Yochai Benkler at the Gartner Web Innovation / Open Source Summit

I spent the latter half of this week at the Gartner Web Innovation and Open Source Summits. (Officially two different conferences, but held over the same three days in the same location).

Luckily, despite some overlapping sessions, the keynote by Yochai Benkler was shared across summits and I was able to attend.

If you’re not familiar with Prof. Benkler, you should be. His book The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom is the treatise on /study of commons-based peer production. (It’s available in many formats including free versions under a Creative Commons Noncommercial Attribution Share-Alike License).

He’s also the author of “Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm,” in which he argues that:

while free software is highly visible, it is in fact only one example of a much broader social-economic phenomenon. I suggest that we are seeing is the broad and deep emergence of a new, third mode of production in the digitally networked environment. I call this mode “commons-based peer-production,” to distinguish it from the property- and contract-based models of firms and markets. Its central characteristic is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals, rather than either market prices or managerial commands.

What follows are my rough outline notes of his talk. Benkler’s the kind of speaker where the notes or even the slides don’t do justice to seeing him speak – but at least I’ve got some of the highlights and examples down.


We now live in a world in which:

  • The most important inputs into the world’s core economic activities are widely distributed (the ability for globally distributed populations to create information and culture)
  • Behaviors once on the periphery of economic concern are moving to the core (social relationships, friendships, concerns about decency and fairness)

Example: The Encyclopedia – used to be thousands of dollars to get a 24 volume set of bound encyclopedias. That pressure drove the price of the Brittanica down to $500 in 1989. That was then followed by Encarta for $59.95 in 2000. Finally, wikipedia which is free.

Benkler mentioned the Nature study on the quality of Wikipedia entries, and Britannica’s response (PDF) to it. (Nature‘s since responded to the Britannica objections).

The reality is that most hands on practicing scientists felt both were equally lousy. (Never ask a deep expert to evaluate a paragraph level summary of a complex topic – they always find it lacking). But that this was even a serious question to be tacked – that Wikipedia could be said by a reasonable person as potentially comparable in quality to Brianicca – is Benkler’s point.

“Information Production” is now the critical economic activity – at the same time that our ways of producing information are shifting to commons based production.

Benkler outlined a number of concepts (and drew distinctions between them) related to Commons Based Production:

  1. Peer Production
  2. Shared Resource Utilization (things like SETI @Home
  3. Free/Open Source Software

Examples included (I added links):

This is really a new kind of production in that it is not market driven and it is not centralized. We’ve had market-driven, decentralized production (standard firms in the US), we’ve had market-driven, centralized production (large corporations), we’ve had non-market, centralized production (governments and NGOs, non-profits). What we have not had is non-market, decentralized production. (This echoes Clary Shirky’s assertions about Perl being an act of love).

  Market Based Non-Market
Centralized Firms Governments, Non-Profits
Decentralized Price System Social production

Benkler showed a typology of different ways peer production works, in terms of the types of inputs people are asked to make and the types of organizational strategies they use, as well as the kinds of motivations (extrinsic and intrinsic) driving them. The more creativity and knowledge necessary in the types of contributions people are asked to make, the more you have to move to a many to many type collective form of organization. The major examples here are things like Google and Digg, where the effort required by the user is low (making links on the web means helping Google’s algorithm but you don’t think of it that way, digging something is a single click activity); on the other hand Free/Open Source Software requires much more complex structures. (Not sure if he’s overestimating the “volunteer” nature of open source here given the number of developers on may open source projects who are employed and do this contribution as part of their job).

The key question isn’t whether peer production is a fad – it clearly is here to stay – but how it operates and how we can design to encourage the right kinds of collaboration.

Too much of the theories of cooperation has classically depended on “rational self-interest” but newer explorations in a number of fields (sociology, economics, psychology, evolutionary biology) has started to move beyond that.

Benkler’s argument is that people respond in ways which are not always or first self-interested: people resond in ways which are predictably cooperative under certain conditions:

  • Communication
  • Humanization
  • Trust Construction
  • Explicit Norm Creation
  • Monitoring / Peer Review / Discipline
  • Transparency in Governance
  • Fairness (in context – concepts of fairness vary widely)
  • Self-Selection (as opposed to assignment to tasks)
  • Group Identiity and Investment
  • Leadership (older sibling style, not parent)

Benkler made a great point about being wary of introducing extrinstic motivators (ie, money) in systems which have been driven by intrinsic motivators. For example, systems which try to introduce shared ad revenue in the user-contributed-video context may alienate existing users who were motivated by other factors. You try to match love with money and some folks end up not wanting the money and no longer wanting to work for love.

Benkler closed with some of the political impacts of social production – ways in which social production is changing the political reality of people all over the world and ways in which industries, governments, and corporations threatened by social production have tried to push back – the DCMA, Trusted Systems, etc. (Unfortunately by this point he was trying to wrap up very quickly and I didn’t get a good list from his last few slides).

Because Benkler’s operating at a high level of abstraction – thinking about the impacts of peer production at a global and historical scale – it can be hard sometimes to connect his concepts to what companies are trying to do in the “Web 2.0” space – but his elaborations should help us understand the real fundamental shifts underlying what otherwise might look like a “fad.”