In this chapter from The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (2006), Yochai Benkler defines “peer production” as a term, and provides ample examples of peer production in networked, computational systems. For Benkler, peer production “characterizes a subset of commons-based production practices,” which are “self-selected and decentralized, rather than hierarchically assigned” (62). He also elaborates that there are four types of commons: 1) commons that are open to anyone; 2) commons that are only open to a defined group; 3) regulated commons; 4) unregulated commons. Of interest, Benkler claims that “some commons, called open access, are governed by no rule” (61). This statement dates the chapter, as OA systems and publications are increasingly regulated and classified (e.g. green vs. gold access). OA is now very much governed by rules about who can access which information, when, and how frequently.
There are some distinct underlying premises in Benkler’s chapter: sharing is good; decentralizing production is good; volunteering is good. The latter belief, especially, reminded me of Jon Bath’s recent keynote at the public forum “The INKE Partnership for Networked Open Social Scholarship,” which took place on September 8th 2016 at the University of Toronto-Scarborough. Bath pushed against the sort of ideas about volunteering that Benkler totes, especially in the context of humanities crowdsourcing projects like Transcribe Bentham. Bath suggested that by outsourcing academic work to volunteers, we unfairly engage unpaid labour to do real, important work that should be paid, and that in doing so we devalue the work in the process. He also argued that most volunteer crowds engaged in online academic projects often hold positions of privilege — that is, they have the time to volunteer, and the education to have a base knowledge of the subject matter and a keen interest in being involved. In the case of Wikipedia, Bath reminded us that the literature indicates that the majority of volunteer contributors to the online encyclopedia are educated white men in their 30s.
Indeed, such humanistic problematizing is beyond the scope of Benkler’s chapter. Rather, he walks us through peer production as a participatory, economic system, and holds up the open source software movement as a poster child. Of particular interest to me was Benkler’s recounting of the development of copyleft, or the share-and-share-alike ethic. Benkler details software developer Richard Stallman’s creation of GNU in the 1980s, along with his eventual licensing of his software under the GNU General Public License (GPL), which gave permission to anyone to copy, alter, and share his softeare; the license only required that any modification and subsequent distribution of the software was done under the same conditions (i.e., share alike).
Overall, Benkler offers a comprehensive overview of peer production in 2006, and examples and references like Napster, KaZaa, Morpheus, and Second Life remind the reader of the chapter’s year of publication, as well as the pace of technological change in the 21st century.
Bath, Jon. 2016. “Networking Networks of Networked Open Social Scholarship: Potential Futures for Online Scholarly Work.” Keynote presentation at The INKE Partnership for Networked Open Social Scholarship,” 8 September 2016, University of Toronto-Scarborough, Toronto, ON.
Benkler, Yochai. 2006. “Peer Production and Sharing.” The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven and London: Yale UP. 59-90.