Epistemology of Peer Production

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* Article: A practice-based perspective. A response to Stefan Meretz by Maurizio Teli. Journal of Peer Production, Issue #1: Productive Negation, 2012

URL = http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-1/debate-societal-transformation/a-practice-based-perspective/


"In his description of the patterns of societal change part of peer production as an emerging mode of production, Stefan Meretz provides a synthesis of his take on the Oekonux Project, which he helped to establish, as a relevant actor in the contemporary debate. Stefan’s main argument is that, in order to understand Free Software and peer production as a new mode of production, we need to develop new analytical notions, a new form of epistemology that allows the overcoming of oppositional patterns of analysis.

In this response, I will try to draw upon Stefan’s perspective in order to show how the platform of analytical tools suggested can be enriched and improved in order to avoid reductionism to economic organization as the unique driver in the shift between different modes of production."


Maurizio Teli:

"To accomplish the task of overcoming exchange, promoters of peer production, such as Meretz and myself, need to articulate the definition of new kinds of economic practices that are based on an interplay of cultural and institutional elements. It is clear to me that the practices afforded by the GNU GPL license are one of the key examples in such a perspective but the extension of their reach outside the realm of software or other, improperly called, ‘immaterial goods’, requires a wider political and analytical perspective, bringing together new forms of economy, culture, and institutions. What contemporary research has made clear is that this kind of development is going to be possible because of the recursive practices of Free Software developers, engaged with a deeply practically based enlargement of the boundaries of their concerns, that bring together technical and social understanding of the Internet as the centre of their discourse (Kelty 2008)⁠.

Taking for granted Free Software as a model (something that should be debated, but this task is outside the scope of this paper), the substitution of exchange as the basic form of economic behaviour can take place only stimulating a recursive process that, focusing on an initial practice of non-exchange, still to be identified clearly, consolidates the non-exchange practice itself and engages with the cultural and institutional settings of contemporary capitalism.

Going beyond scarcity through situatedness

Continuing with Kelty’s argument, it it clear how what becomes central is the discursive and public dimension of the definition of technical and social systems in contemporary Free Software development groups (the actual example of peer production for the Oekonux project) and how such a discursive dimension is connected to the practice of Free Software development. Here Gherardi’s work helps us to widen the perspective on the relationship between discourse, knowledge, and practice, with the last one that “constitutes the terrain on which subjects and objects take shape [...] and knowledge is mobilized and maintained ” (2005). Gherardi’s point underlines how the subject (of an action) and object (of the same action) are constructed and re-constructed into practice, and that helps me to question and expand the conceptualization of scarcity as described by Meretz, and his underlining of the “commons” as a good concept and strategy to draw upon peer production in overcoming capitalism.

There is no reason to doubt that “Scarcity is a social phenomenon which is unavoidable if goods are produced as commodities. Often scarcity is confused with limitations which can be overcome by human efforts and creativity”, as Meretz writes. Such a statement is particularly true if we look at it from a situated perspective, in which scarcity becomes a relative concept connected to the positioning of the practitioners involved (for a general situated perspective, see for example Suchman, 1987)⁠. In particular, scarcity is reflected in the relationship between rivalry and quantity.

Let me exemplify this through one of the topoi of rivalry and scarcity, the distinction between an apple and an idea. If we consider widespread literature on rivalry and scarcity, we see how the focal point of analysis is the individual piece of good, abstracted by the actual situation of use, or sometimes discussed in its individuality through the actual situation of use. The classic example is the one of an apple, considered a rival good because it can be consumed by a single individual at once (or shared with others but divided in small pieces). That is actually a correct conceptualization if we move away the practical and situated perspective of someone engaging with the act of eating or sharing the apple. When we move into the situated realm, we move away from the abstract definition of rivalry and scarcity to ask: how many apples are available for the people observed? Are these apples completely equivalent? If the answer to such questions is the presence of many apples which are equivalent one to the other, then there is no situated scarcity or situated rivalry. Such a starting point can be used for envisioning a new form of economic practice not based on exchange. That also opens up a space for remodulating the possibilities of such practices to take place according to the construction of the situated social conditions for the overcoming of scarcity, what Meretz defines as the human efforts and creativity needed to overcome limitations.

A similar perspective can be used to think about the concept of rivalry and scarcity in relation to ideas or other so-called ‘immaterial goods’. Unfortunately, Meretz falls into the inaccurate distinction between material and immaterial goods. Although he is defining scarcity in no other way that a social construct both for material and immaterial goods, Meretz dismisses the notion that the same concept of immaterial goods is a social construct. From the situated point of view of people in a social relation (and the case of an hermit is not a case of modes of production from a political and analytical perspective), there is no such thing as an immaterial good. To become part of the social realm, ideas, thoughts, and other elements often defined as immaterial, need to find some kind of materiality, at least the voice of the person expressing them. Also what is actually regulated by intellectual property law is always the material expression of what is supposed to be regulated (and made scarce). There is no idea to be patented without a patent specification, there was no idea to be privileged without a privilege system (Biagioli, 2011)⁠. Socially, there is no immaterial good, there are only different material configurations of concepts, ideas, and so on and so forth.

Going further into a situated, practice-based understanding of ‘immaterial goods’ like knowledge, it is clear that the situation is enforcing different kind of scarcities or rivalries. Let me stick with the apples example, moving toward the act of seeding apples-trees. Imagine a situation in which many people are eating apples, abundant and equivalent one to the other, and their questioning of how long the apples will be available and how apples can be made a durable presence in their life. In such a perspective, the ability to mobilize the knowledge required to seed apple-trees and to preserve the abundance of apples become a crucial question. Such knowledge can be absent in the group of people considered, being shared among all of them, or being present to a minority that is able to enforce socially and situationally forms of scarcity and rivalry. The material inscriptions (Latour and Woolgar 1986)⁠ of the formal knowledge required to support seeding can be another of the aspects considered while developing a political perspective on a transformation of society through the dismissal of scarcity.

Therefore, the challenge of overcoming scarcity as a social phenomenon is the one of identifying the different material configurations of scarcity as a social phenomena and to work out perspectives of providing different material configurations. An example from the social world of Free Software is the one of different software licences, that are opening up different spaces for the social construction of scarcity, or more mundane aspects of the distribution of software via the Internet, that is depending upon infrastructural constrains in many parts of contemporary world.

Beyond commodities and the commons?

Such an understanding of scarcity, as a social construction of boundaries around material objects that inscribe ideas or concepts, and of goods as different configurations of materiality, is not the unique element to be considered when dealing with concepts like commodities or commons in the contemporary world. From this perspective, the work of anthropologist R.J. Coombe (1998)⁠ has made clear how the opposition between commons and commodity simplifies the rich significance of objects and cultural artefacts when moved outside the context of Western societies. In particular, cultural expressions in some non-Western societies are not only the result of a process of production but the process of production itself is part of a larger cultural reproduction. Probably the overcoming of the commodities regime should find other perspectives, richer than that of the commons, codified as oppositional to private property or state property in the actual debate, in order to also include the complexities of cultural expressions outside the limitations of contemporary Western societies.

Moreover, the overcoming of commodities as the main form for the definition of goods needs to consider not only commodities but also, and mainly, the practices of commodification that now participate in shaping the entire process of production. Free software is not immune from commodification, as pointed out also by “open source” (not free software!) advocates like Asay (2006)⁠, who clearly establishes a positive relationship between open source and commodification as the mature stage of capitalism. Escaping the commodities trap requires the understanding and re-framing of the process of commodification, in order to engage at the level of the practices of use of software and other goods that are considered as the leverage for commodification as a process, such as, for example in the case of software, being ‘user friendly’, ‘cool’, or ‘innovative’. Conclusions

In my response to Meretz’s Ten Patterns, I have tried to stick to the task of developing new analytical tools able to engage with the perspective of societal transformation by the consolidation of peer production as a new mode of production. In line with this task, I have introduced a practice-based perspective, drawing upon Organization Studies and Science and Technology Studies, and such an approach has made it possible to stress how cultural, institutional, and situational elements should be part of the elaboration of a political perspective on the overcoming of capitalism by peer production.

In particular, I have focused on three of the Meretz patterns – exchange, scarcity, and commodities – showing how a practice-based perspective can enlarge the analytical spectrum, bringing into the reflection stimulated by Oekonux a new understanding of the affordances of Free Software and other peer production phenomena. Moving along this direction, I have tried to show how in order to overcome exchange a new core practice of economic activity should be identified and promoted through a recursive process that is able to include in its development cultural and institutional elements. This has been achieved by criticizing the concept of voluntary-based contribution as based on the same individualistic epistemology that is part of capitalistic understanding of society.

The move toward a new economic practice has been strengthened by my attention to the situatedness of scarcity and rivalry as economic concepts, showing how situating them opens up the perspective for identifying the conditions under which we can overcome the scarcity and rivalry dominance. Closely related is the idea that the contemporary concept of the ‘commons’ can’t be the unique way of contrasting commodities, and that the new economic practice should be identified in its ability to engage with non-western perspectives and to deal directly with the elements that are positively associated by Free Software advocates to commodification as a social process. In conclusion, I agree with Meretz when he is suggesting the need for new analytical tools but, at the same time, I invoke a deeper epistemological reflection on the basis of such tools, with their positioning and ability to engage with the situated and practical character of everyday life." (http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-1/debate-societal-transformation/a-practice-based-perspective/)