Benkler and Wales on Cooperation, Crowd-sourcing

May 15, 2008

Back at the Berkman@10 Conference after lunch and watching the Q&A following a discussion of networked cooperation between Yochai Benkler and Jimmy Wales.

Meanwhile, over on twitter & the conference backchannel, people seem to be getting bent out of shape about the fact that Wales made a comment implying that he thought “crowdsourcing” was a bad way to think about networked collaboration. It sounded to me that what Wales meant was that the way some folks in the private sector talk about crowdsourcing (hypothetical sample quote: it’s like outsourcing to India, only cheaper…) misses the point of cooperative social action entirely.

I’m sympathetic to that idea (for many reasons). First and foremost because the possibility of distributed peer-production of knowledge (like Wikipedia) raises a number of fundamental questions about the nature of business and markets. In theory, we’ve wound up developing markets to resolve a large scale collective action problem of goods distribution.

As Esther Dyson is currently clarifying in her comment, the big problem is that many folks in the private sector just don’t understand that networked collaboration offers an alternative to how we build social institutions of exchange. Instead, some folks think its just another tool for profit-making and (in the worst instances) rent-extraction.

What if networked cooperation made it so that scarcity were not a precondition of successful (i.e. profitable) exchange? What if we could do better than markets (as we currently know them)?

That’s the promise of the commons.

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