On the socio-political potentialities of experimental productive alternatives

10 09 2014

This is the title of a paper to be presented at the inter-disciplinary workshop on “Political Action, Resilience and Solidarity” (18th-19th September 2014, King’s College London).
Here is the introduction.

* * *

“Peer to peer” practices are commonly thought of in reference to exchange and sharing of computer files, but they also overlap with other domains. Indeed, they appear to be in expansion in other areas and, in certain cases, pertain to political intent. For example, they currently serve as the basis for initiatives in the field of transportation (carpooling), energy production (in the form of collaborative projects) and food production (from seed sharing to product sharing).

These practices may bring about renewed modalities of coordination and cooperation between many actors, without necessarily being confined to informal registers. Different types of work are developping without the search for financial compensation, and without hierarchical or salary relations. They allow for new forms of production which seem to persist over time and for which denomination attempts have begun to be proposed. While being more oriented towards changes in the information economy that followed the development of the Internet, Yochai Benkler (2002 ; 2006), for example, refers to a new model of “commons-based peer production”.

This form has mainly been studied for immaterial products, such as free software, collaborative encyclopedias, etc, but rarely for more material productions. Therefore, considering their emancipatory appearances, this contribution aims at exploring the potentialities, especially in terms of relation to work, that peer production can have on more material aspects of human activities. This new model may in fact be another way of looking at needs and how to satisfy them, in this case without any monetary medium and appropriation. These productions are not intended to be placed on the market. With these practices, it is the very meaning of work that could change.

Some writers, as the philosopher Bernard Stiegler (2011), announce and describe the emergence of an “economy of contribution.” Bernard Stiegler also pinpoints a “deproletarianization” to try to report a “new organization of work and a new economy of work.” If this “commons-based peer production” can actually be considered to contain such potentialities, it seems useful to test such a hypothesis by studying it in a more sociological context, as regards both its ins and outs, particularly in a period of “economic crisis.”

A mode of production can be characterized by its inputs and outputs (what is necessary for its operation and what it is able to achieve). Three complementary angles can thus be taken to analyze these potentialities more precisely: the modalities of personal engagement and frameworks of relations, the conditions of coordination and organization, and the outputs as a support for (local) resilience.

What is indeed interesting is to understand the ways by which subjectivities can invest in this “commons-based peer production.” Related activities seem more likely to give the feeling that the work thus accomplished has a social purpose and may receive recognition. To what extent can these material practices then change the relationship to work, production and consumption? These activities also contribute to reconfiguring exchange relations and can be a way to renegotiate more practically the networks into which everyday life fits.

But the convergence of these activities and the organization of these relationships are not straightforward. How are such coordinations possible, especially if they are to be maintained over time? In this form of production, collective assemblages seem volatile and if they are based on an organization, the latter is rather flexible (but not as devoid of effectiveness). Community dynamics can play an important role. In keeping with this idea, how can we talk of division of labor? What are the devices that can help stabilize forms of organization?

Moreover, the outputs of these activities appear to be more difficult to qualify with the usual categories. To what extent can these non-conventional forms of work contribute to the emergence of a mode of production with new or original features? How do these initiatives contribute to making new resources available, which could be considered socially and ecologically valuable? One can wonder wether this production method can become sustainable and lasting, particularly with regard to the availability of potential contributors.

Food to ShareThis study is based on an exploration of two types of peer-to-peer collaborations: those which have begun to help build projects of machines and equipment, such as the RepRap 3D printer and open-source hardware developed on contributory bases, and local initiatives in food production, such as “Incredible Edible”, an idea which originally started in 2008 in the town of Todmorden, North of England, to transform available public spaces into areas for growing food products and put them into open access[1].

As it was difficult to investigate simultaneously on multiple, rhizomatic terrains (although France was the main field considered), the research was undertaken taking advantage of the possibilities to observe these experiments at a distance[2]. Many of these abounding initiatives present themselves on the Internet while using it as a vector of diffusion[3]. They offer access to their motivations and their arguments. They can also give descriptions of activities undertaken. Their reflections, works, and the debates behind them, can also be followed remotely via social networks, mailing lists, discussion forums, wikis, etc., frequently set up to ensure their collective functioning and advances. On these bases, which can be identified and classified to form a corpus of documentary material, the inquiry can then identify and characterize the justifications and promises that are put forward, therefore start accessing rationalities, follow ranges of activities (Bidet, 2012) and make links between them, while ensuring the consideration of all constraints and resources that underpin them. All the traces left enable us to follow networks (Latour, 2005) which, in fact, ensure the implementation of these initiatives and experiments, the nature and shape of which will variably ensure their stability and durability[4].

From these two experimental fields, one oriented towards digital manufacturing, the other in food production, and to assess the conditions of possibility of a material form of “commons-based peer production”, the analysis will go deeper into the previous three angles. It will first be shown that for material goods, unselfish frames of mind are also possible and can be exercised towards productive activities by stimulating their own forms of work (1). Social relations and forms of coordination will then be analyzed, especially as they can facilitate and help these activities gain momentum (2). By reconnecting (evolution of) work and (evolution of) production systems, we will conclude by providing elements to evaluate the alternative routes and the potentialities that this type of productive activity seems to open in the socio-economic order, including providing new capabilities and resources to the lives of individuals and groups (3).

The full version of the paper can be downloaded as a PDF file.

Comments are welcome.


[1] The corresponding local groups were recently estimated at around fifty in the UK and three hundred in France (Julian Dobson, “10 Steps Toward an Incredible Edible Town”, Shareable, December 3, 2013, http://www.shareable.net/blog/10-steps-toward-an-incredible-edible-town, retrieved on February 22nd 2014. The movement is now spreading in many other countries and can be followed on the Internet through a “Google map” where new locations in the world are updated, in a spirit that is also conceived to promote interactivity (See “Incredible edible world interest map”, http://www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk/blogs/incredible-edible-world-interest-map, retrieved on March 21st 2014).

[2] Meetings and interviews were conducted with members of the local hackerspace in Nice (the Nicelab), which has built its 3D printer on the model of the RepRap.

[3] It may thus be an important contribution as empirical material (texts, photos, videos, etc.), if methodology is properly adapted (Barats, 2013).

[4] Regarding this analytical approach, see also Callon, 1991. Entry through networks has proved useful for understanding the development of alternative practices in food production. See Goodman, DuPuis and Goodman, 2011.



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11 05 2015
Essay of the Day: On the Socio-Political Potentialities of Experimental Productive Alternatives | P2P Foundation

[…] Article: On the socio-political potentialities of experimental productive alternatives. Yannick Rumpala. Paper presented at the inter-disciplinary workshop on “Political Action, […]

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