the political struggle of online communities and users should be to foster the one over the other, strengthening the Commons sphere. The Commons-based peer production brings to the fore, amongst others, two ideas which have been consistently neglected in the design processes of the modern institutional systems of Western societies. Firstly, it is the power of human cooperation that becomes evident through the study of the social production which is taking place on the Web. As Benkler (2011) elaborates, the currently dominant socio-economic paradigm is premised on the idea that humans are driven solely by self-interest, guided by the invisible hand of the market or the iron fist of a centralised government. Benkler draws conclusions from hundreds of diverse studies and uses a large amount of case studies, amongst others many Commons-based peer production projects, to show ‘how cooperation trumps selfinterest— maybe not all the time, for everyone, but far more consistently than we’ve long thought’ (p. 249). We, as a society, following Benkler’s thought, should dedicate ‘the next fifty years to the vastly more complex but infinitely more rewarding task of designing the systems we inhabit for the kind of diverse, complex, but overall fair-minded, moral, sociable, and humane beings we in fact are’ (p. 249). Furthermore, it was claimed that the concept of abundance, in relation to the emergence of power structures and autonomy, is another idea that the social production of the Web has brought to the forefront. It was argued how abundance resists to the emergence of power structures in the online communities of peer projects, giving rise to new modes of governance, i.e. peer governance. It can be also articulated that in the social production of the Web abundance and autonomy seem interrelated concepts: information, inherently abundant with zero-marginal costs, and the cheap ICT, i.e. both essential means of production, are distributed to the people who are eager to contribute to the creation, the advancement and the enrichment of the Commons sphere. Thus, it can be claimed that the productive models, premised on abundance and, thus, autonomy, exemplified by FOSS or Wikipedia, should be counted in the institutional designs in the fore-coming years; wherever it is possible, we should pull down the barriers of artificial scarcity, often set by legal restrictive regimes, enabling abundance. If nanotechnology and engineering succeed in making capabilities such as desktop manufacturing and three-dimensional (3D) printing—a technology which has the potential to transcend mass production, being more flexible, productive, customisable and cost-effective (The Economist, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c)—accessible to the masses by dropping the costs (in the fashion of microprocessors evolution since the 1970s), the possibilities for the current information-based techno-economic paradigm become arguably unprecedented, connecting the social production on the Web with the low marginal costs of material production and the do-it-yourself (DIY) culture (for an informative account of DIYand open design movements, see van Abel et al., 2011). Think of collaboratively designing a car, like software, and be able to produce its parts using desktop manufacturing technologies and setting them up, say, like IKEA furniture. Then, what may lie ahead might be, to put it in the Perezian style (Perez, 2002), a ‘Golden Age’, in terms of innovation, prosperity, development and well-being, built upon creative synergies and alliances amongst Commons-based communities, the market and the state."


Source

Vasilis Kostakis (2012): The political economy of information production in the Social Web: chances for reflection on our institutional design, Contemporary Social Science: Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences, DOI:10.1080/21582041.2012.691988