Left in the hands of Google or Facebook, the “commons” of all our data stand to enhance corporate wealth while creating a surveillance state. But what if the producers of all that content — us — developed platforms where users shared ownership of this data and played a role in governance? Could all that socially produced value be used for the common good?
Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, says we could be on the verge of a great new tipping point of people power — but not if we don’t grasp the opportunity to organize for a power shift.
Benkler, who is the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, talked with guest host Pam Brown on “The Laura Flanders Show” this spring.
Yochai Benkler: Peer production is the way in which people work together to produce Wikipedia. It’s the way in which people work together to produce the free software that most of the services on the internet run. The basic web servers, the basic script.
It basically means that sometimes 10, sometimes 10,000 people come together and work on producing something without having anyone own it, without having anyone direct anyone else in terms of what to do, just through social collaboration.
Doesn’t that happen fairly regularly in our society? What’s different about what we’ve seen since the advent of the internet with these kinds of peer production?
We’ve always had social production. People have been telling each other stories and sharing the news, but that didn’t compete with The New York Times … People have been helping each other move, but that didn’t compete with the moving industry. What happened in the network economy was that for the first time really since the Industrial Revolution, the most important resources in society were widely distributed in the population.
Computers, sensors, storage, but also inside creativity, availability. People were doing things they’d always done socially together in ways that were important for them socially, but peripheral to the economy of the 20th century. Now we’ve moved from the periphery of the economy to the center of the economy. This was the big transition.
As it’s moved from the periphery to the center, does that lead us to think that people may have more meaningful work, that wealth and our economy might be sometimes more equitably distributed?
This is the really critical question; what peer production, what work in the commons of the internet has taught us, is that it is possible if we organize our work correctly to do things differently, to do things in a much more democratic and collaborative way.
At no point was it reasonable to think that the internet would force it to happen this way. What happened was, that in the 20th century we had a small number of companies controlling a lot of production. In the early 21st century, [it] looked like things were opening up, it looked like cooperation was replacing, but instead what we’ve actually seen is a small number of companies coming in to this widely shared internet commons and layering over some platforms that are able to extract that value for a small number of shareholders, that’s the big challenge.
Is something like that Facebook, for example, or Uber or Airbnb?
If you look at the first generation, at Facebook, for example, what you have is people are producing the value. They share their social relations, they share their conversations — people are producing the value. The one company that has actually provided the platform has collected the most important value, as it were, which is the attention and the data, and converted it into a network that now actually allows them to manipulate the users in order to sell them to advertisers.
Here advertising revenue has really been the core source of problems or risk, because if all of these billions of users were paying even a very small amount, the company could afford essentially not to sell their data, not to control their data. If the users all owned it and paid a membership fee of a dollar a month, you’d have an enormously productive company or obviously different [ones] in different countries.
Instead what you have is that it’s actually the commons — the fact that everybody shares their data creates a new place for some companies to mine. Just as with the commons of the air and the pollution of the 19th and 20th century, where a small number of companies used the commons in ways that increase their wealth, but at the expense of shared culture, data is in some sense today’s pollution.
It takes the commons of social relations, extracts value from it, but captures and eliminates privacy and creates a surveillance society that is completely new to us. That’s at least the risk.
Is my posting on Facebook a form of labor in that context?
I don’t think that it’s a form of labor. It’s a form of being; it’s a form of social relations. The problem here, unlike with Uber, is not extracting the value of your labor, because I think what you do on Facebook is much more akin to what you did in leisure.
It’s the fact that you are producing something that has value, and in the process of giving you the ability to do it, the company is capturing the value in a way that doesn’t respect what you brought in to it — which is your social relations, your sense of identity and privacy — and instead commodifies everything.
It’s more of an extraction and mining industry than it is a labor extraction company. That makes it very different from some of the companies that have been called sharing economy, which are really much more on-demand economy like Uber.
Let’s go a little bit into that …
Uber shares some of the basic economics of early peer production in terms of very low transaction costs, of bringing gadgets to say it cost[s] very little money to get people to agree on what to do. That was very important for people basically not having to pay anything to agree to work on Wikipedia …
The problem is that Uber in many senses is free-riding on a whole set of social platforms and social capabilities that public activity is offering without actually giving back. You start with the roads …
I want to think about the possibility that peer production of this kind could be something that’s positive economically or socially, that could help with inequality or that could help diminish inequality. How can that actually happen now?
One of the most exciting developments in the past year or year and a half has been the increasing call in a variety of sectors for cooperativism. The call to build systems that would replicate some of the conveniences and efficiencies of the on-demand economy, but using platforms where users share the ownership and the governance and the management of the platform, rather than simply leaving them to investor-owned firms …
Translate what we learn from peer production in Wikipedia and free software into the fact that people can organize themselves on this shared platform. If we can build that, what we’ve learned historically is that cooperatives emerge and can compete in markets, but they don’t dominate a market. You need to want to do it, you need to build it, and if you build it, it can be sustainable.
It won’t necessarily knock the competition out of the market, but it also won’t die. If you build it, then you have a real opportunity for all of those people … to be their own managers, to govern themselves and to govern themselves in such a way that assures a security of income.
That shares the risk instead of simply extracting the value for the few and externalizing all of the risk on to the actual workers and providers.
On the other hand though, isn’t there a risk inherent to having individuals take on full responsibility for all of their labor? For example, workers over the course of the last 150 years have really been fighting for better work conditions, shorter hours, safer conditions, things of this nature. When people come together in a sharing environment that now is economically productive, won’t some of those protections that workers fought so long for go away?
It’s important to recognize what the reality is against which this is developing. Contingent work wasn’t invented by the on-demand economy. Contingent work has been a steady process since the ’60s and ’70s [within] companies like what started out as Kelly Girls, teaching management that they could rely on workers who were actually not like the classical worker in the firm with all of those protections …
The question of online cooperativism now is not relative to the 1950s and ’60s idealized family wage; it’s the reality of increased contingency in multiple sectors. The question then becomes, can cooperatives allow workers to be each other’s mutual assurance company, to essentially say, we share the work, we share the risk, we spread it among all of us, so that part of what we’re doing together is actually trying to recreate some of the stability, some of the dignity that was historically associated with lifetime employment in the firm, but with the flexibility of these more fluid network environments.
Are cooperatives just going to become incorporated into basically a capitalistic common? Or is there a possibility they would move us into a different form of social relation?
I think cooperatives provide a serious alternative to capitalism. If by capitalism we mean the basic idea that the means of production or organization production are owned by people who own the capital. These people who own the capital are fundamentally different from people who provide the labor and people who use and consume the goods.
Instead, [within cooperatives] you have a model where control over the resources, negotiation and governance of how production happens, how distribution happens, [and] what is responsible consumption [are] negotiated within a population of people — some of whom are providers, some of whom are users, many of whom are both.
That’s capitalism in the sense that it’s still a market economy. It’s not a state-ordered economy. [But] it is a fundamentally different relation. It’s a relation where production is social, where meaningful work and a decent living are the basic commitments, more than shareholder value, which is not an independent value.
You can watch Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, on “The Laura Flanders Show” on LinkTV, FreeSpeechTV and teleSUR, and find out more at LauraFlanders.com.