IT is the first world-class demonstration of technical innovation as a social act. People have always made ideologically motivated contributions to society, or worked for no greater reward than self-satisfaction and self-esteem, but never on the scale made possible by the Internet. The IT commonwealth provides itself with remarkable tools of collaboration, enabling product development transparency, simultaneous consumer feedback, frictionless distribution and instant donor gratification.
IT rearranges the structure of social capital and challenges the traditional conception of infrastructure. To paraphrase Winston Churchill; Never could so few, create so much, of value to so many, at so little cost, and in so little time – and then give it away for free. Yet we should also keep in mind that open source software is not just the utopian vision of the digerati, but an integral part of the long term strategies of several of the world’s largest software companies. Communalization is not the equivalent of “free” software or “open source” software1. Donor communities also form around commercial products.
Rationally, one would think that our willingness to give things away, would be dependent upon the cost incurred in obtaining or creating them. A watch that took 300 hours in the making, would probably seem more valuable to its creator than a watch she spent 30 hours making. A book that costs 40 Euros would be a more unselfish gift than a book that cost 10. But these are what we call material, non-replenishing goods, give them away and they are gone from your possession.
Goods in Information Technology, as it has been pointed out by many writers, are non-deplenishing – give them away and yet you still have them, if no longer exclusively. It appears as if we are prepared to make gifts of non-deplenishing goods, no matter the cost incurred in obtaining them. We might hold tightly to a watch that took 30 hours to make and share freely ideas, solutions, methods, that took thousands of hours to work out.
While the commons can be a physical resource owned jointly by all citizens or members of a community, it can also be seen as a social regime for managing common assets. One type of commons, the gift economy, is a powerful mode of collaboration and sharing that can be tremendously productive, creative and socially robust. The Internet is a fertile incubator of innovation precisely because it relies heavily upon gift-exchange. Scientific communities, too, are highly inventive and stable because they are rooted in an open, collaborative ethic. In some gift economies, the value of the collective output is greater as the number of participants grows — “the more, the merrier.” The result has been called a “comedy of the commons,” a windfall of surplus value that over the long term can actually make the commons more productive — and socially and personally satisfying — than conventional private markets. New America Foundation, 20042
As Adam Smith pointed out, the division of labour depends upon the extent of the market. As the "market" embodied in the internet expands, so does room for specialization. But the modular, commoditisized nature of Information Technology and the commonality of its building blocks creates a "higher order" of specialization. Specialization in the majority of tasks deals with the assembling and arrangement of commonized sollutions often in the public domain, thus promoting fruitful interaction between specialists, previously isolated by the highly specific nature of their tasks.
1A good summary of Open Source and Free Software can be found at http://www.dwheeler.com/oss_fs_why.html
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