Open Ambition: Open Source and Human Motivation

This weekend is Supanova in Brisbane, and I’ll be making a post about that tomorrow night, but today I want to discuss the issues that I have with the otherwise excellent work of Yochai Benkler in his Wealth of Networks and his article, Coase’s Penguin.

I have to say, I’ve never been more conflicted in reading a work before. I think Benkler’s work is watershed stuff… perhaps not quite so important as Castells‘s epic trilogy on the Information Age, but certainly the most important work describing a monumental change in economic power relations, as a result of human appropriation of networked technologies. Significantly, Benkler is adamant that human motivations are crucial in determining the manner in which open source technologies in particular are being diffused in business marketplaces. It is not the technology that is changing the world, but the manner in which the technology is appropriated and diffused that matters. Thus his vision is far from being technologically determinist. Instead Benkler’s school of thought is decidely social constructivist.

I probably need to compose a full article to properly convey my concerns arising from this work, rather than a vernacular and glib blog post, but I feel compelled to use this forum to express something quickly and efficiently. Related to my last discussion on technology, innovation and risk, I have really been struggling with some of the key assumptions in Benkler’s work and the oversimplification apparent in much literature pertaining to open source as being driven by a gift economy.

My problem comes down to motivation. As I have noted previously, the gift economy is a massive oversimplification of the nature of open source. It assumes that all participants in an open source community want the same outcome – a true realisation of an entirely socialist and participatory concept of shared community benefit. It also assumes that there are not differing perspectives on how that might be achieved or why it results collectively from those differing perspectives.

I’m really struggling here, because I acknowledge fully – as a product and advocate of the hacker ethic – that participation in open source communities does certainly look like a gift economy. Only it’s not. And I know, because I’m part of it and I see it happening in such communities. I’ve seen this over and over. And I also know that people who are part of these communities continue to be blind to what is happening to leaders in such communities. This isn’t just a gift economy. It’s as hegemonic as any other structure. The only the difference is that the benefits accrued to leaders in such networks aren’t valued in dollars. They’re valued in reputation and personal ambition/fulfillment.

I don’t know how else to approach this, so I’m going to focus on just two assumptions arising from Benkler’s work:
1. The key question arising from large and medium scale collaborations in open source communities is how to understand these as instances of socially productive behaviour; and
2. Peer production provides an implicit evaluation system for determining the most efficient means of tackling a problem.

Pretty much all the rest of Benkler’s work rests on these two assumptions. But I’m worried about both assumptions. Firstly I believe that the key question arising from the phenomenon of collaborative production in open source communities is not how we understand them, but the question of how similar these practices are to other activities in human society over time. This isn’t actually new behaviour – and it’s profiled as such. It’s remarkably consistent human behaviour, rather than aberrant. And there are lessons to be learned as much from consistency of human behaviour as from aberrance. Benkler describes the open source movement as a decidedly aberrant mutation in economic development in the context of capital markets, and in that sphere he’s certainly correct; from a business perspective, what is happening in open source communities looks a lot like the proletarians rising up against the bourgeois, in a technologically facilitated revolution. The trouble is that he’s looking at open source through a very narrow window. Open source wasn’t premised on productivity in an economic sense – or at least, it wasn’t concerned with productivity that could be financially valued (and thus sold or insured). Open source was always regarded – and still is, to all intents and purposes – as exploratory and educative. Participation in open source communities was as much about recognition and affiliation with like minds as it was about perfect code and efficient outcomes. Further, participation was based not merely on skill sets and ableness, but on the determination of any community member to work faster, longer and more effectively than their fellow community members. Whether articulated as such or not, there has always been a substantive element of ambition demonstrated in open source communities. Exemplified by the ongoing quest for the most efficient and most functional code, or the most innovative vision for an application suite, this natural contest among participants in open source communities mean that the economic structure of these communities cannot entirely be attributed to a gift economy.

Even so , we come to the second assumption: that peer communities can naturally determine the best operatives for a specific task. This assumption worries me most of all. Yes, it makes complete sense that problem solving is best conducted by those with the skills to complete a task completely and efficiently. This is true for all tasks that are clearly defined, or that have no fateful aspects associated with them. But the trouble is that seeing problem solving as a finite activity, best served by skill is a decidedly defeatist perspective. It assumes that the natural hegemony of a community will resolve itself and solutions to problems will evolve naturally. Neither fate, nor curiosity nor democracy is being considered as a means of solving problems. No doubt I’ll be lambasted by the strongest advocates of open source as being a kook for saying that open source communities can challenge democratic practice. But what we’re seeing here is a reputation based outcome for individual investment. That might be fair, but possibly isn’t democratic. What’s more, the possibility of an inefficient but innovative perspective on a problem could potentially be marginalised when a meritocratic polity based on speed and skill takes precedence over democracy.

And that brings me to the last point I want to raise. Being involved in a collaborative project doesn’t necessarily mean that a participant needs to derive personal or collective benefits. Hell, being involved in an individual project doesn’t require benefits. A true gift economy is based on reciprocity. But human kindness (and in particular, feminine kindness) has historically been demonstrated to be based not on reciprocity, but on charity. It is possible, that some participants in open source communities give of their time and their skills, not because they benefit either reputationally, educatively, or financially. Sometimes people just give because they can.

Ah dear. I can hear the outcries already. Clearly I have contradicted myself. Well, yes in some ways I have. But my point is that the assumptions being raised as foundation characteristics of an open source economy in the work of Benkler are not quite as flawless as may appear on first reading.

Now I want comments on this post. if you have a point to raise, bring it up! Comment. Contribute. We need a better praxis to discuss this issue. Only by discussing can we hope to understand the society in which we are already so deeply entrenched.

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