[ox-en] Centralized peer production
- From: Stefan Merten <smerten oekonux.de>
- Date: Sat, 10 Jul 2010 11:41:47 +0200
In the past once in a while I asked what's wrong with centralized peer
production. Typically that was in reaction to claims that peer
production needs to be decentralized with a tendency to autonomy in
the sense of subsistence. I'd like to think about this topic in this
post as always asking for comments and other improvements.
Well, often the answers to my question were not really satisfying.
Usually they related to worries of abuse of power from such
centralization. However, it was not clear to me what in a peer
production based society the incentives are to abuse this power.
The example I'm usually using is that of the Linux kernel. Well, in
fact you may use every Free Software project but let's stick with the
Linux kernel to be more concrete. The Linux kernel is maintained and
improved by a number of kernel hackers who decide about the kernel.
Linus Torvalds as the kernel maintainer makes final decisions in case
they are necessary.
In fact it is fine with me that those guys do this very useful work.
In no way I feel the need to engage here. The work of those kernel
hackers increases my freedom because it frees me from thinking about a
useful operating system kernel myself. From past experience I trust
them that they make good decisions which suit my needs. I.e.: This is
an example for a centralized peer production which works fine.
Well, we are talking of power and abuse. I think it is necessary to
dive into these concepts. In fact in a centralized production power is
two-fold as is the abuse. One type of power means that those in
control over this centralized production are able to determine the
details of the production. This includes decisions about the concrete
result of the production.
This is the type of power I described above for the Linux kernel
hackers. As said above in this example of peer production there is no
problem with centralized production. Instead of decreasing my freedom
it increases my freedom.
But still the kernel hackers could be wrong compared with my needs.
Under conditions of peer production I don't need to worry too much
about this because of the internal openness of peer production
projects. Internal openness means that people who are unhappy with the
course of the project can step in and attempt to correct it. If all
else fails they can fork the project.
Now for the possibility of abuse of this type of power. Abuse to me
would mainly mean an abuse of the means of production. The only thing
I can imagine is that the means of production are used for some
private use to produce things for those in power which are not subject
to the intentions of the project.
Under a scarcity regime this is clearly a danger because it enables
those in control to gain access to products which are made scarce. But
under full external openness all products are available anyway. So why
abuse the means of production at all? In fact I think under conditions
of peer production the incentive for this type of abuse vanishes.
A problem arises when a project can not be easily forked because the
effort needed for a fork is high. This may be the case if the means of
production can not be forked easily. For this situation in a peer
production based society there needs to be a facility to regulate
this. May be it is sufficient to define a facility to replace those
controlling the centralized means of production by those wanting to
I'd like to emphasize that the need for a fork in peer production
projects is low because the internal openness usually makes sure that
the project stays on the right track. The relatively little rate of
forks in peer production projects shows this.
The worries mentioned above probably come from the fact that for
centralized production others depend on this production. This is of
course true since every dependency can be subject to a power relation.
This is the second type of power I see in centralized production.
However, whether a dependency is turned into a power relation depends
on the circumstances.
Again the term abuse is important here. For centralized production to
me it would be an abuse of power if those holding the power would not
care for the best results. This includes availability of the product.
But what could be incentives for such abuse after all? I only can
think of alienated incentives like gaining from scarcity. But in a
peer production regime there would not be scarcity so the incentives
coming from scarcity vanish.
To be concrete: Why do I not have to worry that the Linux kernel
hackers deny my access to the Linux kernel? Well, first of all because
of the external openness of the whole process. In the first place the
external openness of the whole process makes it very difficult to deny
someone access. Because external openness is a pre-condition for peer
production - i.e. it is built into the production process itself - I
don't have to worry that this changes. Because of the external
openness it is also not possible for the kernel hackers to gain
anything from making the kernel scarce.
Well, let's summarize. Under conditions of peer production I don't
need to worry about centralized production because internal and
external openness destroy incentives to abuse both powers coming with
centralized production. In case the means of production can not be
easily forked there needs to be a facility to shift control over the
means of production from one set of people to another set of people
calling for a fork. From this I conclude that there is nothing wrong
with centralized production under a peer production regime.
I think the key aspect here is that under conditions of peer
production controlling means of production means only more
responsibility. The gain of the producers is defined by the
Selbstentfaltung stemming from taking the responsibility and thus
needs no compensation. Since under a peer production regime there is
no alienated use of the powers coming from centralized production
there is no option to abuse the powers. I think it is very important
to understand this when thinking about a peer production based