Doing the Impossible

There is no "magic" to commons-based peer production. Most of the techniques that have brought free culture products ranging from software to art to electronic hardware have been in play for hundreds or thousands of years. But they do run counter to the patterns of commercial proprietary industry. Due to the massive improvements in communications and authoring technology, we have reached a point where we can be more productive in our "leisure" than we are in our "work". And any labor of love is almost always going to be superior to labor alone.

The Impossible

In this series, I've presented six phenomena—Free Software (GNU/Linux), Free Knowledge (Wikipedia & Project Gutenberg), Free Arts (Creative Commons), Collective Financing (Blender Application & Open Movies), Open Hardware (LART & Open Graphics Project), and Closing the Digital Divide (One Laptop Per Child)—which are succeeding despite the fact that our conventional understanding of society and economics says they shouldn't.

These phenomena therefore represent a fundamental challenge to our understanding, and force a re-evaluation of how the world works, and how it can work. All of these are examples of various applications of "commons based peer production" (CBPP), and have been made possible primarily by the huge gains in the fluidity of information provided by the wide availability of internet access.

Based on experience with successful projects and a little bit of analytical thought, it's possible to infer some important rules for how to make such projects succeed. Of course, many of the rules that you might come across are unsurprising, but I've selected five that really stand out as "counter-intuitive" in that they violate the assumptions that many people coming from an entrepreneurial, corporate, or government project background might make. These are:

  • "Hold on loosely": Use a free-license
  • "Create a community": Focus on community before conceptualizing a product
  • "Divide and conquer": Divide projects down to a very fine scale before implementing
  • "Grow, don't build": CBPP projects are living, organic things, don't try to pin them down or you'll kill them
  • "Be Bold!": Don't shy away from "revolutionary" ideas, they are paradoxically easier to create because they will attract more talent

In my experience, most failures of projects created by newcomers to the CBPP way of doing things can be traced to ignoring one or more of these rules. That's why I selected them as the ones to focus on in this series.

In my experience, most failures of projects created by newcomers to the CBPP way of doing things can be traced to ignoring one or more of these rules

Outstanding Problems

Of course, no system is perfect. There are also a set of problems which, to my knowledge, have not been adequately solved:

  • The gender gap: Less than 2% of free software developers are women! This problem is much less serious in other areas of free culture, much more so among founders of free software projects. At this point, there is little more than speculation as to the causes of and possible solutions to this problem
  • Fund raising: Though the Blender example is promising, it still falls about an order-of-magnitude short of where it needs to be to give corporate financing a run for its money. There are also limited examples of viable business models for certain kinds of free-licensed works. Future collaboration systems should attempt to solve this problem, but it is incredibly tricky (people get crazy when money is involved)
  • Hardware licensing: Open Hardware remains pretty marginal, partly due to the fund raising problem, but there are other problems relating to the licensing, because hardware manufacturing is not legally a "copy" and therefore not regulated by copyright law. This makes pure copyright license protection awkward and incomplete at best
  • Tools for non-software production: There are extremely well developed free software tools for software development, but in all other areas of engineering and creative arts, there remains a lot to be accomplished. This means that many potential CBPP opportunities are limited due to the availability of proprietary tools which many casual developers could not afford. Since the people most capable of writing these tools are not in these development communities, there is a skill/interest mismatch which retards development in those areas
  • Unfair competition: I don't think it's nearly as much of a threat as many people fear, but there is no doubt that certain threatened corporate and government bodies have attempted to retaliate against CBPP projects and products through various marketing and legal means

By no means should these problems be viewed as insurmountable. Indeed, every one of them is being attacked by one or more interested parties today, and solutions may arise over the next several years. I do not pretend to know with any certainty what the solutions will be, though I have contributed a number of ideas into the pool of Free Software Magazine articles [1-7], as have others [8-10].

A New and More Joyful Paradigm

The corporations and government were the two great powers of the twentieth century—the engines of human production that conventional wisdom led us to fear and hold in awe as the sole mechanisms by which great human endeavors could be achieved.

Yet, the commons-based organization of the community, as exemplified by Wikipedia, shows up their productivity. GNU and Linux easily exceed their quality standards. Free arts may well exceed their artistic scope. In a few short years, the commons-based enterprise has out-produced centuries of corporate and government production.

Clearly, the world must make way for a third mechanism for organizing large endeavors: the Commons-Based Enterprise

Clearly, the world must make way for a third mechanism for organizing large endeavors: the Commons-Based Enterprise. Though still in its infancy, it shows great promise. Indeed, there is reason to believe that it will outstrip all that Corporate- and Government- Based Enterprises can accomplish.

So now we have to face a new conventional wisdom: the commons based production of the community may be the most powerful creative force on Earth. We are not the guerillas fighting the powerful corporations. We are the big fish in this pond. We are the ones with the power. Corporations should fear us, because we are their doom.

The community works so successfully because it harnesses the joy of human endeavor, not the fear of human limitations. How could we imagine that the pittance of human endeavor that can be forcibly extracted under the whips of wage slavery, where workers merely do what they must to evade starvation, can ever compete with a joyful labor of love created by fully actualized human beings, doing what they really want to do?

And that's the "secret", the one rule that lies behind all the others: joy. So keep having fun, and together we'll change the world.


Some Free Software Magazine articles on improving both the efficiency and the scope of the commons based enterprise:

[1] Terry Hancock; Free software tools for designing productive community sites; 2008.

[2] Terry Hancock; Ten easy ways to attract women to your free software project; 2008.

[3] Terry Hancock; What if copyright didn't apply to binary executables?; 2008.

[4] Terry Hancock; Why sharing matters more than marketshare to GNU/Linux; 2008.

[5] Terry Hancock; Deploying CC+ for the common good: Buy4Commons; 2008.

[6] Terry Hancock; Group interview: a graphic view of the open hardware movement. Part 1: Motivations and Part 2: Technical and Social Issues; 2008. A collection of first-hand observations on a major Open Hardware project.

[7] Terry Hancock; Towards a Free Matter Economy. Part 1: Information as Matter, Matter as Information, Part 2: The Passing of the Shade Tree Mechanic, Part 3: Designing the Narya Bazaar, Part 4: Tools of the Trade, Part 5: Discovering the Future, Recovering the Past, Part 6: Legal Landmines, and Part 7: A Free Future in Space; 2005-2006. Explores the development challenges involved in developing a commons based enterprise for development of technology in support of space development and settlement.

[8] John Calcote; Running a free software project; 2007.

[9] David Horton; How to get people to work for free: Attracting volunteers to your free software project; 2005.

[10] John Locke; What’s a Wiki? A survey of content management systems; 2005.


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