Can Peer Production Make Washing Machines?

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Large excerpt from a key essay by Graham Seaman.

Original title: The Two Economies Or: Why the washing machine question is the wrong question



Graham Seaman [1]:

"Within capitalism, material goods are typically made:

  • by people working for a wage
  • for others who own the means of production
  • in order to create profit
  • by selling the product

The co-ordination between producers is indirect, through the market, using price (money) as a signalling mechanism.

Production of free software and other free goods can be contrasted point by point with this list; non-material goods can be produced by people:

  • working because they chose to
  • using their own means of production
  • in order to create something useful or pleasurable
  • which anyone can use

The co-ordination between producers is direct, mediated only by technology.

In traditional Marxist terms, two societies described like this would have different modes of production. But in this case there is only one society, and while almost the whole of society produces in the first way, only a tiny, though growing, part produces in the second.

Note: The mode of production described above for free software was studied by Yochai Benkler and was named commons-based peer production.

This is not an unusual situation: there have been few times in history when a 'pure' mode of production, unmixed with fragments of other modes, existed. Some of these fragments are remnants of the past: personal slavery in parts of Northern Europe during the middle ages, or villages with communally allocated and rotated land in isolated parts of Southern Europe today. These fragments can often survive for long periods, integrated into the overall system and partially changed from their original form, but stable. Others are abortive glimpses of a future believed possible which turns out not to be so, such as the numerous experiments in communal working and living from the nineteenth century to the 60s and 70s of the last century, again often surviving for long periods. But the most interesting possibility is the fragment which turns out to be the replacement for the dominant mode of production.

This leads to two major groups of questions:

Firstly, what are the effects of the coexistence of two modes of production now? How does the dependence of free software producers on the capitalist economy affect free software production? And what effect, if any, does free software production have on the surrounding capitalist mode of production?

Secondly, is it possible for the free software mode of production to be generalised to the whole of society? And if so, how?

Obviously, these are questions without definitive answers. Even those parts of the question which are purely empirical would need a major research program to answer properly. But that doesn't mean that it is pointless to try to suggest possible answers. One possible starting point is to look to the past, to one of the best documented changes: the break-up of the feudal system in pre-revolutionary England.

The End of the Guilds

Manufacturing in late mediaeval society was contained within the guild system, and organised through the hierarchy of apprentices, journeymen and masters. To have a trade it was necessary to have been an apprentice; once apprenticeship had been completed (normally after 7 years) an apprentice could expect his master to register him as a full guild member, with the freedom to practise the trade as an independent journeyman. Naturally journeymen would expect to become masters in their turn. Knowledge of the trade was part of the mystery of the guild, shared vertically within the guild but kept a secret from outsiders, and guild boundaries were rigourously enforced. Guild inspectors would check not only the quality of the goods produced but also adherence to proper employment procedures and encroachment on the territory of other guilds: a shoemaker in the shoemakers guild should not encroach on the work of cobblers, who repaired old shoes, nor should he tan his own leather, the mystery of the tanners' guild. The system was intended to maintain the maximum possible quality of the output: the quality of tanned leather was guaranteed by the tanners' own inspectors, the true experts on tanning, and a shoemaker who set himself up as an amateur tanner as well had no such expertise.

By the late 16th century this system was still firmly in place. To some extent it was cross-cut by the patents of monopoly granted by the state, which effectively gave guild privileges to small groups of individuals (though even these were limited to 7 years, the time for a group of apprentices to pass through the system and potentially be able to set up a new guild); but the right of the state to grant such patents was fiercely (and often successfully) resisted by the guilds.

What the guilds could not do was cope with the increasing number of journeymen with no hope of becoming masters in their own guilds. In the big cities desperate journeymen began to abandon their own trades and set up as small manufacturers. These small manufacturers, though persecuted, managed to survive outside the guild system and the mediaeval hierarchy of rights and obligations, and in spite of the many caught by guild inspectors and fined or even imprisoned, by the mid-17th century parts of London were dominated by them. Since they were outside the guild system their employees were not apprentices in the old sense, but workers for a wage: this was already a fragment of a new mode of production.

Now two systems co-existed: one still dominant, the other small and struggling, and blocked at every turn by the regulations of the old system. John Lilburne, one of the leading spokesmen for the Levellers, the Republican left-wing, was a typical example: originally apprenticed as a clothier, he became a Protestant. Book publishing and distribution was a monopoly of the Stationers', and when he attempted to bring in Protestant texts from Holland he was caught by inspectors for the Stationers' Company and imprisoned. Once freed, he became a successful small brewer until the outbreak of the Civil War. After two and a half year's fighting, he attempted to use his knowledge of cloth as a cloth-exporter; but the monopoly on cloth export belonged to the Merchant Adventurers, not the clothiers themselves. Abandoning this, he became a soap-maker ... Just to survive, people like John Lilburne were forced to work outside, and against, the guilds.

Other Leveller supporters worked in brewing, tanning, glass-making, felt-making, hat-making, sack-cloth and linen-weaving, dyeing, silk-spinning, soap-boiling, nearly all embroiled in continual struggles with the guilds. It was natural that their watchword became 'freedom': freedom from the guilds, freedom from the state-imposed monopolies, freedom for trade, freedom of conscience.

So we have a first requirement: the new mode of production is not something arbitrary, willed into existence, but a product of the old system: in this case the guild system which was structurally unable to provide positions for all its apprentices.

Next, the new system began to infect the old. Here the route was simple: for the new mode of production to expand, it needed capital, and capital was already available. Merchant trading was a normal part of the mediaeval economy; once again, monopolised by merchant guilds. But given new possible sources of profit why should they care whether the products they traded had been produced under normal guild regulations or not? From reselling non-guild products it was a small step to financing their production, although in the end the restrictions on doing this on a large scale were too great, and the major new capitalist industries were not based on the original ones in the warrens of London, but in the North, away from any guild control at all. Once these large-scale industries had become established, the guild system was effectively doomed: the number of apprentices who could be integrated into the guild system with it's progression of stages was tiny compared with the mass of labourers required for the new manufactories. Some in the old system attempted to compete by taking on large numbers of apprentices against their own rules, or by employing journeymen who had not completed apprenticeships, but the result was that the guilds simply became empty ceremonial shells of their former selves, gradually to disappear over the next two centuries.

It is noticeable that the change from guild production to capitalist production was in its early stages not driven by technological change, but by the inability of the guild system to cope with expanding markets. The changes, and the causes of the spread of the new system, were social. New technologies - in particular the use of steam-power in production - only became important a century later.

All this suggests some possible properties needed for a new mode of production to spread:

  • A new mode of production appears in a leading part of the economy, which may not be the main basis for the old system: here, manufacture, not agriculture.
  • A new mode of production is not purely willed into existence, but is a natural outgrowth of the old.
  • The new mode of production initially depends on the old one, firstly as a source of knowledge and skills, and secondly as the source of all goods which it cannot create itself.
  • The two modes of production must be able to coexist while the new one grows.
  • The new mode of production must be able to infect and weaken the old.
  • At a certain point the new mode of production must be able to offer possibilities which the old one cannot.
  • The new mode of production must be able to spread to all important fields, but this does not need to be immediate -- full integration of agriculture within capitalism is still an ongoing process in most countries.

The statement that 'free software is the kernel of a new mode of production' often leads to the question 'how can you make washing-machines in the same way'? This depends on your assumptions about what that way consists of: is the primary fact technological, the fact that reduced costs for computers have made software effectively a public good; or is it social, and the fact that people are working together in a new way that is primary?

If it is the first, then production of material goods in the same way needs them to be 'dematerialized': we must wait for the invention of matter transmitters before it becomes possible.

If the second, then it is possible to give a more optimistic answer: once working by free software principles has spread far enough throughout the economy that it reaches the people who make washing machines, they will know how to do it. In every revolution of the last hundred years, people have begun to take control of their own work. If the revolution has been defeated, their control has been taken away. If the revolution has won, their control has been taken away. But the possibility is there, and has been shown repeatedly, even though it rarely appears in history books. What free software has proved that is new is the possibility of this style of work on a large scale, sustained over a long period of time.

But in either case, to expect a solution to the 'washing machine question' now would require magic; a sudden jump, whether technological or social, which is not likely to happen." (


Continue this essay at

Sensorica's OVN response

See more about the Open Value Network (OVN) model. Sensorica is a pilot project for material peer production that uses the OVN model.

Graham Seaman provides a good historical example of how new modes of production get established. He also provides a good synthesis of conditions required for a new mode of production to replace the old. Graham's conclusion is wrong, in our opinion, which is based on 12 years of experience practising material peer production within the Sensorica OVN.

Graham states that a new mode of production can be introduced by

  • a new technology - change in means of production, reduced costs of production
  • a new cultural aspect - social, people are working together in a new way

In reality, it is both at the same time, in the sense that new means of production are introduced by a new technology and these means are first put into practice by people who already share some fringe cultural aspects.

Graham is skeptical of the first, concluding that in order to apply the free software way of production, which we now call digital peer production,

"then production of material goods in the same way needs them to be 'dematerialized': we must wait for the invention of matter transmitters before it becomes possible".

If we analyze open source hardware production, we can distinguish between 3 phases, design & prototyping, with iterations between the two, and fabrication (of the artifact that has reached maturity in design). Nowadays, open source hardware is deigned with DIY (do-it-yourslef) in mind, i.e. lowering the technical barriers for fabrication while making use of digital fabrication technologies, such as CNC and 3D printing. The design phase can be virtualized, using collaborative CAD programs and online collaborative repositories of models (represented as CAD files), with version management capabilities (and more). Prototyping is often done by individual contributors using their own means (basement labs with minimal electronics and mechanical prototyping equipment, 3D printing) or in makerspaces, fablabs or hackerspaces. These physical collaborative spaces are products of the same open culture that has produced these methodologies for open source development, first for software and after for hardware. These spaces can be considered as part of the physical infrastructure of (material) peer production. They are open access, similar to online open source projects, and horizontally governed, they encourage collaboration among members, they encourage transparency by providing public access to their projects and processes, they do not emphasize profit-making activities while encouraging commons-driven activities. These physical spaces can also act as local fabrication facilities.

We are not too far from the "matter transmitter", since most of the work is done on a computer and in collaboration mediated by the Internet, and the fabrication can be done almost magically from a CAD file, using digital fabrication.

Let's now address Graham's conditions for material peer production to replace industrial manufacturing

  • A new mode of production appears in a leading part of the economy, which may not be the main basis for the old system: here, manufacture, not agriculture.

This is true for digital peer production, open source software for example. Once the practice was structured it spread into other areas such as publications (Wikipedia), digital services (Bitcoin), etc. When this new open and collaborative mode of production spread to hardware, it did it with 3D printing (RepRap online community) and shortly after with drones (DIY Drones online community), two bleeding edge and disruptive technologies. These technologies already existed, they were protected by patents and were prohibitively expensive, but meanwhile other support technologies had evolved to the point of disrupting. Once the patents expired, engineers and hobbyists that embraced the open culture seized the opportunity and designed consumer grade machines at only a fraction of the cost, generating hype around 3D printers and drones.

  • A new mode of production is not purely willed into existence, but is a natural outgrowth of the old.

I guess here we can cite the phenomena of alienation. People are looking for a meaningful work, purpose, they want to belong to a real community, not just be an employee in a company, they want to be in control of their creation, etc. This creates a capacity of innovation and production outside of industrial production, which floods into peer production, including material peer production. Thus, people engage in open source hardware development and DIY production for the same reasons they engage in open source software projects.

  • The new mode of production initially depends on the old one, firstly as a source of knowledge and skills, and secondly as the source of all goods which it cannot create itself.

This is true for material peer production. First, the most important skills are acquired in academia, such as electrical and mechanical engineering. But increasingly we see self-thought individuals engaging in very complex open source hardware projects. They acquire technical skills online or by collaborating with peers in makerspaces, fablabd and hackerspaces. These physical spaces, as we mentioned earlier are loci of prototyping and local fabrication, also play an important role in education. In fact, during the early days of 3D printing colleges and universities were at least 3 years behind makerspaces in educational programs. University students were coming to the Sensorica lab to learn: event at Concordia University, Daniel (self-thought from Sensorica) teaching about 3D printing. Second, most basic components used in open source hardware are produced by companies, industrial manufacturing. Increasingly, we are seeing more and more DIY basic components. For example, it is possible today to build an electric motor from scratch by using 3D printed parts, magnets and coupe wire. Moreover, in order to run a makerspace one needs to pay rent to a landlord which operates under the mainstream economic model, and purchase instruments and equipment from hardware stores. But most importantly, peer production is largely dependent on the mainstream economic system to reproduce itself, as it cannot feed al the agents that engage in it. Thus, most agents involved gain their subsistence from gobs in companies. This is also about to change and the leading tendencies are in web3. First, people created cryptocurrencies and tied them to specific processes to give them value. They in turn used these cryptocurrencies to fund their own activities, which constitutes a bootstrapping ability via new monetary currencies that are entirely under the control of these communities. Although this constitutes a good start, it still relies largely on markets and monetary currency, which is still under the logic of the industrial capitalist economy. More creatively, we've seen the use of the same blockchain technology to create tokens that represent no-monetary currencies, that can code for credentials, entitlements, access to services and processes (governance for example). All these new forms of currencies provide new channels for access and are able to incentivize economic activity while bypassing markets and the monetary system. We are seeing here the beginning of a complete detachment of peer production from the dominant economic logic. In our opinion, it may take another decade or two before peer production can reproduce itself, independently from the current economy, which building and implementing its own social support structures, institutions and social governance.

  • The two modes of production must be able to coexist while the new one grows.

Open source DIY hardware has a place in the current economy. For example, during COVID when industrial production was paralyzed, material peer production was pushed to the front stage, as it was the only viable mode of production. NGOs who serve the developing world have recently prized open source DIY hardware for its low cost, modularity, versatility and especially for the low technical skills required to maintain/repair or upgrade. Thus, although open source hardware can lower costs and disrupt certain industries (ex. 3D printing), there is a niche for material peer production, especially in areas where industrial manufacturing cannot reach, such as remote areas, disaster areas, low income areas or in very low volume markets.

  • The new mode of production must be able to infect and weaken the old.

The new mode of production is building its own infrastructure that reduces costs while boosting creativity. Corporations are increasingly tempted to use these new tools and in doing so they adopt the new methods proposed by the open culture. For example many companies are now using platforms like Github for managing their software production. While doing that, they also get the benefit from existing code, which comes under open licenses, forcing them to open their code as well. Thus, private companies get "infected" by open source and get infused with values (sharing, transparency and openness) and methods (agile development, collaborative work) from the open culture. The same tools that have been developed for online collaboration on software development have their equivalent for collaborative hardware development. Moreover, it turns out that disruptive innovation is more likely to come from the open source culture than from academia and private R&D labs. Today, every serious tech company has an open innovation strategy, which is borrowed from the open source culture. Moreover, every serious high tech company has built infrastructure to support open communities, to involve the crowd (crowdsourcing) in various processes. In other words, companies are opening up their processes.

  • At a certain point the new mode of production must be able to offer possibilities which the old one cannot.

The new mode of production, i.e. material peer production as described by the OVN model, is global by nature, capable to address global problems. More precisely, it is glocal, which means that it connects very well the global scale with the local scale. Hardware artifacts are designed as abstractions by delocalized online communities, using modular architectures (proper to the open culture), shared standards and ubiquitous materials, easy to modify, upgrade and adapt. These models are then customized by local makers, who further share their adaptations with the global community, for others to reuse or remix. This stands in contrast with industrial mass production, one-size-fits-all. Therefore, with less efforts global problems can be addressed with efficient local action, which provides us with the ability to address global concerns such as pollution, natural catastrophes or pandemics. When it comes to response time, in a dynamic modern world, as we've seen during COVID, makers were the first to respond with PPE equipment fabricated in local makerspaces, before the global supply chain could be repurposed for the need. Thus, material peer production seems to be better suited for a global and dynamic society.

  • The new mode of production must be able to spread to all important fields, but this does not need to be immediate.

Evidently peer production is spreading into finance (Bitcoin), and all type of digital services. Moreover, for the past decade we've seen peer production in biotech, as genes production and gene therapy planning has become computer assisted, almost like 3D printing. Biohacking labs have emerged in this area, in parallel to makerspaces and fablabs. In the area of services, it is just a matter of time for platforms like Uber to be replaced with dApps on blockchain infrastructure. One just needs to survey the ecosystem of DAOs, which are applied today to almost all spheres of human activities.

Other theoretical arguments for peer production

Reference: Imported from the OVN wiki

First, please consider the notion of value, then come back to read further.

The possibility of stable, sustainable global-scale open networks is no more questionable, they exist in almost all spheres of human activity. If we listen carefully to Ronald Coase, we can understand why open networks are possible. In essence, the Internet reduces transaction costs among economic agents. We join other individuals into an arrangement, we join organizations, if we have more to gain than operating independently.

The type of organizational arrangement depends on the type or the area of activity. Thus we can form private, public, cooperative (co-ops) and non profit organizations. We live in cities, build nation states and form international alliances. Today, we can also organize as global, transnational open networks. There is a blueprint for every type of organization, which prescribes a set of relations or roles, policies, methods and procedures, as well as capturing and redistribution mechanisms for valuables. People decide to restrict their individual autonomy by entering in relation with others according to an organizational blueprint, that is to join an organization, to increase their collective capacity beyond the sum of their individual capacities and, in doing so, to benefit from their collective output. If they don't gain in capacity and benefits, they will likely operate alone until a new form of organization that provides greater advantages emerges, if possible.

The Internet with the recent p2p technologies (blockchain and others) that the open culture has built on top of it make open networks a new possible arrangement, where the cost / benefit ratios for a new type of global scale collaboration is favourable. Open networks do exist and some of them are highly innovative and very efficient in production and distribution, or dissemination, of their outputs. How can we understand this fact?

The open source movement has democratized 3D printing and DIY drones and has created blockchain, which are some of the most disruptive technologies in the past two decades. Also, despite the negative press on Bitcoin related to its energy consumption, it only represents a small fraction of the energy consumption of the banking system. It is also the most secure exchange network that humanity has ever produced.

Yochay Benkler identifies two reasons for understanding why open networks can outcompete traditional organizations. The first one is related to what economists call information opportunity cost. In essence, it says that open networks perform better in complex situations where a lot of information needs to be processed in order to seize opportunities and produce good responses to events. The second reason refers to what economists call the resource allocation problem. Open networks do better in matching skills to tasks and allocating resources to the right activity.

Li and Seering (2019) also found that an open community reduces costs and shortens the time to market with five mechanisms:

  1. OS community members can help decrease the risk of product failure by providing product testing feedback,
  2. OS community developers can help reduce internal R&D costs,
  3. the OS community helps to reduce marketing and sales costs by introducing OS products to ideal potential customer pools,
  4. the OS community represents a talent pool for recruitment, which saves on recruiting costs, and
  5. the OS community provides resources for product customer channels and partnerships. Reference paper.

In ancient times, the tribe's socioeconomic structure was effective when the in-group was less than ~150 people, and one could remember reputation, debts and favours for each member of the tribe. This is called the Dunbar number. Since then, religions, nation-states, and corporations have all taken our ability to collaborate on shared goals to new levels of achievement. Today, Michel Bauwens speaks about peak hierarchy: horizontality is starting to trump verticality, it is becoming more competitive to be distributed, than to be (de)centralized. If we go back to Ronald Coase, hierarchies have higher costs due to excessive overhead for bureaucracy (an army of paper pushing middle men), a lack of transparency, coherence, speed & efficiency. Open networks seem to be poised for domination.

All these transformations are not just the desire of a group of individuals, they are not driven purely by ideology. They happen because the conditions are right, because a new potential exists and people all over the world respond to it, intuitively understanding the benefits that it offers. But disruptive changes are usually met with resistance. Sooner or later those who benefit from the status quo come to understand the threat that the change poses to their situation and they start to oppose it. A conflict takes shape between them and those who already benefit from the new potential. The church opposed the enlightenment by denigrating the scientific method and by banning the printing press, trying to stop the spread of new ideas. Monarchs opposed the shift to parliamentary democracy and free market economy fuelled by the industrial revolution. Today, states go after cryptocurrency which symbolizes the movement of decentralization. In all these cases, a technology was at the heart of the movement: the printing press for spreading non-dogmatic ideas, the steam engine for spreading new modes of production, the Internet for facilitating new ways of organizing. It is easier to crash a movement that is solely organized based on ideas. History shows that it is almost impossible to stop a diffused transformation based on a new potential.

Fundamentally speaking, the new potential comes from disruptions in three key areas:

  • Communication: The Internet makes possible many-to-many communication at global scale, in a p2p way (i.e. non-intermediated).
  • Coordination: The Internet makes possible stigmergic coordination, allowing huge numbers of individuals to swarm into action like never before.
  • Collaboration: The Internet allows many minds to think together, many arms to swing together. In other words, it gives rise to social intelligence, makes possible massive crowdsourcing and facilitates the deployment of complex activities based on stigmergy.

In sum, we are witnessing the emergence of a p2p society, which has its own load of good and bad. On the good side of things, it strikes a balance between the individual and communities. It transfers power to the individual, allowing open access to participation in all socioeconomic processes, within the boundaries of community, or network, self-imposed rules.

At the economic level, individuals in a p2p society have the ability to coordinate their efforts, transact among themselves, co-create and distribute their creations, while bypassing hierarchical and closed intermediary institutions, thus escaping the established power structure, which is designed to perpetuate economic dependence. We are witnessing the emergence of a new mode of production, commons-based peer production (or simply peer production), the formation of a p2p economy.

When it comes to material production, digital fabrication allows small groups of people to create local capacity for production at very low cost. Fablabs and makerspaces are local production units that go in that direction. This is coupled to access to global supply markets for key components. These small groups are interconnected via the Internet to coordinate innovation (open source development).

The underlying economic model depends on the type of value network.

Read also Open Value Network: A framework for many-to-many innovation

Open Source Washing Machine

Note : Perhaps the following added link misses the point of the essay above, or maybe it answers it :

excerpt :

The open source washing machine project aims to rethink the way we wash clothes around the world, in accordance with economical, sociological, cultural and environmental aspects.