Saturday, September 30, 2006

TPRC on Peer Production: Opening comments

TPRC, The Promise and Perils of Peer Production: Evaluating Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, moderated by Phil Weiser, Colorado:

Gerald Faulhaber, Wharton: Is social production a revolution? Of course it’s not new. Volunteer teachers, coaches, fire departments, newsletters are social production. What is new is change in costs. Social production isn’t the only thing affected by decreased cost of production – consider retail financial services. (I’m pretty sure Benkler recognizes these points.) Microsoft may badmouth open source, just as it badmouths Oracle; we shouldn’t expect Bill Gates to roll over because our hearts are pure.

Benkler offers a standard characterization of private property as a right to exclude, but also as a right that lets corporations control what we see and hear. Media moguls bend us to their will. He doesn’t think competition overcomes these problems because of transaction costs, so befuddled consumers can’t make free choices. (Wow. Way to dichotomize and ignore degrees of freedom.) Someone should tell the networks this because they’re now deciding which 60% of shows to cancel because they couldn’t get us to watch them, and the movie studios also can’t seem to staple us to the seats.

Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge: Likes Benkler’s sense of optimism. He’s not arguing that networks create utopia or are the ultimate in democracy. But it’s a hell of a lot better than a top-down, centralized, mass-media system we’ve had for the past hundred years.

The term “governance” makes her nervous. That’s not behind the success of open source, Wikipedia, and Second Life. Rather, a policy of openness, modifiability, and transparency – an ability to have a discourse about what the community is doing – is behind these successes. Individuals have to make choices rather than get top-down instructions.

Julie Cohen, Georgetown: There are new things about infrastructure that favor peer production in certain ways, and Benkler urges we make the most of that. It’s hard to generalize about governance because there are so many different examples, so she’ll say something about Wikipedia. Wikipedia is fabulous. There’s a current effort by the Association of Internet Researchers to create a trusted Wikipedia, to avoid problems of authentication and verification, to certify a subset of Wikipedia articles as “trusted” and peer-reviewed. This provoked a lot of debate about how to do it and whether it would be a good idea. She’s not sure it’s a good idea, because Wikipedia allows a conversation about how authoritative knowledge is produced.

We had taken it for granted that there’s a system of peer review and certification that worked, and that there were obvious ways to organize knowledge (Library of Congress classifications), but Wikipedia exposes these things as up for debate. Peer review is good, but we all know it has its defects, and existing systems of academic certification of knowledge function to perpetuate bitter feuds about small things, to entrench the knowledge of certain cliques, and to do other things that aren’t necessarily aligned with fostering knowledge. We might still end up saying Wikipedia made a mistake in any particular instance, but comparing the two is an important thing for scholarship and for pedagogy – teaching your students to distinguish between the systems cultivates critical thinking in new and useful ways. Conversations about problems in Wikipedia are valuable in themselves, by encouraging scrutiny of what and how we know.

Another area: Blogging by people on both sides of Israel-Lebanon conflict sought to open up new windows on what was going on. Rapidly this raised questions: were the photos altered? How do you know what these people say is true? You don’t know. But that’s worth talking about: How do you know what mainstream journalists say is true? The answer sheds light on critical thinking generally.

Eli Noam, Columbia: We meet in physical space, about a physical book sold in private stores (though also available free on the internet), written by a single author, whose major collaborators are physically down the hall from him. Yet Benkler also says everything is different now, networks change everything. This is a tension in the book: Things are pretty much the way they’ve been. Of course it’s possible to organize things in open source, peer production ways. But networks also make other organizations possible, like the amazing gatekeeping role of just two private companies, Yahoo! and Google. Broadband and electronic auctions (eBay) are highly concentrated, which concentration is also enabled by networks.

History: every generation thinks it’s invented sex. Every generation also thinks it has found the way to overcome capitalism. There are centuries of experiments in socialism and anarchism of various stripes, kibbutzim, collectives etc. What is required for these systems to work?

Economics: Benkler sets up a straw man by defining economics very narrowly. Utility, hedonics, incentives, collective action and other concepts are part of economics. Voluntarism usually is about the fun stuff: writing scripts is fun, setting up lights is work (after the first month), which is why we end up paying people to do it. It’s true that tech has decreased some barriers to entry, but has increased others. We’re flooded with content, which means we have to improve the quality to compete, which is why films and newspapers have become more expensive to produce – if you look at cost weighted by viewership, mass content is becoming more expensive. This is where the organizational form of the firm, whether BBC or ABC, comes in.

Of course there’s room for peer production, often to generate a critical mass supporting commercialization. Example: radio, where amateurs created buzz, then entrepreneurs came in. Then the entrepreneurs used the political process to squeeze amateurs out.

Benkler, in the inverse of the joke about economists, is a man who knows the value of everything but won’t talk about price.

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