Participation not markets

Issue 9 of Jacobin has an article theorizing about the economic feasibility of a planned rather than a market economy:
There is a discussion of ‘Participatory Economics’ as an alternative to market prices as the guiding signals in an economy. The basic idea is an iterative annual process whereby everyone in a society anticipates their annual consumption of all goods, and this is matched to the society’s productive capacities to generate a set of prices. Based on these prices people go through the consumption projections again, after a few iterations, it is possible to know how to direct economic activity pretty well.

Zara and Public Participation

The NYTimes recently had an article about the clothing company Zara ( It turns out that what’s distinctive about Zara is it’s operations. By having a distinctive supply chain and innovation model–definitely a post-Fordist flexible specialization type thing–they’ve managed to grow into this huge company.

So what’s interesting from the PartLab pov is how they crowdsource fashion trends. Basically they use the stores and sales people as information gatherers. Shoppers are giving Zara information about fashion trends when they ask sales people for clothing with particular features. Sales people note these requests and tell them to store managers. In weekly phone conversations with higher ups, store managers pass on the kinds of things their customers have been asking for. When those requests seem to be popping up regularly, they are passed on to designers who instantly start designing clothes that reflect them. Zara’s tight operations make and distribute those clothes rapidly and those fashions can appear in stores like 3 weeks after the trend is first spotted.

This is an FSE that uses its store network to produce a non-self-aware OP and harvest ideas from it. Then it sells the ideas back to the OP in the form of clothes. Also, it cultivates the OP in particular ways: Zara’s distinctive operations put new clothes in stores very quickly and relatively few numbers of each item are produced, things are sold quickly and they rarely go on sale. Thus shoppers that care know there will always be new stuff at Zara, that if they see something they like they have to buy it then (b/c it will sell out and never go on sale), and the small production numbers mean they’re buying something relatively unique that they’re unlikely to see someone else wearing at a party.

A professor I know at Anderson is an operations consultant with the company. He might be someone to interview if we start getting interested in how these kinds of innovation happen off the web, or about how the web’s culture of innovation extends elsewhere. It seems that the information gathering process is barely organized, which is interesting. I’ll have to ask him more about it.

Participation and governance in new times

In a recent article in New Statesman (Nov 16 2011) social theorist Will Davies reflects on the “new times” that seem to be emerging through the unfolding crisis which began in 2008. One possibility seems to be the end of the period of “neoliberalism”—or at least the end of some of its intellectual foundations, if certainly not all of them. The basic idea of neoliberalism is that government intervention or collective planning is always doomed to produce problems. In all but the rarest cases, unfettering the self-interested, calculative behavior of individuals would produce greater welfare than collectively planned redistribution. Davies notes that this moral vision has been discredited in particular by the group think and panic behavior of bankers and investors that were the most proximate sources of the crisis. But this failure hasn’t produced a return to a paradigm of regulation, collective decision making, and redistributionist social democracy. Rather it is generating a new way of thinking about human actors as constitutively afflicted by all sorts of cognitive limitations, bounded rationality, subconscious irrational drives, rather than seeing these as marginal deviations from the rational actor. Davies argues that what might emerge is a new political economic paradigm with tools of governance that are based on this view of actors:

“By this account, we are simply waiting for the new paradigm to emerge, with a common expectation that it will draw on neuroscience, behavioural economics, complexity theory and data-mining techniques. Already, the assorted crises of neoliberalism are being framed in psychological terms, be it the hedonism of teenagers, herd behaviour of investors, bad nutritional decision-making, and so on. There is an expectation that financial regulators and central banks will take on expert responsibilities similar to weather forecasters, seeking to depict emergent financial and macroeconomic trends in real time, rather than constructing rationalist models of them.”

What does this have to do with participation? Basically, participation is where the data come from. A basic function of these participatory technologies is to build huge sets of correlations between objects. Google uses our inputs to identify the most useful searches, but it can also help identify flu outbreaks. That’s a crude example, heaven knows what else. Data about purchases from “rewards clubs” do more than target coupons to you; at least, it seems that they should allow companies to identify consumption trends, manage inventory, target what products are likely to succeed in the future. What can be done with the rich network and taste data in Facebook or the health data in Google Health or PatientsLikeMe?

Since the 1960s “participation” has become a powerful political discourse and source of institutional legitimacy. Chris and others are working on this genealogy. Participation, from the Port Huron Statement to Total Quality Management, was conceived as a solution to problems of democracy, bureaucracy, management, efficiency, and so forth. But participation was always more than a technical solution that delivers better “results”. It is also a moral discourse that evokes individual capacities and power, but in a communal, civic, responsible mode—not simply the empowerment and unfettering of the self-interested actor. Indeed the “participant” is something of the cooperative, altruistic counterpart to the purely selfish rational actor. This means that “participation” has a strong normative and ideological force.

Today governments, corporations, non profits, all gain authority by introducing participatory processes into their projects. In biomedicine, for example, these range from comment processes and periods in regulatory decisions; bioethics, IRB, and community consultation panels that include non-expert, “community” members; the NIH even offers grants to patient advocacy organizations to foster their participation. The cultivation of participation is crucial to these institutions’ legitimacy. Thus the meaning of participation is changing, and to think of it only in terms of the problem of cracking open closed and powerful institutions and making them more publicly accountable misses the ways that participation has become a stake in broader political struggle with many actors fighting to define it to their advantage.

The ironic twist here is that participation is fueling the intellectual apparatus (i.e., the correlational knowledge of behavioral patterns) of what may be a new paradigm of governance that is deeply technocratic and non-participatory. The vision of the governance paradigm that Davies sketches isn’t one where decisions are made openly in partnership with human subjects conceived as political stakeholders whose will and investment in decisions must be respected. Rather it is one where human subjects are complex and irrational whose behavior (and happiness) must be managed and optimized.

Part of the task of our lab should be to think of participation as something analogous to the population in Foucault’s famous analysis of biopolitics and governmentality. What happens when “participation” becomes an object of knowledge and manipulation, public and private power, pastoral authority, (even ethical self care)?

Fold it participation

Apparently a major discovery of the structure of a key retrovirus protease was made with the help of online gamers playing “Foldit”. Not only are the players helping scientists with the “drudgery” of research (as in distributed computing or people submitting animal sightings), but these game players are “providing answers beyond the capabilities of experts in the field.” Thus good game players have some kind of very specific expertise that scientists don’t have.

Interestingly the scientists offered authorship to the game winners, but they declined and only asked for recognition for their Foldit teams. The sharing of credit is interesting, and uncommon. But also it seems that there might be an interesting OP dynamic here. Competition in the game seems to have been key, also teamwork. An interesting question for us: where did the teams come from? Were they preorganized or did they organize through the game? What makes the team superior to a bunch of individuals working on the game separately?

Prosumption digital divide

Jen Schradie, a grad student at Berkeley Sociology, has just published an article on the digital divide in user-production on the internet. doi:10.1016/j.poetic.2011.02.003

It enters the digital democracy debate not along the lines we’ve been accessing it (democratic participation vs. exploitation) but in terms of inclusion (democratic participation vs. unequal access/exclusion). She comes down on the exclusion side suggesting that even for those already online there is an extra class gap between those who use the internet for consumption and those who use it for productive activities. She links this to class inequality in two basic factors, control of internet tools (having a good connection at home and a bunch of gadgets) and endowment with a “Internet-in-practice and high-status information habitus” (to coin a phrase). She demonstrates this with data from a large Pew internet use survey.

The overall results aren’t that surprising, and I won’t get into the details very far. There were a couple of curious things; for example, the racial inequality picture is complex or maybe muddled–whites are more likely than other groups to post pictures and videos but less likely to have websites and blogs (actually differences are only significant for whites vs. blacks). Hispanics are more likely than nonhispanics to have websites and post videos. Etc.

Anyway, there are a couple things that might be valuable to us. One is the dataset and analysis that might give us some background information on the demographics of participation as we move forward.

Another thing is that this study, and most like it, pitch the debate at the individual level–the “public” as an inchoate mass of individuals. We’re interested in organized publics but most of the literature is implicitly concerned with THE disorganized public (in the singular).

So here’s at least one question in our different approach. Are the OPs we’re considering all already selecting from the productive, or prosumptive, “elite”? Does everyone already have the “information habitus”? Or do OPs ever draw people from the less “elite”, more ostensibly “passive”, segments of the internet population? Do OPs ever inculcate habitus in participants? Are there differences of habitus in different FSE/OP combinations or is it all just people who are “facile at doing crap on the internet” (to coin a phrase)?

New Article: Ross, Problematizing the User in User-Centered Production

Philippe Ross, Problematizing the user in user-centred production: A new media lab meets its audiences, Social Studies of Science, 306312710385851, first published on December 7, 2010 doi:10.1177/0306312710385851

Haven’t read it yet, but from the abstract: “this study shows how producers distinguish and mediate between users and partners; how they sustain the notion that there is a group of users ‘out there’ whose existence and requirements can be substantiated prior to the creation of specific technical choices; and how user involvement in and of itself is used for the strategic purpose of enticing partners and asserting their control over the production process.”