Grilling Peer Production with Weber

Kreiss, D., M. Finn, and F. Turner. 2010. “The Limits of Peer Production: Some Reminders from Max Weber for the Network Society.New Media & Society 13:243-259. http://nms.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/13/2/243 (Accessed December 14, 2010).

A new article in New Media and Society proposes that we go back to our Weber for a fresh wake-up call concerning the heady promises of peer production. It’s a good article for one good reason: it characterizes some of the basic features of what they call the “consensus view” of peer production. The consensus view includes claims that 1) peer production is psychologically gratifying labor (which is good), 2) it leads to egalitarianism and efficiency 3) it realizes ethical relationships between collaborators (?), 4) that peer production is a mode equally suited to all domains, and 5) that it is nonmarket and nonproprietary. Aside from the cryptic one about ethical relationships, these are all fair characterizations of a “consensus” view… tif you believe such a consensus exists, rather than a cacophony of scholars and pundits with their own reasons: a few first movers (Lessig, Benkler) that have since moved on to their next project, a few loudmouths (Shirky, Weinberger) who don’t really care at all about scholarship but love being in the limelight (Clay Shirky writing for Foreign Affairs!) and a few others (Jenkins and everyone in cultural studies) who are just a little too giddy with excitement about fan culture.

But let’s say there is consensus, and the authors do, then which if any of these claims should be taken seriously. None of them, say the authors, and they suggest that an overriding problem is that consensus scholars are suggesting that peer production is an alternative to, and replacement for bureaucracy (I’m not sure they are doing this, but I can easily take the bait, because I love Weber). Max Weber and Paul Du Gay stand in as consensus scholars of bureacratic rationality (though the authors don’t call them that). In each case of the consensus view, the authors ask: What Would Weber Do? and give answers about the features and advantages of bureaucracy that peer productionists are all too eager to overcome.

So for instance, (1) psychological gratification is discussed in terms of the separation of public and private life. Whereas PP scholars beliive that voluntary autonomy in the choice of projects is good, Weber would suggest that it is instead the expansion of the work ethic (the iron cage) further into the domains of the home and leisure. Rather than progress away from feudalism, PP could potentially lead us closer to it through things like Amazon Mechanical Turk.

(2) egalitarianism and efficiency. Bureaucracies promote rule-governed classes and therefore class mobility based on credentialling, consensus theorists despise credentialling as anti-democratic. Credentialling is good because it promotes appeal to informal and impersonal rules. But PP consensus says that it is bad because it is an arbitrary display of power and status, and not one based on the quality of work or contributions. The authors don’t actually put it this clearly, but instead mount a weaker attack based on the fact that many PP contributors are always-already credentialed because they are students or otherwise educated, which is perhaps what leads them to PP in the first place. Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and Amazon would seem to upend this argument.

3) rules regulations and accountability are a feature of organizations backed up by the modern legal order. I don’t really understand this stuff about “realizing ethical relationships” but it is useful in that the originary digerati manifestos of ungovernability (John Perry Barlow and Howard Rheingold), both misunderstand the nature of contemporary power and miss the fact that just because something is not regulated does not mean that it cannot be regulated. Indeed, this was Lessig’s first salvo in this debate 15 years ago 1) that in fact the internet is regulatable, and it will be regulated and 2) that there’s more than one kind of regulation. Interestingly, the authors reach the same conclusion we reached in “Birds of the Internet” that PP can mean the persistence of charismatic authority where formal roles and regulations are weak or absent. A nice confirmation of one of our conclusions.

4) “Peer production is equally suited to all domains of social activity”– this is the heart of the problem, really, and despite the critique, the authors fall victim to the claim in refuting it. Which is to say, nobody ever says WHAT peer production is or whether ALL Peer Production is the same. Clearly it is not, but how might one distinguish one form from another? Does the consensus (or the critique) include twitter and facebook? Does it include question and answer sites, restaurant reviews? Does it include Free Software or citizen science? Is it all of the Internet? (Surely not). Whence this vagueness about what peer production means? In any case, their point is that lots of social problems require bureaucracies: disaster management, drug safety etc. and that most (all?) peer production is unsustainable, cannot muster large resources, does not have standard operating procedure, etc. But all this just supports the argument that Peer Production is a New Mode of Production (opposed to bureaucracies) rather than interrogating the kinds of hybrid forms being produced today.

5) And of course it is not non-market or non-proprietary. No argument here, since this is the biggest fantasy of all. However, there are different meanings to this phrase in different authors. For Benkler and Lessig, who are both Law and Economics scholars, the phrases suggest only that these activities fall outside of price-based mechanisms for the allocation of goods. This too is obvious and uncontroversial… at least in some cases (i.e. it’s true of Linux, but not of Amazon Mechanical Turk). The obsession with “monetization” in Silicon Valley is exactly about this problem of making the non-market into the market. But there are other meanings to those phrases: the gift economy stuff, the analysis of reputation as a good, and so on… but certainly it cannot mean that peer production somehow falls outside of industrial (bureaucratic) capitalism entirely, that would be utmost fantasy.

In some ways the injunction to return to Weber is refreshing, but it puts us in a sticky spot. Weber’s analysis is about the *success* of rationalization. The rest of the 20th century has been about its rather catastrophic failures. Despite the promise of a procedural rationality governing democracy, the fact remains that procedures are co-opted, that money trumps politics and that bureaucracies have pathological characteristics that produce inefficiency, inequality and psychological and physical harm, just not everywhere or always. Perhaps the issue is more with the all or none thinking involved in hypostasizing either “bureaucracy” or “peer production” than it is with forgetting one or celebrating the other.