Journal of Peer Production - New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change
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04 Dec

Value and Currency in Peer Production

Edited by: Nathaniel Tkacz, Nicolás 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 takes 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 equally flattened out — and such flattening is captured, of course, in the very notion of the ‘peer’. This issue of the Journal of Peer Production (JoPP) seeks to scrutinise and advance these earlier understandings of peer production through the exploration of value and currency.

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 procedures, which is 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. Order in this sense is iterative, recursive and topological. In place of managerial commands and bureaucratic hierarchies we have Karma points and the long-tail logic of networks.

Practices of valuation and expressions of worth are rife in peer production. Wikipedia contributors, for example, have long awarded 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 now evolved into more sophisticated ‘rate this page’ metrics, embedded in the bottom of article pages. On a more mundane level, formal procedures are necessarily in place to determine the inclusion-worthiness of individual contributions. Quality control, in other words, rests on a theory of worth. Even meritocracies must define what constitutes merit.

The flip-side of this issue is currency: the marriage of cryptography and the dynamics of open-source have now produced a working distributed currency system. The third mode of production has produced a new market architecture, an awkward alliance between the commons and the private market, in joint antagonism with the State. Bitcoin, as the most notable example, can be understood as a new technics of exchange inspired by the animal spirits of crypto-libertarianism. Whether or not there is a place for currency — and therefore exchange and (economic) value — in the utopian visions of commons-oriented thought is contested. Meanwhile, hybrid forms like Bitcoin are developing unhindered by their constitutional paradoxes. Capitalism, after all, equally thrives atop what David Graeber has called a ‘baseline’ or ‘everyday’ communism. Parasites abound, and the relation between the parasite and the common requires further consideration (see Pasquinelli, 2008).

Current developments of digital currencies are also pervaded by a number of tensions and matters of concern that revolve around the act of creation. ‘Let there be money, and there was money’, but who or what has issued this money? What is the source of the collective agreement to concede value? Is it a commodity-object (like gold), an entity (like the State in the case of fiat), or a particular ethos (as in Karma)? What forms of control are coded into currency systems and who is guiding processes of (re)design? Who plays the role of guarantor when a currency is decentralized? How is the ‘price’ and worth of the currency established once it is out in the world? And, how do experimental currencies sit in relation to the debit-credit duality (e.g. Bitcoin has been said to be debit money, while Ripple has been said to be credit money)?

Finally, the question of trust factors into experimental currencies on multiple levels. Digital currency systems exist because advancements in public key cryptography have developed ways to verify the legitimacy of a morsel of digital information. In this sense, trust takes on a technical quality, whose authority lies with the science of mathematics. That is, we trust that the science behind the crypto-currency will hold in adversarial conditions. But we also trust that currency designers are benevolent and we trust in their expertise and coding competence. How is trust secured in these conditions, how is it perceived, and how do such perceptions feed back into the value and uses of the currency? Bitcoin, it seems, has garnered enough trust to create a working system of exchange, while the Canadian Mint’s proposal for a similar system seems to have failed (on the level of trust) over concerns of increased state surveillance.

This issue of The Journal of Peer Production invites contributions on the themes of value and currency as they relate to peer production. Topics might include but are not limited to:

  • Local, alternative and crypto-currencies;
  • Decentralised currencies;
  • Non-coercive taxation systems and/or experiments/experiences;
  • Analog/pre-digital (or historical) networks for distributed value exchange;
  • Currency and design;
  • Currencies and the commons;
  • Life after fiat (the becoming-uncertain of taxes);
  • What does/should peer production value?;
  • Re-thinking the constitution of value;
  • Theories of non-monetary value and worth;
  • The relationship between valuing practices and project hierarchies;
  • Value, values and peers;
  • Forms of belief in peer production;
  • Automated systems of ranking and distributing value;
  • Theories of exchange, gift and voluntarism;
  • Trust and anonymity in the building of value;
  • Intermediation and ‘guarantees’ in P2P exchanges.

Submission proposals of under 500 words due by 28 January 2013 and should be sent to n.tkacz (at) warwick.ac.uk. Accepted submissions will be notified during February and full papers (approximately between 4,000 and 10,000 words) are due by 22 July 2013. All article submissions are peer reviewed according to JoPP review policies.

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