Beyond the profit motive

by Rob Horning

15 July 2006


A few months ago, on a tip from BoingBoing probably, I downloaded a pdf of Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, which in the spirit of its subject, open-source “social production,” was being offered for free by the author as if it were software source code. I never got around to reading it, in part because a 350 page pdf is a little unwieldy, and tying up the printer with a document that big would attract unwanted attention even at my laid-back workplace. So I forgot all about why I was interested in it in the first place until I read Paul Duguid’s review in the TLS. Duguid frames his assessment around a Microsoft origin legend, in which Bill Gates stops tinkering with software as a hobby and seeks to make it proprietary, declaring in a letter toa computer club that no quality software will be written if no one can make money by doing it. Gates was voicing a principle that animates mainstream economics back to The Wealth of Nations, namely that the profit motive and market-organized comeptition are necessary to motivate people to take risks, innovate, and produce what people want—to make “quality”. Without the exercise of self-interest, enlightened or not, one’s efforts will be dilettantish, personally satisfying perhaps but nort socially productive.

Benkler, as his play on Adam Smith suggests, wants to refute that, and offer open-source collaboration as an alternative mode of social production to the invisible hand—open-source projects seems to develop through a similar form of spontaneous order, only they are not guided by the hope for profit but for a different kind of capital perhaps—recognition, influence, potlatch destruction of one’s own efforts, display of one’s skill, etc. Does this form of social production create an different kind of economy, based on the gift rather than exploitation for profit? That question is what intrigues me, because it promises a different model for human interaction and ethics than the “virtuous” selfishness that often seems to power capitalism. At the risk of sounding like a naive flower child, I’ll venture the uncharacteristically optimistic proposition that at least as many people need to adapt themselves to the cutthroat expectations of economic efficiency as find such selfishness natural; a singleminded focus on getting every last bit of utility you can at the margin often seems to run against human nature in a way that cooperation doesn’t. One of my operating assumptions (derived in part from Galbraith, in part from Frankfurt School theory) is that capitalist society must expend a great deal of effort naturalizing selfishness at the expense of collaboration and cooperation and the satisfactions of community; so those natural pleasures that tend to isolate us or focus our attentions on ourselves and the significance and importance of our individuality—that posit our uniqueness as a joy in its own right—are championed in our culture, and collective pleasures are suppressed, trivialized, or marginalized to “exceptional” occasions of holidays and festivals. One of the most off-putting aspects of conservative ideology is the low esteem it holds human nature, which it presumes to be base and selfish and Hobbesean at all turns, restrained only in spite of itself by the operation of the market and ruthless competition, the grim view of human nature expressed in Fredrick Douglass’s observation (which I’m plucking from the end of a BusinessWeek article on spyware): “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.” Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is full of similar “realism”, that it’s hopelessly naive to assume that the pursuit of individual power could ever be hemmed in by a feeling of social responsibility. And looking at the world, it’s hard not to believe that this is so. But when you contemplate the huge amount of trouble people are willing to go to to make the fruits of their labor available for free in open-source scenarios, whether they are writing extensions for Firefox or rewriting and correcting Wikipedia entries or providing free left-wing news analysis or preparing their rare unencoded albums for sharing on MP3 blogs, you get an injection of hope that there really is some utopian alternative just over the horizon.

As someone who studied Bakhtin and did a lot of fruitless thinking about the dialogic nature of texts, Wikipedia, which stages the struggles among different registers of discourse and the different agendas behind them in a text that is permanently unfinished and always changing, seems to offer a way out of the tendency toward doctrinal official versions, illustrating instead how culture can become more actively democratic at the granular level of texts themselves, whose uncertain status demands a more active participation from users. Of course, not everyone wants to be active and skeptical all the time, one of the attractive things about books, and cultural industry product in general, is that we could surrender to them and wallow in responsibility free passivity. This is one of the reasons, probably, why prepackaged culture so quickly obliterated folk traditions of communities and families making there own entertainment. After all, anyone can make pop music—anyone does, as demonstrated by the untrained muscians who write their own tunes and make up the bulk of popular music creation. We outsource that sort of creativity because it simplifies things, makes entertainment something that’s off-the-rack, ready-to-wear. We don’t have to stage a private theatrical like at Mansfield Park everytime we want diversion. We don’t have to have pencil in hand, making disputational notes while we read whatever we read, with a mind to correct it.

And as Duguid stresses, not everyone is qualified to be producing culture that other people should have to acknowledge. Open source sysytems work for software production, he argues, because there are already filters in place that get rid of the folks who will do more harm than good—namely, you have to know how to program and want to. But he wonders who will want to consume DIY culture instead of Hollywood quality. But he misses a crucial point—the entertainment comes not from consuming but from producing the music, the film, the texts, whatever—from working collaboratively with friends to make something. DIY culture is about the doing it, not about the enjoying it as a product later. Duguid assumes that consumers are only and merely consumers, that they by definition can only find pleasure through consumption; technology that allows intervention into existing media product allows us to become producers, to derive pleasure from activity rather than absorption.

Does this sort of production-as-pleasure move us beyond the profit motive (which seems to require passive conusmers as part of the circuit of capital) ina ny meaningful way? Will this always be a isolated realm of exchange, far down the long tail, as Chris Anderson speculates? Maybe I should actually read Benkler’s book for some ideas.

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