Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Tuesday, September 21, 2004day link 

 Burning Men
The yearly Burning Man finished a couple of weeks ago. I haven't succeeded in ever going so far. Usually thought of it a bit too late to make plans, and it wasn't easy for me to pull a week out of the calendar. But I can at least enjoy other people's experiences and pictures and hook into the spirit of the thing. Paul and LVS23 have reports at FutureHI, here and here. OK, it is obviously all a bit beyond description, and something to experience, so just a couple of inspiring tidbits here, from Paul:
About an hour later I ran into Dlight of Tribal Oasis, who spoke eloquently of creating this type of post-modern tribal community full time. His ideas are very compelling and he now has me convinced of their attainability. He went on to tell me that regardless of what we've been told, hierarchy has ended and we now need to get used to living without those rules. The technologies of liberation are expanding so fast, that hierarchy simply cannot survive, and so we as a species need to finish the job of deprogramming ourselves out of this primitive hangover. He also mentioned that the singularity is really just another form of misguided monotheism, another type of hierarchy. The future is not a singularity, but a Cambrian explosion of diversity and creativity heading out in every direction.
Hey, I'm with you. I want to believe!
Burning Man is a super-condensified experience - a day can seem like weeks have passed. I never escaped the feeling that I had landed on some beuatiful alien planet filled with novel delights at every turn. This alien feeling was immediate and viceral and I didn't want it to end. No manner of sci-fi movie watching can prepare you for it. A cross between Barbarella, Mad Max and Tatooine might give you a hint, but that's all.
And here from LVX23:
In the end change is constant and Burning Man will inevitably fade, hopefully to be replaced by another similar current, appropriately occulted from dilution and evolved to bring newer generations closer to the utopic ideals of it's founders - ideals that are really the same ideals shared by all of us since the infancy of humanity: warm companionship and community, expression and creativity, freedom from meaningless routine, and a communion with the ineffable and un-namable mysteries of creation. Burning Man is simply one point in time carrying the current onward, sustaining and nurturing the human spirit as it blossoms into hyperspace.
What can I say. Yes, we want it. Life could be different. It takes felt experiences to really take us somewhere else, where we better belong. Critical mass can happen at any time.
[ | 2004-09-21 10:29 | 6 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 Marxism, Open Source and New Economy
picture Adina Levin posts Red Penguin about whether or not the open source movement is some kind of contemporary marxist thing. She has read Coase's Penguin, which is a classic paper written by Yochai Benkler, providing an economic explanation of open source software and other peer production endeavors like Wikipedia.

You know, open source software is developed mostly by people who work for free, who give their work away to the general community, and who don't seem to be much interested in profits. Is it some kind of communist conspiracy?
Marxism argues in favor of collective production and against monetary rewards out of political belief that capitalism is inherently exploitative. The way to ensure a just society is collective production where production is organized and rewards are distributed fairly through central planning. But centrally planned collective production proved inefficient and corrupt.

The first puzzle about open source peer production isn't whether or not developers have marxist political beliefs, but why it works, especially since the Marxist collective model failed miserably.

This is what Benkler explains elegantly. Coase's Penguin builds on the theory of Ronald Coase, who explained in the 30s that firms exist when the cost of separate transactions with many independent parties is greater than the price-efficiency of a competitive market. The problem Coase was trying to solve at the time was to explain the persistance and dramatic growth of centrally managed corporations, if a market is an ideal way to allocate economic resources.

Benkler solves today's version of the same problem. If money is the ideal way to incent and co-ordinate production, why are we seeing the persistence and dramatic growth of production methods that don't use money?

Benkler explains that commons-based peer production is more efficient than either firms or markets for information goods, where the costs of communication and distribution are low, and the difficult problem is allocating human creativity. When there are masses of potential contributors, and it's easy to participate in little chunks like an open source plugin or a wikipedia article, the best way match skills and work is a million little decisions by independent contributors.

Mandatory, Marxist-style collective farming doesn't benefit from these resource allocation efficiencies. Workers on collective farms have pre-defined work and can't leave. Collective farms don't gain the benefit of unique, voluntary contributions by thousands of distributed workers.

Another attribute of political marxism is an belief in mandatory equality. Peer production projects often have a meritocratic culture with dramatic inequality, where founding leaders and high-value contributors have greater prestige, influence, and sometimes financial reward. It's not considered inherently unjust that leaders of open source projects like Perl and Python have received grant, foundation, and corporate funding to do their work (although visible leaders of peer projects can also become lightning rods for criticism).

Another marxist value is opposition to a money economy. Cash is seen as a symptom of the alienation of workers from the products that result from their labors.

Clearly, the motivation of many thousands of open source, wikipedia, livejournal, and other peer content producers is non-monetary. But is it anti-monetary?

Benkler deals with the incentive question in the excellent third section of Coases Penguin. Benkler makes an astute distinction between activities where money is commonly thought to be an inverse motivation (sex), and where it is seen as complementary (sports, music). Many people who like basketball would love to be NBA stars. By contrast, most people who like sex would not like to be prostitutes.
So, a few thoughts, related to how we might more pervasively live in a different kind of econmy.

A central question there is why we indeed still do have a system that is dominated by centralized corporations, as opposed to a real free market. As she points out, Benkler, or rather Coase, said that firms exist when the cost of separate transactions with many independent parties is greater than the price-efficiency of centralized ventures. Large corporations are largely counter to a free market. They work quite a bit like communist governments, just with even greater incentives for greed, and the removal of any ideals of providing for the population or having them live in equality. And the corporations do compete with each other, and with whatever people do in a non-corporate way. But the somewhat mysterious puzzle is how come big inefficient bureaucracies actually CAN compete successfully with individuals and small groups in a free market.

Part of the secret, I think, is that capitalist ventures aren't doing what most people sort of intuitively think they're doing. A central tenet in Marxist thinking was that what is really valuable is the work that people do. The actual work that individuals put out is what the economy should be based upon, not the capital it is financed with, or the profits one might extract from it. And somehow most people seem to assume that their work output is valuable, and that's what they're being paid for, and that's what makes the economy work - that people do good work, which creates value. And of course, the economy wouldn't work if there weren't people doing good work, but it is rather far removed from what really makes the wheels turn.

Most corporations work quite a bit like a communist country did. I.e. the actual work people do has rather little to do with anything. A majority of people have figured out how to get through the day, looking like they're doing their job, without really doing much of anything. Despite western propaganda, making it look like everybody were in slave labor camps, the truth about work in for example the old Soviet Union was more in the direction that there wasn't a whole lot to do. Let's say you were a baker. It would be common to show up for work, and then around lunch time you'd run out of materials, no flour to bake with, so you'd stop working. After a long lunch, there'd maybe be something more to do, but most likely you'd go home early. It was the fault of central planning, and since you couldn't do anything about it, you just sort of made it through the day. And there was then plenty of free time to get really educated, or to drink, or whatever. None of it in very good style, but you were at least assured a living, and you probably weren't overworked. Now, a western corporation or a government job isn't all that different. It will produce a higher standard of living, albeit with much less security, and most people have figured out how to look busy all day long, and things are better planned, so one doesn't run out of paperclips in the middle of the day. But it is still the same situation that for at least 90% of the workers, what you're doing doesn't make much difference, and you're just sort of keeping up appearances, even if you're actually working quite hard. Many of you work for corporations that could fire 10,000 people if "the economy is bad", and it still wouldn't make much difference.

Now, let's say we set up a grassroots network of people who were exchanging their work for money. A very flexible and full-featured thing, allowing you to quickly find qualified workers for a job, and to always get the best work for the best price. You would be able to act on opportunities quickly, by selecting out good people, structuring attractive proposals, doing the work, and moving on to a different constellation when it is done. That kind of setup ought to be many times more efficient and competitive than corporations that are slow, bureaucratic and wasteful.

The annoying thing is that it probably isn't. And despite sounding very sensible, it would miss how things really work. Most of us are not just interested in working hard and being rewarded fairly for it. We'd much rather work as little as possible, but have a good time, and be rewarded unusually well for it. We'd rather get paid handsomely without any relation to what we actually do or don't do. And that's the point where the big centralized capitalist corporation wins out over the competition. Sofar the best of all worlds. For the people who're in the loop, at least. Most of the executives, the investors and the workers get away with being paid well, or even amazingly well, without doing much real work, and without having to be measured on their actual performance. I.e. what they do to increase the quality of life in the world.

Most of what we actually need in the world could be produced by a small percentage of us working. And a small percentage of us are indeed doing something very valuable and needed which we're inspired and excited to do. The rest are mostly passing time filling up a slot that probably didn't really need to be filled, if somebody took a bigger view on it. OK, good and useful things get accomplished too, even by people who aren't quite in it, and who're mostly looking forward to the lunch break. But really what is going on is that there are some big economic machines in motion. What makes those machines run is only to a rather small degree the quality of work done, even though some work of sufficient quality has to take place. What makes them run is to a higher degree the creative financing that allows somebody to manufacture the capital for them, without any exchange of real work. And the fact that the whole thing is so opaque that hardly anybody can understand how it really works. And then it works on how well the machine succeeds in guiding or matching the desires and whims and habits of the public.

It is about creating a value chain. Not necessarily real value, but economic value. If you own a patent which forces some people to pay you a billion dollars per year in licensing fees, you can hire 10,000 people, and it doesn't really matter what they do, and you'll still have a lot of money left over, and everybody is happy. Or you set up a manufacturing and marketing machinery that makes everybody eat your baked beans. And again, it doesn't matter much in the small what the employees are doing, as long as an acceptable quality of baked beans come out, and people feel like eating them. Everybody involved gets paid a small piece of the value produced by the big system in place.

A network of good people doing work for money can't easily compete with that, unless they can manage to set up similar kinds of value chains. Just doing work and being paid isn't quite good enough. If I look at the amount of money I need per month, and I consider making that by doing work for people I know who need something I can do, it looks pretty grim, unless I actually can do something very tangible and sought after. The more likely thing I'd do is to find somebody with a big value chain for whom the kind of money I need is very insignificant.

But now, open source, it actually works. Why? Unfortunately, to a large degree because the other things are in place. There are plenty of qualified people around who have a day job that doesn't inspire them, and which doesn't have them do much, but which pays them. So there's plenty of energy left over to do something that is actually valuable, based on one's own free choice. That wouldn't happen if one came home from a 60 hour week of manual labor, all worn out. Wouldn't happen if one had no source of income. Might happen when one is on unemployment, or while one is studying, and one's living and one's studies are paid for.

But the success of open source economics shows us a glimpse of how the world could work. People working for the common good, of their own free will, collectively doing higher quality work than one could buy for money. And somehow still being supported. They leverage this out of a capitalist economy which otherwise is totally antipathetic to such activites, and despite considerable odds against it, they demonstrate new kinds of economic relationships, and the potentially superior qualities of free organization.

But what would it take for such principles to actually replace the old, inefficient, but very powerful institutions?

They would have to not only be superior in terms of getting useful work done, which is by now well covered and documented, if certain conditions are met, but also superior in terms of generating life support value. I.e. they'd have to pay the rent and put food on the table.

One way would be to create ways for more loosely organized groups of people to capitalize their activities, and hook into common value chains. Co-operative business ventures. Maybe doesn't have to be done with dollars that come out of a bank, but maybe it can be done with other kinds of currencies. Obviously, if big value is generated for many people, there ought to be some formula for inverting that into a reward for everybody who were involved. Either way, at the same time the problem has to be solved how large heterogenous groups can communicate well, and coordinate their activities. Maybe the right kind of economic system will implicitly carry the answer to that too.

The open source approach would not be to figure out how to force somebody to pay directly for one's work. Rather, treating it as a universal problem to solve, and once one solves it, one gives the solution to anybody else who wants it.

Much harder to do with the physical world than with software, but maybe it mainly is software or blueprints that is needed. At least a little down the road. I need to have food to eat. So does 6 billion other people. What if somebody came up with ways of helping me fill that need on my own. You know, like the plans for a selfcontained hydroponic system I can have in the basement. Some nano-tech replicator would be better of course. But the point is that somebody can come up with a solution I can install locally, rather than me having to be perpetually hooked into a farming, factory, super-market system. A solution that puts the ball in my court.

Yes, currently we can't compete with big corporations and governments on many points. Because some of what we need and want requires big machinery, and because the collective activities of thousands of people better can be pointed in a particular direction with hierarchies and propaganda. However inefficient and wasteful they might be, they still has an edge over anarchic self-organization when it comes to big central projects.

But the scales tip a bit whenever a technology becomes small and cheap and virtual enough that it can end up under your personal control. Like when you were able to buy a personal computer for the first time, and you could create your own typeset newsletters, and you could program it, and then you could create websites for millions of people to see, easily and cheaply. Soon computer graphics will have gotten far enough that you might author a fairly sophisticated feature movie on your PC. Little by little, the keys are handed to you to do things on your own that you previously were dependent on corporations for. OK, you can't build your house or your car that way, or grow your food. But it is fairly inevitable that eventually you can, based on open source blueprints. Along the way some big corporations are going to try to stop you from actually using what they've sold you, but the cat will be out of the bag. If you sell LPs and I have a tape recorder, the economics of music distribution have already inextricably changed, no matter how many laws you have passed forbidding me to hit record.

A free market is good. For people to participate in a free market, they need to be free to choose, and they need some kind of tools that allow them to have something valuable to give to others. The internet and open source have opened up a bunch of areas, creating new free markets. Now we need better communication tools, to allow larger numbers of people to coordinate their actions. We initially need ways of capitalizing such networks of people. And then we need more technologies virtualized and made free. And eventually the centralized capitalist bureaucracies will go the way of their communist cousins, and crumple under their own weight, because they can't compete with well-organized free people. Will take some work, but it is probably inevitable.
[ | 2004-09-21 19:46 | 8 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

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