Economic Options for Organizing Networks in Beijing

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Ned Rossiter: ‘Economic Options for Organizing Networks in Beijing’

Presentation for the Nottingham Peer Production Workshop. This is a preliminary working paper.


Notwithstanding the commercialisation of the net, the hierarchical systems embedded in social-technical infrastructures and dynamics, and the impact of national and surpranational government policy on network cultures, to what extent can we really speak of a political economy of peer-to-peer network practices? If political economy is traditionally understood in terms of the role institutions and their concomitant interests play in the structuring and regulation of economic life, then what might it mean to transpose this axiom to the culture of networks? How, in other words, might organized networks as nascent institutional forms provide new insights into the political economy of peer production? More specifically, how might the social- technical properties of organized networks situated within the urban and political context of Beijing facilitate new models for interventions in local, regional and transnational ‘creative economies’? What might such activity tell us about the geopolitical variations of neoliberal capital? This paper outlines some preliminary models of economic sustainability for the OrgNets platform and considers the political implications for networks cultures that take seriously the problematic of political economy.

It seems to me that a social economy preconditions the possibility of a political economy of network cultures. Without a social economy, there is no political economy. Indeed, in many instances the social economy within p2p networks marginalises or displaces the operative force of political economy. Open publishing and bit torrents of pirate cinema, software and music are obvious examples that come to mind. However, even in these instances of ostensibly ‘free culture’ there lurks in the system a political economy, one that is closely connected to infrastructure and info-governance. In a recent dialogue with Paul Hartzog, Trebor Scholz frames this tension as follows: ‘the means of production are available to networked publics; these tools and platforms are, however, owned by corporations’.[1] Aside from the ever-present potential of unruly workers, the trouble so often faced by the owners of infrastructure is that they suffer from limited imagination. Without a few tinkerers in the shop, capital is left without the invention of difference necessary for its renewal. Thus a mutually parasitic relation exists between owners and users of the means of production. As we know, historically this relation is one of constant oscillation that constitutes the force of hegemony. A central interest of this workshop is to discern how this relation plays out in the p2p culture of networks.

By way of addressing the question of political economy, I wish to focus my talk on the social-technical aspects of an experiment in transdisciplinary urban-media research in Beijing built around the logic of networks. My interest is in the ways in which such social- technical endeavours in institution formation might operate as what Fabian Muniesa and Michel Callon term ‘economic experiments’ that shape the construction of markets. The communication of relations between emergent institutional forms and their invention of markets is underscored by the technics of mediation. Mediation, in turn, is registed in the following key forms: systems of governance, rituals and materialities of practice, discourses with uncertain borders and technologies of collaborative constitution. The arrangement of these elements produces new territories for potential exploitation by capital. The political and economic challenge is to produce interventions into markets that enable economic resources for experiments in organizing networks and living wages for participants. (Due to constraints of time I will not address typologies of mediation in this talk.)

OrgNets in Beijing

From May-July this year I coordinated a transciplinary research

platform that produced a counter-mapping of the creative industries in Beijing.[2] In the first instance this project was financed through parasitical means, with funds from the research centre that I work in enabling participants from Europe, India, Australia and New Zealand to collaborate with local researchers and media practioners in Beijing. Such a model of financing research is a one-off, and self- generating means of funding are required in order to sustain this platform as a partially autonomous research network.

By undertaking a collaborative anthropology of new institutional forms – what I term ‘organized networks’ – this project is interested in the transdisciplinary dimension of creative industries in Beijing. The project is organized around six key vectors of research:

migrant networks and service labour; network ecologies of creative

waste; informational geographies vs. creative clusters; centrality of real-estate speculation for creative economies; import cultures and export innovations in architecture and urban design; and artist villages and market engineering. In migrating media education outside of the university, the project recomposes media education as a collaborative research process focussed on critique and analysis of urban transformations and the politics of creative and service labour.

The project adopted the model of a mobile research laboratory as a framework for collaborative research on the creative industries, urban transformation and media practice in Beijing. As a laboratory the OrgNets project was an assemblage of experimentation and testing, one that will continue to develop throughout the next year. And as a laboratory, the OrgNet project was excised or temporarily suspended from the outside force of the real market. But the mobile and social nature of OrgNets makes its borders porous. The distinction between inside and outside is not fixed; borders are defined by the continuum of change that comes into play with the addition or departure of participants, the particularities of urban situations, the topics of investigation and the institutions of temporary connection.

As an assemblage whose spatial and temporal coordinates undergo constant transformation, the relation between inside and outside is subject to processes of translation. It would be a mistake to think the range of contingencies – many of which may register imperceptably on the action of networks – can ever be brought under control. But within the territory of the known, faintly perceived and vaguely intuited, it is not unreasonable to suppose an economy is possible for networks that, at this stage, are without money.

Given the transdisciplinary orientation of the OrgNets project, the prevailing policy discourse of creative industries, the intense economic and social changes underway in China and the exotic allure the city as urban laboratory holds for intellectural tourists, the expanding international market of education is an obvious economy awaiting intervention by non-traditional ‘providers’. In fact, this is already the case for mainstream external providers. As an outsourced form of education provision, OrgNets offer established institutions of education and research the possibility of value- adding at a cost that is going to be cheaper than if these institutions hired staff on full benefits whose capacity to invent is rapidly dulled by the burden of bureacracy and audit cultures.

Experimental Economics and Evidence Machines

The field of experimental economics in its contemporary form emerged out of game theory from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Francesco Guala notes two distinct approaches within experimental economics – theory-testing and institution-building; the former tends toward experiments in decision-making, the latter experiments in market performativity.[3] Orthodox game theory combines or traverses these two approaches, and plays the market as an institution whose problematics are ‘solved’ by rational agents within controlled laboratory settings.[4] But what happens in occasions of ‘irrational exuberance’ that define bubble economies, as seen in real-estate speculation, dotcom-mania or the caffeine induced palpitations of day traders?

There is undoubtedly a logic at work in such instances, but it is not one that conforms to rational intent. The logic of irrational economics is one whose particularities are immanent to the contingencies of the event. The experimental economics of game theory attempt to overcome or at least minimise contingency by designing markets in which the desired results come to fruition. The world is their laboratory. The structural adjustment programs of the World Bank and IMF are good examples of experimental economics in operation. However, the desire to see the world in their own image is the primary catalyst of failure for such models. Certainly, this point is disputable; arguably the model of structural adjustment has succeeded insofar as the World Bank and IMF agenda for countries in Africa and South America to ‘leapfrog modernity’ in such a way that bypasses European models of state formation into a neoliberal paradigm of governmental dependency on outsourcing to private providers has proven financially beneficial to foreign investors. But such a view is limited in scope, to say the least. The production of global poverty and massive disparities in wealth can hardly be rated a success.

My proposal, then, is to see a project like OrgNets as a form of experimental economics that are open to the contigencies of the event and the social-technical and disciplinary dynamics of conflictual constitution. Contigencies necessitate factoring in the elusive dimension of experience. My interest is not to exploit economic or social vulnerabilities, but rather to enhance capacities and address trans-institutional economic realities and disciplinary foreclosure brought about by intellectual property regimes, internal competition and limits placed on research by the avalanche of adminstration.

The trick with a project like OrgNets is to treat it as a symbiotic device that both facilitates the generation of concepts and affects the allocation of economic resources. The latter may take the form of direct funding, commissions, participant fees for summer schools, or in-kind support by institutional partners – e.g. office space, use of equipment, personnel, etc. Of course any proposal to play the neoliberal game of outsourcing education is going to meet the wrath of some leftists and activists. But it is hypocritical to dish out critique without offering alternatives for economic subsistence.

Muniesa and Callon refer to platforms (as distinct from laboratories and in situ experiments): 'the platform is an intermediate configuration, more open to compromises with several kinds of actors than the laboratory' and refers to 'flexible organizational forms in [sic] where surprise is more a resource than a problem' for 'strategic innovation'. OrgNets also share these features of a platform – flexibility, most certainly, but the element of surprise is less clear for OrgNets. A genealogy of OrgNets would establish the connection with tactical media, reknowned for its hit-and-run approach to semiotic warfare. Where OrgNets corresponds with surprise is perhaps most clear when OrgNets is brought in to relation with established institutions of education and research, namely the university, which is characterised by a transdisciplinary deficiency and has a limited capacity of invention.

As a collaborative anthropology of new institutional forms, the project investigates how the emergence of organized networks illuminate some of the material qualities and tensions of creative industries in Beijing. The project holds the precept that transdisciplinary urban-media research is an autonomous expressive capacity that subsists within a field of translocal and supranational structural forces. This is not to suggest a form of structural determination, but it is to recognise that tensions of a particular order are inherent to media education that refuses the stagnant methods and orthodox theoretical approaches that by and large characterise the state of play, be that in Chinese universities or the rest of the world.

The Neoliberal University

As government funding for higher education has diminished over the past decade (or longer, in some national cases), universities have found themselves increasingly positioned within a market economy. This structural relation alone locates education as a commodity object. Inevitably there will be barriers to access learning in such instances. An alternative – open access learning – has great merit, but there are some fundamental issues to do with cost of delivery (labour, production, infrastructure, etc.) and technological modes of communication that must be addressed. In building open access repositories of research findings, this project investigates the connection between peer-to-peer collaboration and new business models.

The glacial temporality of university curriculum development and subjugation of teachers by the life-depleting demands of audit cultures sets a challenge for media education programs that wish to synchronise their curricula with the speed of popular media literacies. To distinguish market and user hype from quality that makes a substantive difference is near impossible. Consensus will not be found beyond the fleeting moments of micro-adoption among A-list bloggers and their links, or whatever other community of users you care to name. Ratified standards for media education within the cultures of networks do not exist.

As the university increasingly loses its monopoly on the provision of knowledge as a result of neoliberal governance and the advent of peer- to-peer and user-producer media systems, media education is in crisis mode. Best practice is frequently found outside of university degree programs. Expertise has become distributed across a population of practioners and everyday users. How, then, might such knowledge feed back into university programs? Can formal accreditation for autonomous education be extended to non-university actors? Are such processes even desirable?

Crucial here are the different temporalities afforded by research platforms positioned outside of the temporal order of the market and its post-Fordist modality of just-in-time production, which underscores the habitus of the university today. In a posting earlier this year to the edu-factory mailing list – an initiative by mostly young activist researchers associated with Negri’s uni-nomadi (an informal teaching program across a network of media and social centres in Italy) – Taiwan based academic Jon Solomon phrases the predicament of time and the university as follows:

'The students have been so disempowered by the compulsory national primary and secondary education system (which favors the production of an elite) that when it comes to the university organization of their own temporal rythms, they are completely passive in their forms of resistance (and the faculty doesn't provide any relief or alternative resources)'.[5]

How, then, to create different temporalities which enable process of counter-subjectivisation? A number of core elements come into play in the repositioning of research and teaching outside of the university. And these, I would add, are not without precendents: think of the mechanics institutes as sites of popular learning for the working classes in the 19th century (albeit enframed by the morally uplifting values of the middle-classes), adult education classes after the second world war, the rise of alternative schooling movements such as Montessori in the 60s and 70s, and so on and so forth.

My point is that counter-sites of learning at the current conjuncture are imbued with qualities special to the social-technical dimension of network cultures, and conditioned by the political economy of the informational university.[6]

As a pilot study, the counter-mapping project in Beijing provides inititial research data for future comparative research that examines the inter-relations between geopolitics (regional trade agreements, national and multi-lateral policies on labour mobility, security and migration, etc.) and the peculiarities of intraregional, translocal and global cultural flows within the creative industries. A comparative focus on the creative industries enables new questions to be asked about the mutually constitutive tensions between these forces, practices, histories and policies.

The project establishes a prototype for new cross-cultural educational and research institutions organised about the logic of networks. As signalled in policy milestones such as the Bologna Process (1999), scholarly monographs and OECD reports, the landscape in higher education has been undergoing gradual, and in some instances rapid, transformation toward a market model. The Bologna Process is more complex than a simple transition toward a market model, but its modularization of educational processes should nonetheless be considered as a core dynamic of the contemporary second wave of globalization (services economy). This dynamic is also how educational changes intersect with the emergent economy of culture after the first wave (trade) has been nearly completed, which is why the Bologna Process holds important implications beyond the realm of education. The role of universities as exclusive providers of higher education is changing as small and medium enterprises obtain government accreditation for provision of ‘educational services’. We are yet to see organisations develop out of the field of network cultures as providers of high quality research and teaching.

Collaborative practices within the creative industries and network cultures are now well established as the primary mode of production and communication. The business models which sustain the combination of service labour and innovation as they are located on the margins of industry are less understood. Primarily comprising of 'informal economies' (symbolic, voluntary, word-of-mouth) and sustained economically by various forms of financial support (parental, small government funds such as the ‘citizen wage’ or grants, associations with universities) and wealth generation (e.g. the 'long tail'[7]), there is great scope for further development and understanding of new business models.[8]




[3] See Francesco Guala, ‘How to Do Things with Experimental Economics’, in Donald MacKenzie, Fabian Muniesa and Lucia Siu (eds) Do Economists Make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 131.

[4] Ibid., p. 145.

[5] Jon Solomon, ‘Knowledege Conflicts, Self-Education and Common Production’, posting to edu-factory mailing list, 22 April 2007,

[6] See, for example, the recent Summit: Non-Aligned Initiatives in Education Culture, Berlin, 24-28 May, 2007,

[7] Chris Anderson, 'The Long Tail', Wired 12.10 (2004), http://

[8] For a study of working conditions and experiences of new media workers in Amsterdam, see Rosalind Gill, Technobohemians or the New Cybertariat? New Media Work in Amsterdam a Decade after the Web, Network Notebooks no. 1, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2007,