Nathaniel Tkacz, Nicolas Mendoza and Francesca Musiani
Peer production has often been described as a ‘third mode of production’, irreducible to State or market imperatives. The creation and organisation of peer projects allegedly take place without ‘managerial commands’ or ‘price signals’, without recourse to bureaucratic apparatuses or the logic of competitive markets. Instead, and mimicking the technical architectures upon which many peer projects are based, production is described as non-hierarchical and decentralised. Group dynamics are also commonly described as ‘flat’ and this is captured, of course, in the very notion of the ‘peer’. When tested against the realities of actual projects, however, such early conceptions of peer production are, at best, in need of further elaboration and qualification. At worst, they were always off the mark. Hierarchies persist in peer production, as does competition and market-like arrangements. But perhaps it is the qualities of these new hierarchies and competitive forms that is novel. After all, liberal democracies, dictatorships, corporations, local sports clubs, and families all have their hierarchies but none is reducible to the others.
In the context of earlier understandings of peer production, the question of value and even more of currency has been rather marginal. This issue of the Journal of Peer Production (JoPP) demonstrates that theories and practices of value and currency are moving into the foreground. There has been a veritable explosion of experiments with currency and also a continuing metrics creep in many peer projects and beyond. More fundamentally, though, the question of value and how it circulates through a collective body is central to any mature theory of social organisation. In sociological and economic thought, the historical distinction between ‘values’ and ‘value’ split the non- or at least less-easily-calculable with the seemingly cold and objective world of calculation and universal commensurability. This ‘old settlement’, which never really held, nevertheless helped demarcate the economic from the social. But the intensification and extension of computational processes, manifested most clearly in the rise of big data, has lead to a proliferation of bottom-up procedures to formalise (social) values, rendering them easily calculable and lending order to the decentralised world of peers, but without necessarily replicating capitalistic calculations of value. In this regard, it is no coincidence that the ‘socialist calculation debates’ of the 1920s, which pitted Hayek and von Mises against the likes of Oskar Lange and other socialist economists, are now being revisited and reimagined (see Dyer-Witheford, 2013).
Practices of valuation (see Helgesson and Muniesa, 2013) and expressions of worth are rife in peer production. Wikipedia contributors, for example, award each other ‘barnstars’ for valued service in a range of areas, and the site has long explored ways of rating article quality. These valuing procedures formally began, perhaps, with ‘progressive grading schemes’ (see Tkacz, 2007) and have evolved into more sophisticated experiments in rating pages. On a more mundane level, formal procedures are (necessarily) in place in Wikipedia to determine whether or not an individual contribution is worthy of inclusion. Quality control, in other words, rests on a theory of worth — even meritocracies must define what constitutes merit. Thus, we ask, what does peer production value? But also, how does it value and how can we think with these practices of valuation in terms of their capacity to generate bearable hierarchies?
In this regard, Annika Richterich offers an account of the ‘imperfect’ valuing practices on Reddit. Her paper explores how the quantification of user participation influences interactions and content posted on Reddit: Karmawhores, users who engage in achievement-oriented content posting with the aim of collecting ‘Karma-points’, challenge the allegedly decentralised governance of content within Reddit. The conflict between idealistically and quantitatively motivated contributions leads to a discrepancy between value assessments of content. Richterich argues that ‘Karma’ becomes a quasi-monetary incentive and reward of participation and ultimately “econometrises” participation and inhibits innovative content.
The flip side of this issue is currency. The marriage of cryptography and the dynamics of open-source software development have now produced a working distributed currency system: Bitcoin. When we first envisioned this special issue we could hardly anticipate the twists and turns that would make Bitcoin daily news fodder around the world. Every respectable economist must now have a position vis-à-vis this cryptocurrency. As we write this, new regulations are being rolled out; well-establish exchanges are imploding (Mt.Gox) and several investigative journalists are trying to unmask this currency’s own Wizard of Oz: who is Satoshi Nakamoto?
Amongst all this, it is clear that Bitcoin currently suffers from an excess of popular analysis, and this analysis-overdrive literally feeds Bitcoin’s value as an item of speculation. Within the proliferations of analyses, explanations and diagnoses, arises a problem of expertise. Who can talk about Bitcoin with authority? Economists? Programmers? Anthropologists? Entrepreneurs? Users? Do you need to understand mining and the block chain in order to chime in? As has long been the case with ‘alternative’ or ‘complimentary’ currency experiments, there is no neat separation between the expertise of the academic/observer and that of the practitioner or enthusiast (Maurer, 2005). In this light, JoPP is well positioned to stage hybrid knowledge encounters, as its modus operandi is one of dialogue and a general mingling of researchers and practitioners.
In their contribution, Alexandre Mallard, Cécile Méadel and Francesca Musiani pick up on the question of expertise, but specifically in relation to the dynamics of trust-building with the Bitcoin system. Adopting a perspective grounded in science and technology studies and in the sociology of innovation, they analyse expert discourse on Bitcoin in light of its performative nature. The authors argue that expert knowledge contributes to the very definition and shaping of trust within the Bitcoin system, ultimately contributing to the shared definition of its value as a currency. In another Bitcoin-related contribution, Quinn DuPont combines a media-archaeological approach with his practical experiences of mining Bitcoins to consider the critical capacity of cryptography. DuPont’s intervention is to challenge the dominant view of cryptography as the science of secrecy, and instead he suggests it functions as a new kind of weapon within our ‘societies of control’.
However, whether or not there is a place for currency at all — and therefore exchange and (economic) value — in the utopian visions of commons-oriented thought is contested. For writers like Stefan Meretz, there is a fundamental incompatibility between the logic of markets based on ‘equivalent exchange’ (2013) and the commons. From this position, something like a ‘currency of the commons’ – currently under discussion by writers in the post-autonomist Marxist tradition – is a contradiction. Meanwhile, however, hybrid forms like Bitcoin continue apace, seemingly unhindered by their constitutional paradoxes. We are equally reminded of the fact that capitalism also thrives atop what David Graeber has called a ‘baseline’ or ‘everyday’ communism. Johan Söderberg’s article contributes to these debates through his consideration of the 3D printing project “Rep-rap”. The idea behind Rep-rap is to “spread a self-reproducing 3D printer to the masses”. Enthusiasts see such 3D printers as possibly destroying market relations through their capacity to reproduce a range of commodities. They are part of a vision of “wealth without money”. A particular strength of Söderberg’s piece is the way it situates the Rep-rap project within a long history of utopian thought and practice, which is then mobilized to reflect on the proliferation of “hobbyist-engineers” in the present.
The invited comments section enriches this special issue by diversifying the voices represented. We include two further and in many ways opposing contributions on Bitcoin. The first essay, from Amir Taaki, is a manifesto-like call to arms. Taaki has for a long time been part of the London hacker scene and he presents us with his characteristic political theorisation from the bottom up. Taaki is not interested in theoretical correctness and some readers will no doubt take issue with his willing embrace of the market form as part of a radical politics. What he offers, though, is an important voice that captures the sentiment, or perhaps zeitgeist, of currency-hackers: a radical rejection of the present coupled with the genuine belief that change and even progress is possible. In stark contrast to Taaki’s revolutionary tone, we include a contribution by Beat Weber. Weber, who works for the Oesterreichische Nationalbank (the Austrian Central Bank), writes with the expertise of someone who knows all about the inner workings and functions of modern ‘traditional’ money. He uses this detailed knowledge to critically compare the Bitcoin system with existing money and conclude that Bitcoin falls short on several levels. If Taaki invites us to imagine a future that doesn’t yet exist, Weber asks us to recognise the fundamental achievement of the status quo. Moving beyond Bitcoin, a contribution from Michel Bauwens examines how the current regime of ‘cognitive capitalism’ is unable to redistribute value in a fair way. He argues that we are not only experiencing a crisis of social reproduction for working people, but also a crisis of accumulation of capital in general. Bauwens argues for a social system and policy transition able to solve this crisis of value. And finally, from a legal but not legalistic standpoint, Miguel Said Vieira and Primavera De Filippi outline a license proposal for the commons-based economy that would take into account the history of resource contribution to the commons. The proposal is aimed at protecting commons from commodification, while not insulating them from existing production structures and facilities.
In this issue we seek to advance the exploration and understanding of how the themes of value and currency intersect peer production. This objective presented a double challenge for the contributors and for us as editors. Indeed, the scholarly articles included in this issue have attempted to provide analytical and theoretically grounded investigations of a world that is, on the one hand, often developing more quickly than the academic publication process can account for in a timely way, and on the other hand, mostly shaped by expert-practitioners. At the same time, these contributions seek to engage not only with scholars of related issues within the academic community, but also with practitioners themselves — who, on their end, have demonstrated a strong interest in this dialogue, as the invited comments section shows. The editors would like to thank all of the contributors and reviewers who have made this issue possible. Enjoy!
Dyer-Witheford, N. (2013). Red Plenty Platforms. Culture Machine, 14(0). Retrieved 2014-04-01, from http://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/view/511/526.
Helgesson, C.-F. and F. Muniesa (2013), For what it’s worth: an introduction to Valuation Studies, Valuation Studies 1(1): 1-10.
Maurer, B. (2005). Mutual Life, Limited. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Meretz, S. (2013). ‘Demonetization – replacing transactions with social relations’, Keimform.de. Retrieved 2014-04-01, from http://keimform.de/2013/demonetization-replacing-transactions-with-social-relations/.
Tkacz, N. (2007). Power, Visibility, Wikipedia, Southern Review, 40 (2) : 5-19.