Give Away Economy

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In-depth conversation/interview between Geert Lovink and Christopher Spehr, cooperation expert on the opportunities and problems of the give away economy.

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"The Prospects of ‘Giving Away’

GL: How do you look at the tension between giving away code, music, texts, for free, and the growing desperation of (young) people and how they make a living? For me there is a direct link, a strange dialectical relationship between McJobs and Linux. The more peer-to-peer networks there are, the less likely it will be for ‘precarious’ creative workers to get out of the amateurization trap. Instead of Lawrence Lessig, Joi Ito and other Creative Commons gurus we should argue in favour of professionalization. Not so much in order to defend existing professions and related IP-regimes, but as a way to invent new professions. My example here would be the VJ. It would be great if many more VJs could live from their work and be taken seriously – not just by the club culture but by society at large.

CS: We have two important notions. The first is that some people, some cooperations, some structures get out-cooperated by others in the course of things. This is a typical way economy develops – its Darwinian logic, if you like. And the dark side to the all-too-often friendly discourse of cooperation. ‘Let’s all do it together, but do it funkier than the rest’. Today it happens to the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica who get out-cooperated by Wikipedia. They cannot compete. But it happens to millions of workers as well – in the harbours, in the ship industry, in the production of goods, in the proliferation of services. They lose their jobs, or they have to work for less income, with longer working days, harder conditions, less rights. Is this the same thing? Obviously, we have an idea of positive out-cooperating – this is when new forms of collaboration arise that are applied by the workers themselves, and old forms of hierarchy get ruled out in the same process. And we have a notion of negative out-cooperating – that is, when global power structures aim at the dis-empowerment of workers and local people, when hierarchy is re-inforced by the power of being global, of combining and re-combining global workforce, resources and markets without participation of workers and people. Can we say which is which in any case? That would be important, even if it’s not all simply black and white, of course.

The second notion is that exploitation happens not only inside the factory. That’s the question: who exploits whom, who makes capital out of whose paid or unpaid work, is crucial in old and new capitalism? So, working for free does not guarantee anti-capitalism. That much should be clear. Nonetheless we have to take a very close look at this phenomenon as it operates within the networks of ‘open cultures’. I wrote a paper on symbolic value and how it is produced in free software and network projects, how it is appropriated by some, and how it can even be exchanged into ‘real’ money in the end (‘Trust No One - Some Remarks on the Political Economy of Virtual and Global Networking’, Symbolic value is the object of the ‘style wars’ in HipHop, the tremendous fights about Who Represents, sometimes a fight to death. HipHop is as very instructive example. It tossed aside the ‘old school’ of the left, setting up a ‘new school’ of ‘Representation’, of self-assertion. At the same time HipHop found itself sucked up by neo-liberalism. Successful HipHopers could avoid the pain of ‘being low’, but got the disparity of competition instead – fighting a war on representation almost without any content, except that of competition itself. ‘What are you talking’ about? I’m not talking about anything, I’m just dissin’.’ HipHop really used the possibilities of ‘racing’ the system by using the cultural surplus of the imagined ’hood, of individuallyselling the cultural productivity of collectivesin a post-modern world where there seems to be no us and them in the old, class-informed way.

We have to realize that ‘free’ projects can be more exclusive than ‘non-free’ structures in terms of gender, race, qualification, class. You need institutions to be inclusive. This sounds strange to us, but institutions are not only a matter of alienation. They are materializations of compromise, of conflict-borne rules on partizipation and mutual obligation. The alleged freedom of many structures means actually that there’s just free competition where the priviledged prevail. As soon as you want gender equality in your network, as soon as you start to practice gender mainstreaming, as soon as you enable gender autonomy in the sense of working-groups and forums etc., you’re building institutions. Because an institution means that you do not have to put up the same fight at every single occasion but establish a certain base of rule and compromise.

The notion of ‘prolonged exploitation’ is also a reminder to the first notion of out-cooperating. The Encyclopaedia editors are out-cooperated because the Wikipedia authors work for free. But this is partly an illusion, because the Wikipedia authors have to eat and dress and live in houses too. Only they get paid by other structures, outside the Wikipedia collaboration, not by the project itself. So we do not know, so far, which form of collaboration is more productive. The costs of Wikipedia are hidden, they are externalized. Whoever can externalize its costs, wins – that’s a basic rule in capitalism, and that’s why ecological movements always claim the internalization of costs. The reason Wikipedia is really more productive is because it does not have to spend work, money etc. into means of forcing people to work, because editorial work is spread among all participants and not located in a fixed editors’ class, because the roles of producer and consumer get blurred, because a strong responsibility of the worker for his or her work is established, etc.

GL: Is it productivity that counts? Ultimately a new system will win against the existing system, just because it’s more productive?

CS: Yes, I think so. More productive, not more efficient. Usually, a new way of production, and a new society linked to it, is successful because it can accomplish something the old way of production (and the old social structures linked to it) could not. Machines, weapons, ideologies, structures of environmental control, intelligent machines, you name it. It is not successful because it is more cost-efficient. If something really new, really useful, really powerful can be accomplished, costs really don’t matter. That’s a very important historical lesson. So the question is: what is it about the new modes of production, as they emerge today, that enables them to accomplish things the old ones could not? It’s not that Wikipedia authors work for free. That’s not the point. But maybe it is Wikipedia indeed. And what’s related to it. Maybe it’s the astonishing productivity of free cooperation in such forms. That would be the new forces of production, and the new relations of production would be that of free basic income, personally free labour and shared means of production.

So what is it that new cooperations, like Wikipedia, can produce that older forms of cooperation could not? Wikipedia, using the tool of the wiki and the knowledge of online community building, creates a product that is completely up-to-date, that is mistake-free, error-free, while it works in extremely error-friendly ways at the same time. It is quite unbiased in terms of cultural hegemony, it is strongest when it comes to entries other encyclopaedias wouldn’t even have. You may find better articles elsewhere, more to your gusto, but usually ideology is kept checked, balanced, controlled in Wikipedia. If you want it unbiased, you go there.

I think it’s not even imagined where we could take that. Compare that, combine that, with real-world approaches like participatory economics. Could we build wikis that contain the knowledge about how our city, our village, our neighbourhood works and how it functions? Could we establish that kind of economic, political, cultural transparency? Could we lay economic source codes that open? What would that mean? Ain’t that a road to economic democracy? We could use these new tools for cooperative decision-making. Just open up. We could use Artificial Intelligence as a means of empowering Lenin’s female cook to really run a factory, a city, the state – collectively. If people can play SimCity, why shouldn’t they be able to govern their real city? Why shouldn’t they likeit?

The Future of Creative Work

GL: Let’s go back to the question of the (im)possibility of an online economy. Is giving away for free really the only option left?

CS: The culture of giving it all away needs a closer look. That you cannot sell your product to make a living,is not so new a situation in history. Before capitalism, a lot of things could only happen when the producergot paid, got supported, was kept alive – it wasn’t the product that was paid for, it was the producer that was financed. That’s how medieval courts sustained art in the 13th century. We can see this development at several points in history: first, culture as religious work, as performed by a priest cast; then, second, stuff that was directly paid for as a service that was ordered; third, stuff that was produced as hobby work in free time (soldier poets, the antecedents of free software programmers, in that sense); fourth, stuff that was produced by real freelancers that worked for a kind of market system, people who were paid because they were ‘good’, who made a living out of their work (that is, they could choose between different possible clients).

Is there a rule? Is it that culture is controlled by an elite class, and then starts to slip, to break loose, to become ‘free’ (often commercial at the same time), then changes its domain of containment to a new, emerging class; and then this new elite class stops this ambivalent ‘freedom’ and uses direct service work, again? Then the freedom of hobby production, of giving away, of working for markets, etc. would not seem to be real opponents, but changing forms of inbetweeness, of emancipation from the old elite class. It’s just using opportunities. That would fit well for the internet today. It would fit well for the whole semi-world of semi-precarious intellectual labour today. We’re just shifting. The problem is, can we keep this state of not-being-bound, this time? Can we take part in a new movement of change while, at the same time, defining our role in more autonomous ways, both in the present as well as in a utopian future?

GL: Is it really necessary to live precariously when you’re working with the Internet, and in particular when you’re producing content?

CS: Stephen King could not raise money with internet content. But why? It is not that his content has no ‘value’ – out of the internet, his books sell very good. But the internet proved unable to deliver a stable structure of allocation for his artistic production. The business model was this: you could read the chapters of the book for free, but were asked to pay a dollar so that the production could go on. This didn’t work, because the individual prospect of non-paying was real while the goal of continued production could not be guaranteed by an individual paying anyway. This, combined with a completely anonymous social context, failed to establish a stable structure of allocation. There is a specific problem of re-allocation raised by the internet and the digital copy: it is difficult to prevent people from consumption without contributing to the costs of production. And there is another problem – a lot of content loses its value because in an easily accessible global medium it’s no longer special or distinct. In a global area, there’s always someone better than you, and enough who are equal to you. So why pay you? Why work with you? We’ve already reached the point that local cultural producers, local creative workers, are not paid for their work - but that they payfor being allowed to do their work, for the opportunity of being visible. This is not a problem for the top dogs in cultural production, but for the others – the local bands, authors, artist, cultural workers – there’s the problem of being out-of-time and out-collaborated by a global market. These are not necessarily good things for the development of collaborative or free cultures.

Here again we face what you mentioned before: the connection between McJobs and Linux. In a global economy almost every content loses its value except the most outstanding products that escape competition because they have no real competiton in the quality stakes. The winners are the producers of high quality products for global markets, and the producers of the cheapest mass products for global markets. The rest loses. So it’s Hollywood and China, German Hi-Tech export firms and Eastern European assembly lines, the Pentagon and the maquiladora belt. Not the people who work there; the people and institutions that own them, ‘run’ them. That’s the way it’s meant to be from the perspective of today’s global elite class.

The exact relation between the elite class and ruling class has to be discussed. Ruling is not government work, of course. But ruling is more contested today, it seems, more difficult, more compromised work, more taking into account of the global masses, at least the more privileged parts of them.

Are there alternatives emerging? New coalitions between intellectuals and workers, ‘new’ (more set-free, semi-precarious, academic-proletarian) intellectuals and ‘new’ (more cooperative, more self-ruling, more collectively responsible, more organized, more educated) workers? I hope so. That’s the new proletariat, and Wikipedia is its bible, perhaps. And it’s really the internet that shaped it: open source as it is, connecting and opening the knowledge of the world. Some of it. Some other parts stay hidden. And some parts cannot be taught, learned, transferred in this way, they need personal training.

But lines get blurred, hybrid forms of knowledge transfer and creation emerge and become more and more important. The hybrids. We have to talk more about the hybrids. We have to watch out for the hybrids.

We have two extreme approaches to the issue at the moment. One standpoint it that of the traditionalists in the music business: protect your content. Downloading is stealing. Catch the thieves. The other standpoint is that of Oekonux: give everything away for free. The only way of allocation for a future society is, according to Oekonux, that all goods are free, all services are free, all content is free, and that work is done completely independent from money, done only by the motivation of self-fulfilment. Reality tends to a third way at the moment: Use it, but don’t sell it – and if you do sell it, then contribute to the production costs, which have to be covered if the production is to go on. The whole thing splits into different parts: A part of ‘general production’ which is done by ‘general work’ that is not paid by special means, and a part of ‘special production’ which is done by ‘special forces’ and is paid – and the ways and rationality of payment change, too. A Star Wars film raises more money by licenses for toys and advertisements than by selling ticket, which means people contribute to the costs of production by paying a kind of global Star Wars tax that is raised by selling silly Star Wars products. Strange, but it works.

And here, maybe, we get a preliminary idea about why and how new forms of cooperation may out-cooperate the Empire. Neo-liberalism was very good in ‘special work’ – in combining and re-combining labour, resources, connectivity, on a global scale. Dissolving first, of course, but then re-combining for new, huge, global tasks. Free cooperation is very good in ‘general work’ – in producing the ‘white noise’ of production, the general background, the overall element. These are factors often addressed as ‘social capital’ today, but this is a poor definition because it doesn’t explain anything. It’s like the alchemists talking of an all-abundant, but invisible, insensible element called ‘Ether’. This is something the Empire has great difficulties in producing. That’s why they cannot build stable civil societies in countries they have occupied. That’s why they keep borders flowing between formal and informal labour – not only to throw out people from inside, but also to breath, to take in, people and content and any results of cooperation from outside.

Our whole thinking about distribution and markets has to be re-shaped. Classical theory doesn’t work, but giving-away ideologies don’t work, either. The point is: a classical capitalist market, like theory sketches of it (where competition works towards lowest possible prices and most efficient ways of production), needs some closure in space and openness in time. We act by bounded rationality, we have no sufficient knowledge, no total information, never. So the crucial question and the structuring decision is: shall I buy his product again? It’s a kind of tit-for-tat-strategy, which is normal for bounded rationality, as game theory teaches us. Only repetition rules out fraud. Only closure in space gives a chance of gathering sufficient information over time. At the same time, calculation (as part of organising production) is never frozen in time, calculation is always open in time: if I sell something cheaper, more people will buy, and I will become somewhat dominant in this market segment, I can then sell goods or services at a more expensive price – so futureexpectations are always built-in to the smart business strategy, however unpredictable that may be. So this assumes also a strategy that can handle risk, loss and contingency. And in this sense, it’s never a case of pure ‘efficiency’ in the neoclassic sense. This is always true. It’s nothing new. Now: if an economy enlarges to global markets, at a high speed with low transport costs, relations shift. Fraud rules. Buyers have trouble keeping path with sellers in terms of information. Strategies that link present and future become dominant over strategies stuck in the present. Market domination becomes more important than tit-for-tat-adeptness.

My point is that economy never worked through ‘the market’ alone. It was always through the market in a very special way, as one tool among others, as part of a more complex strategy and mechanism of rule. We have to think, if we think about the future, in terms of these kind of mechanisms and strategies. ‘You can’t sell CDs any longer’ is too simple. But this is something that ‘Wikipedia forms of production’ can solve much better. They are a solution to the fraud problem. They reduce fraud considerably. Because there are rules and checks and, you might call them, ‘institutions’. But also because the work isn’t paid.

GL: Lately, interesting critiques of Creative Commons have been voiced. For some it is the legal contract itself, which is the problem. Both GPL and TRIPS are legal documents. It’s already often stated that Creative Commons is a form of copyright. CC does not transcend the legal system and is not pointing in any new direction how we can develop sustainable structures. It’s a mere defensive license in that it explicitly refuses to tell how professionals and amateurs that attempt to make a living out of their work can start to earn money. It’s dogmatic in this one message: abandon all hope and give it all away for free, put that funky CC license on your content and shut your mouth. Both Joi Ito and Lawrence Lessig are good at staying on the message. How you make a living is your individual problem and we’ll be the last ones to tell you how to solve this problem… apart from wishing you good luck with your t-shirt sales. That’s the cynical logic of these Creative Commons leaders. For them CC is about the ‘freedom’ of ‘amateurs’ to ‘remix’. But we are not all amateurs that fool around on the Net in our spare time. What should concern us is how amateurs can professionalize. Amateurs that want to remain amateurs is fine, of course. The amateur status should be a personal choice, not the default destiny.

CS: Who could really ever make money out of content? Ain’t that always a problem? Problem is, the producer of creative content has such a strong interest in publicity, in making it public, that he/she has almost no bargaining power. He/she would do it for zero, even pay for it sometimes. Because he/she needs that, it’s the kind of investment he/she can never afford him/herself. So every producer of creative content tends to work for zero, always, because it’s so crucial to be heard. Not only for a mission, for the belief in what you do, but for economic reasons. The only chance you’ll ever have of getting really paid is global prominence. So meanwhile, you get paid in advertisements. That’s why we need public support for creative producers. They just starve, or completely lose track of their creative work.

That’s the main way to understand so-called ‘free’ or ‘give-away’ economy in the net. The smart bands virtually give away some stuff for free, as a kind of self-advertisement, and that’s all that counts. Often it works. They don’t sell their music if it comes packaged in digital forms. They sell themselves in the form of giving concerts. The rest is a global advertisement. And that’s the trend we see in the e-economy. The companies that do well, like Google, EBay, Amazon, earn more and more through advertisements, while they provide more and more services for free.

GL: Yes, but what have writers to offer? Does it mean that writers have to give away all their texts for free and will have to live from the lecture tours they do? And who is going to organize these lecture tours, if not a publishing house? What strategies could we develop to turn interesting and creative work, done by artists, designers, writers and activists into more or less sustainable jobs, without going back to the old regime of intellectual property rights? There is no going back anyway. Creative Commons is already the default option, and I don’t mind that.

CS: We have to get organized, and we have to develop some vision. There are four problems that need different, but consistent answers. The first is the problem of the Encyclopaedia Britannica editors and authors: that there are free and better alternatives to their product, produced by ‘amateur’ collectives in their leisure time. Here the only answer is: give it up. If the work is done by a distributed, non-professional collectivity, there is no more need for a professional to do the job. Change your job profile, re-define your professional activity to another field, like printers had to do when hot type was disabled.

The second problem is the Stephan King problem, that there is no sound re-allocation for the investment of your workforce when it comes to digitally reproducible content and creative mass commodities, like online novels or mp3-tracks. The radical solution would be: No more individual payments; introduction of a ‘content tax’ on PC hardware; financing artists by public programs and democratically controlled public culture institutions. The GEMA (German music revenue collector) is a step into that direction. At the same time, instead of privatising science production, there has to be a growth of public education and knowledge production that encompasses more than classical science work but ‘basic creative work’ as well.

The third problem arises when you do specialized creative work for a company that actually sellsa product where your work is a part of it. A printed book, for example, belongs to this category: What sells is a complex product made of writing, editing, marketing, product placement, access to distribution and control of cultural markets. That’s the difference between being printed and being published. Here the problem is that powerful actors can force others to accept poor contract conditions. The solution is getting organized in a trade-union style, like scriptwriters demonstrated in Hollywood, with support from state regulation that guarantees minimum wages and fair contract conditions.

The fourth problem is that companies try to privatise collective knowledge and heritage and raise quasi-feudalistic fees. Here the only answers are laws that prevent any such privatisation of ‘intellectual goods’ – very simple. Such a non-dogmatic, but visionary approach would bring a real advantage to the whole of creative production.

GL: How should artists make the collaborative aspect in their work visible? In opera, theatre, film and in television and radio there are very well defined rules for that. Credits make the division of labour and importance of each individual contribution in a production pretty clear."