A new mode of production has emerged in the areas of software and content production during the last decades. This mode, which is based on sharing and cooperation, has spawned whole mature operating systems such as GNU/Linux and various BSD systems as well as innumerable other free software applications, some of which form the backbones of the Internet or the core of various enterprises; giant knowledge bases such as the Wikipedia; a large free culture movement often based on Creative Commons licenses; and a new, wholly decentralized medium for spreading, analyzing and discussing news and knowledge, the so-called blogosphere; among others.
Yochai Benkler has coined the term peer production to de-scribe this collaborative and open mode of production which has become typical for the Internet in recent years (Benkler, 2002; 2006). Benkler makes it clear that peer production (or its generalization, social production) is a third mode of production that is fundamentally different from both market-based production and ﬁrm production. Market systems are based on equivalent exchange (with or sometimes without money), while ﬁrms (and also the former “socialist” planned economies such as the Soviet Union) rely on hierarchies and organized plan-ning to distribute tasks and resources.
Peer production, on the other hand, is based on contributions. People contribute to a project because they want it to succeed, not because they need to earn money or have to realize some previously established plan. Some peer projects require contributions (peer-to-peer distribution networks such as BitTorrent require downloaders to upload), while others are open even to non-contributors (you do not have to write any free software to be allowed to use it). Often projects are partially, but not completely open; large free software and open content projects usually allow only active participants to take part in decision making processes, but everyone is allowed to access, distribute, and modify the produced information.
While Benkler has identiﬁed social production and peer production as important phenomena, he appears to consider them relevant only for certain niches of production, such as information goods. In this text we will discuss whether this limitation to niches—even important niches such as information goods—is justiﬁed or whether it under-estimates the potential of peer production. To put it in other words: Is a society possible in which peer production is the primary mode of production? If so, how could such a society be organized?
In the next two chapters, we will discuss several important characteristics of peer production and introduce the major problems that need to be addressed for generalizing peer production beyond the sphere of information. In Chapter 4 we will investigate how these problems can be addressed within the context of individual peer projects, ﬁnding that there are indeed suitable solutions. In Chapter 5 we will turn from the internal organization of peer projects to the “big picture,” discussing how a multitude of such projects might ﬁt together in a society where peer production is the primary mode of production.