Peer Production and Spontaneous Order at Catallarchy

by on February 20, 2007 · 24 comments

Cool! I just stumbled across this 4-year-old post at Catallarchy making a point that I’ve mentioned a few times in the past: peer production isn’t an assault on the principles of a free society, but an extension of those principles to aspects of human life that don’t directly involve money. Jonathan Wilde offers the blogosphere (and specifically, technorati) as an example of the same phenomenon:

One of the things that undoubtedly adds to Technorati’s success is that Sifry knows blogging. He runs a blog himself. He has likely had to spend a late night tinkering with Movable Type. At one time or another, he probably has wanted to know who is reading his blog, or has wanted a way to search other blogs. He has, in the words of Friedrich A. Hayek, “the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place”.

What inventions like Technorati do is give structure to the blogosphere. And Technorati is not the only tool that does this. The Truth Laid Bear Blog Ecosystem acts as a filtering mechanism to display the blogs that are most frequently linked by other blogs. Blogrolling can create a useful, easily manipulated directory of blogs to visit regularly. The Trackback feature in Movable Type and Typepad has made it easier to see which other bloggers are commenting on your posts on their own blogs. The comments feature allows interactive discussion to take place without interfering with the media look of a blog. Archiving by category, date, and author allows readers easy ways of browsing the past material. RSS feeds allow delivery of blog content to newsreaders so that readers can organize their favorite blogs in a single window.

Each of these implementations were created by different individuals, such as Sifry, pursuing their own ends. There was no central authority barking out orders or making grand designs. The inception of a solid anatomy to the blogosphere was an entirely peripheral phenomenon.

This is an excellent point, and one that Jim Harper and I are hoping to expand upon in the near future: a lot of the intellectual tools that libertarians use to analyze markets apply equally well to other, non-monetary forms of decentralized coordination. It’s a shame that some libertarians see open source software, Wikipedia, and other peer-produced wealth as a threat to the free market rather than a natural complement.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    A major source of ideological conflict is that in non-monetary coordination, the interests of capitalists and entrepreneurs are no longer aligned.

    For example, Linus Torvalds is a great entrepreneur, and his management of the Linux community has been a key factor in the the success of Linux. Entrepreneurship is essential, and is valorized in non-monetary coordination.

    By contrast, there is no way a capitalist — someone who wants to get a primarily monetary return through investment decisions — can benefit directly from non-monetary coordination. He or she may benefit indirectly, for a while, but the whole trend of the process is against monetary profits from monetary investment.

    This isn’t a problem, as long as we don’t become confused, and think that a falling rate of return on financial investment is a bad sign.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    A major source of ideological conflict is that in non-monetary coordination, the interests of capitalists and entrepreneurs are no longer aligned.

    For example, Linus Torvalds is a great entrepreneur, and his management of the Linux community has been a key factor in the the success of Linux. Entrepreneurship is essential, and is valorized in non-monetary coordination.

    By contrast, there is no way a capitalist — someone who wants to get a primarily monetary return through investment decisions — can benefit directly from non-monetary coordination. He or she may benefit indirectly, for a while, but the whole trend of the process is against monetary profits from monetary investment.

    This isn’t a problem, as long as we don’t become confused, and think that a falling rate of return on financial investment is a bad sign.

  • http://weblog.ipcentral.info/ Noel Le

    It’s a shame that some libertarians see open source software, Wikipedia, and other peer-produced wealth as a threat to the free market rather than a natural complement.

    Well, then don’t propose to eliminate software patents, repeal the DMCA and try to hasten the demise of IP firms in support of peer-production. That might make your arguments at least more maintstream, and not appear as if they reflect some purely ideological bent.

  • http://weblog.ipcentral.info/ Noel Le

    It’s a shame that some libertarians see open source software, Wikipedia, and other peer-produced wealth as a threat to the free market rather than a natural complement.

    Well, then don’t propose to eliminate software patents, repeal the DMCA and try to hasten the demise of IP firms in support of peer-production. That might make your arguments at least more maintstream, and not appear as if they reflect some purely ideological bent.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Open source software isn’t really something that people do for the fun of it, it’s a business. Consultants contribute to Linux to get their name in the code, and IBM and HP pay people to work on it to get code they can use to sell hardware. Open source is capitalism one step removed, just like broadcast TV supported by commercials and Internet search supported by ad words.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Open source software isn’t really something that people do for the fun of it, it’s a business. Consultants contribute to Linux to get their name in the code, and IBM and HP pay people to work on it to get code they can use to sell hardware. Open source is capitalism one step removed, just like broadcast TV supported by commercials and Internet search supported by ad words.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    Richard Bennett writes:

    Open source software isn’t really something that people do for the fun of it, it’s a business.

    This is by no means true in general; some do have monetary incentives, others do it for entirely non-monetary reasons. There is plenty of data on this.

    Open source is capitalism one step removed

    This is just false. Capitalism provides returns to owners of capital. In open source, no one gets returns from ownership. Contributors may or may not get monetary returns, but even if they do the returns aren’t coming to them through investment or ownership.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    Richard Bennett writes:

    Open source software isn’t really something that people do for the fun of it, it’s a business.

    This is by no means true in general; some do have monetary incentives, others do it for entirely non-monetary reasons. There is plenty of data on this.

    Open source is capitalism one step removed

    This is just false. Capitalism provides returns to owners of capital. In open source, no one gets returns from ownership. Contributors may or may not get monetary returns, but even if they do the returns aren’t coming to them through investment or ownership.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Jed, the plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence”. Show me some examples of people contributing anonymously to Linux and I’ll accept that as evidence of purely non-commercial motives. As far as anecdotes go, I know plenty of contract programmers who get their work from Linux module headers.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Jed, the plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence”. Show me some examples of people contributing anonymously to Linux and I’ll accept that as evidence of purely non-commercial motives. As far as anecdotes go, I know plenty of contract programmers who get their work from Linux module headers.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    Noel Le writes:

    [D]on’t propose to eliminate software patents, repeal the DMCA and try to hasten the demise of IP firms in support of peer-production.

    These are all great examples of the divergence between ownership and entrepreneurship.

    The DMCA is a way some groups get the government to help them extract money from others, with essentially no innovation on their part, and no overall social value. It helps some investors and media catalog owners, and hurts entrepreneurs.

    The consequences of patents and other IP protection are more mixed, but in many cases they inhibit innovation and entrepreneurship. Certainly patent trolls are a pretty clear example of the conflict — they buy patents not to produce anything, but to sue others who do produce something. Ownership vs. entrepreneurship.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    Noel Le writes:

    [D]on’t propose to eliminate software patents, repeal the DMCA and try to hasten the demise of IP firms in support of peer-production.

    These are all great examples of the divergence between ownership and entrepreneurship.

    The DMCA is a way some groups get the government to help them extract money from others, with essentially no innovation on their part, and no overall social value. It helps some investors and media catalog owners, and hurts entrepreneurs.

    The consequences of patents and other IP protection are more mixed, but in many cases they inhibit innovation and entrepreneurship. Certainly patent trolls are a pretty clear example of the conflict — they buy patents not to produce anything, but to sue others who do produce something. Ownership vs. entrepreneurship.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    Richard replies “the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘evidence’” but I did provide evidence via the link. Specifically, drilling down a couple of levels see this
    survey of open source contributors.

    I note that you are not posting anonymously, Richard. Can we conclude that you expect to make money by posting comments on blogs?

    Citing some developers you know who make a living from Linux headers sounds pretty anecdotal.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    Richard replies “the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘evidence’” but I did provide evidence via the link. Specifically, drilling down a couple of levels see this
    survey of open source contributors.

    I note that you are not posting anonymously, Richard. Can we conclude that you expect to make money by posting comments on blogs?

    Citing some developers you know who make a living from Linux headers sounds pretty anecdotal.

  • http://weblog.ipcentral.info/ Noel Le

    Mr. Harris,

    We can argue about the DMCA and software patents some other time. But I would like to tell you that even though I support the DMCA and software patents, my views are at least qualified.

    For instance, I’ve written extensively on reverse engineering- recently arguing that Steve Jobs could settle the FairPlay catastrophe most efficiently by waiving some rights under the DMCA to allow others to tinker with FairPlay without fear of liability. I’ve also written on the fact that while software patents spur innovation in the software industry, that they should be of narrow scope, with their claims disclosing more technical information.

    You will find no similar qualifications from most who embrace peer-production. They think they will take over the world; even if they need to repeal every law to do so. They’re all about blind ideology; which is why they end up with extreme arguments such as those I note above. The free culture movement may say it supports “balanced IPR” policy, but then they criticize every and any instance where IP owners leverage their assets.

    I especially find it a bit humorous that some free culture proponents want to evaluate “freedom” in every microscopic instance, rather than trying to see how some regulations and situations where freedom is subverted may lead to greater overall freedom. I mean, I actually got into a debate with somebody on IPcentral that sounded like he wanted to abolish the laws of larceny and tresspass since they may be curbs to freedom

    Richard Bennett is fundemental right in his remarks above.

  • http://weblog.ipcentral.info/ Noel Le

    Mr. Harris,

    We can argue about the DMCA and software patents some other time. But I would like to tell you that even though I support the DMCA and software patents, my views are at least qualified.

    For instance, I’ve written extensively on reverse engineering- recently arguing that Steve Jobs could settle the FairPlay catastrophe most efficiently by waiving some rights under the DMCA to allow others to tinker with FairPlay without fear of liability. I’ve also written on the fact that while software patents spur innovation in the software industry, that they should be of narrow scope, with their claims disclosing more technical information.

    You will find no similar qualifications from most who embrace peer-production. They think they will take over the world; even if they need to repeal every law to do so. They’re all about blind ideology; which is why they end up with extreme arguments such as those I note above. The free culture movement may say it supports “balanced IPR” policy, but then they criticize every and any instance where IP owners leverage their assets.

    I especially find it a bit humorous that some free culture proponents want to evaluate “freedom” in every microscopic instance, rather than trying to see how some regulations and situations where freedom is subverted may lead to greater overall freedom. I mean, I actually got into a debate with somebody on IPcentral that sounded like he wanted to abolish the laws of larceny and tresspass since they may be curbs to freedom

    Richard Bennett is fundemental right in his remarks above.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    That’s an interesting survey, Jed, so let me qualify my remarks. My experience with open source and the data in your survey point to this conclusion: there are a lot of people on the periphery of the open source movement who do it for fun and contribute very damn little to the finished product. For every serious FOSS developer, there are probably 20 such groupies, so if you want to talk about who identifies with the FOSS movement and why, you’re right that a lot of people are in it for a social life. Which is sad, really.

    I find it interesting that 95% of FOSS contributors in the survey have incomes of less than $8000/mo, more or less the minimum level required for basic subsistence in the West.

    So here’s my qualified assertion: the developers who contribute the bulk of the important, shipping code in major FOSS projects are in it for the money, but there are plenty of looky-loos hanging around doing testing, and scripts, and other low-level crap.

    If you known of any major pieces of Linux that were written by gainfully employed people contributing to FOSS on their own time, I’d like to know about them.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    That’s an interesting survey, Jed, so let me qualify my remarks. My experience with open source and the data in your survey point to this conclusion: there are a lot of people on the periphery of the open source movement who do it for fun and contribute very damn little to the finished product. For every serious FOSS developer, there are probably 20 such groupies, so if you want to talk about who identifies with the FOSS movement and why, you’re right that a lot of people are in it for a social life. Which is sad, really.

    I find it interesting that 95% of FOSS contributors in the survey have incomes of less than $8000/mo, more or less the minimum level required for basic subsistence in the West.

    So here’s my qualified assertion: the developers who contribute the bulk of the important, shipping code in major FOSS projects are in it for the money, but there are plenty of looky-loos hanging around doing testing, and scripts, and other low-level crap.

    If you known of any major pieces of Linux that were written by gainfully employed people contributing to FOSS on their own time, I’d like to know about them.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    The 2005 US median income was $46,326, less than half of what Richard Bennet says is “the minimum level required for basic subsistence in the West.” I guess our society is in worse shape than I thought.

    People who run large funded software projects know that a lot of the time, effort and money gets spent on “doing testing, and scripts, and other low-level crap” so those are very necessary contributions.

    As for Richard’s hypothesis that “the developers who contribute the bulk of the important, shipping code in major FOSS projects are in it for the money”: I’d be very interested to see research on that. Two examples I know about, Larry Wall, who created Perl, and Robert Love, who wrote the current Linux scheduler, don’t get paid for that work, and have no way to “take it public” and cash out.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    The 2005 US median income was $46,326, less than half of what Richard Bennet says is “the minimum level required for basic subsistence in the West.” I guess our society is in worse shape than I thought.

    People who run large funded software projects know that a lot of the time, effort and money gets spent on “doing testing, and scripts, and other low-level crap” so those are very necessary contributions.

    As for Richard’s hypothesis that “the developers who contribute the bulk of the important, shipping code in major FOSS projects are in it for the money”: I’d be very interested to see research on that. Two examples I know about, Larry Wall, who created Perl, and Robert Love, who wrote the current Linux scheduler, don’t get paid for that work, and have no way to “take it public” and cash out.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Larry Wall probably makes a very fine living with his books, speaking engagements, and consulting gigs. It never hurts for a technical guy to have some exposure. I suggest you take a book at Braden Cox’ post on the relative contributions to FOSS just recently posted at TLF.

    “Bennett” has two t’s.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Larry Wall probably makes a very fine living with his books, speaking engagements, and consulting gigs. It never hurts for a technical guy to have some exposure. I suggest you take a book at Braden Cox’ post on the relative contributions to FOSS just recently posted at TLF.

    “Bennett” has two t’s.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    Braden’s post is interesting but he doesn’t provide enough information to settle the issue one way or the other. The one substantial piece of data — that people follow something like a power law in how much they contribute — is not news, and is pretty much orthogonal to our question.

    To nail down our question we’ll need a definition of whether a developer is “in it for the money” (to use Richard Bennett’s criterial phrase). Just because a developer makes money from open source related activities does not mean they are in it for the money.

    To give an extreme example, if I’m walking down the street and I pick up a quarter, I’m certainly not walking down the street “for the money”.

    Open source developers will often get opportunities to make money because of their reputation, specialized knowledge, social network, etc. — just as any of us will. However this does not imply that the activities that produced that reputation, knowledge, etc. were done so the developer could make more money.

    We can say that someone is “in it for the money” if they choose the option available to them that maximizes their income.

    If we can agree that that is the criterion, I’ll think about how to find or generate data to find what proportion of Open Source contributions are made by people who believe that is their income maximizing option. I’m pretty sure most substantial Open Source contributors are nowhere near making income maximizing choices on how to spend their time, but I’d like to take this from an intuition to a substantiated claim.

  • http://jed.jive.com/ Jed Harris

    Braden’s post is interesting but he doesn’t provide enough information to settle the issue one way or the other. The one substantial piece of data — that people follow something like a power law in how much they contribute — is not news, and is pretty much orthogonal to our question.

    To nail down our question we’ll need a definition of whether a developer is “in it for the money” (to use Richard Bennett’s criterial phrase). Just because a developer makes money from open source related activities does not mean they are in it for the money.

    To give an extreme example, if I’m walking down the street and I pick up a quarter, I’m certainly not walking down the street “for the money”.

    Open source developers will often get opportunities to make money because of their reputation, specialized knowledge, social network, etc. — just as any of us will. However this does not imply that the activities that produced that reputation, knowledge, etc. were done so the developer could make more money.

    We can say that someone is “in it for the money” if they choose the option available to them that maximizes their income.

    If we can agree that that is the criterion, I’ll think about how to find or generate data to find what proportion of Open Source contributions are made by people who believe that is their income maximizing option. I’m pretty sure most substantial Open Source contributors are nowhere near making income maximizing choices on how to spend their time, but I’d like to take this from an intuition to a substantiated claim.

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