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Definitions: Peer Production

Posted by: | March 3, 2009 | 22 Comments |

(Note: In the following Fragment of my Introduction I define how I will use the term “Peer Production”)

Both “peer production” and “Cultural Studies” are terms which require some definition before moving forward. I borrow the term “peer production” from the work of law professor Yochai Benkler, who devotes his 2006 magnum opus, The Wealth of Networks to explaining this idea and a related notion, “social production,” and arguing that these new productive forms are playing an increasingly important role in our society. In this book, Benkler defines “peer production,” as “a new modality of organizing production: radically decentralized, collaborative and nonproprietary; based on sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either market signals or managerial commands.” (Benkler, 2006, p. 60) This dissertation will seek to examine several terms of Benkler’s definition more closely, and will suggest that some of the terms he uses to describe peer production may need to be revised, however Benkler’s sense that “a new modality of production” is arising in conjunction with digital media is one supported by a variety of other scholars (Shirky, 2008; Lessig 2001; Von Hippel 2005; Jenkins 2006) and an important starting point for my analysis.
Benkler identifies two other key features of peer production that should be noted here. First, he points out that peer production is based around “sharing resources and outputs,” that is to say, peer production is based around a “commons,” a set of resources free for (as Benkler sees it) anyone to use. In fact, Benkler sometimes calls “peer production,” “commons-based peer production.” (Benkler, 2006, p. 60) I have chosen the shorter version for use for the sake of simplicity. Second, Benkler argues that peer production is based on, “loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either managerial commands.” Thus, those participating in this mode of production are “peers,” lacking formal systems of hierarchy amongst themselves. While several things may complicate both of these notions, the peer production ideals Benkler articulates represent a break from the usual assumptions of contemporary capitalist political economy.
The term peer production also needs to be located within a particular historical context to be meaningful. Throughout history, a wide variety of methods of production have been experimented with, many of which incorporated forms of shared property and non-hierarchical organization. I will use peer production to refer to a method which has evolved in the developed world in conjunction with digital media over the course of the last 30 years. The history of this productive mode can be traced to its origins in the Free/Open Source Software movement (FOSS).”The quintessential instance of commons-based peer production,” Benkler writes, “has been free software.” (Benkler, 2006, p. 63) He later argues that, “Free software has played a critical role in the recognition of peer production, because software is a functional good with measurable qualities.” (Benkler, 2006, p. 64) Legal scholar Lawerence Lessig, perhaps the best known advocate for modifying Intellectual Property law to make it more favorable to the practices of peer production, attributes Free Software Richard Stallman as the source of many of his own theoretical insights. In his introduction to his 2004 book Free Culture, Lessig writes, “the inspiration for the title and for much of the argument of this book comes from the work of Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation.” (Lessig, 2004, p. xv) The Free Software Foundation’s General Public License was the first intellectual property licensing scheme designed to guarantee work released into a shared commons of information resources could not later be appropriated from that commons as private property, an important foundation for peer production (Benkler, 2006; Lessig 2004; Kelty, 2008; Stallman, 2002). The ability of volunteers spread throughout the world to coordinate work on the free operating system1 called Linux was one of the first examples of peer production in action, and one that convinced many that a new and interesting productive method was emerging (Benkler, 2006; Weber 2004; Lessig 2004; Raymond 2000a).

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