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August 7, 2006 » 2:53 pm

Yochai Benkler and Rishab Aiyer Ghosh at WikiMania 2006

On Saturday morning, I had the pleasure of attending talks given by two very important contributors to my field. About a year and a half ago, shortly after I first met Katrin Verclas, Katrin started telling me, “You’ve got to read Yochai Benkler.” I’m pretty sure that she ended 90 percent of our subsequent conversations with, “You really should read Benkler.” When Benkler came out with his book, Wealth of Networks earlier this year, everybody else in the world seemed to echoed Katrin’s advice.    (KYH)

I knew that Benkler was speaking this weekend, so I finally downloaded his book and started reading it on the plane. Unfortunately, I only got through the first chapter. You can imagine how lame I felt when I found myself having dinner with him on Friday night. Fortunately, Benkler himself gave a thirty minute synopsis of his book on Saturday morning.    (KYI)

(As an aside, Benkler unintentionally scored some major geek points, when his laptop revealed that he runs Linux with KDE. There are a lot of outsiders commentating on Open Source these days, but most of them do not actually run Linux themselves.)    (KYJ)

Benkler’s thesis is that technology has enabled unprecedented forms of large-scale cooperative production, what he calls “commons-based peer production.” Think Wikipedia, think Open Source, think Mash Ups, etc. According to Benkler, these non-market activities are no longer on the periphery, but form the very core of economic life for the most advanced societies.    (KYK)

Technology is largely responsible for our ability to behave this way, but only partially responsible for the authority to behave this way. The latter is a cultural phenomenon that has been catalyzed by the technology, but is not entirely causal.    (KYL)

The question is, is this behavior an outlier, or is it economically sustainable? Benkler didn’t talk a lot about this — this is why I need to read the book — but he did cite numbers such as IBM’s revenues from Linux-related services, which far outpaces its revenues from IP licensing. (This alone is not evidence; smaller Open Source companies like MySQL are making significant revenue from dual licensing, a lesser known fact of life for many Open Source companies.)    (KYM)

Benkler touched a bit on the importance of humanization in commons-based peer production, which he said is the focus of his current research. He also cited the reemergence of a new folk culture in society today, something that Lawrence Lessig also talks about.    (KYN)

There was a minor hullabaloo between Jason Calacanis and Benkler during Q&A. (See Andy Carvin‘s description, plus some background and commentary. It was entertaining, but low on any real controversy. Benkler acknowledged that the interface between market and nonmarket interaction is not well understood right now. There are good examples of how paying people kills the community dynamics, but the patterns are not necessarily discernible yet. However, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, who spoke after Benkler — made it crystal clear that those citing numbers about how a small number of people are responsible for a large percentage of work are missing the point. If you pay for 75 percent of the work, you end up with a three legged chair, which is worthless.    (KYO)

Ghosh has done some of the best quantitative analysis on Open Source communities, and he’s been doing it for a while. The Blue Oxen report on open source communities was heavily based on work that Rishab had done.    (KYP)

Ghosh kicked off his talk by talking about James Watt‘s exploitation of the patent system, and argued that Watt’s significantly slowed innovation with the steam engine and thus was partially responsible for delaying the Industrial Revolution.    (KYQ)

(I didn’t find Ghosh’s argument particularly compelling or relevant, but it was a good story. Patents give folks monopolies, and monopolies are bad for markets. We know that already. But patents are also supposed to incentivize innovation. Ghosh was insinuating through his story that patents were not a strong motivator for innovation in this particular case, but I have trouble believing that. Christoph Friedrich Von Braun wrote an excellent, but dense book, The Innovation War (1997), where he explained how difficult it was to correlate patents to innovation, either for or against. And von Braun barely touched on software, which adds even more complexity to the question.)    (KYR)

Ghosh then went on to talk about FLOSS developer motivation and described his value-flow and cooking pot analogy for how markets can sustain this type of behavior. He also pointed out that the collaboration is not new, but the scale is.    (KYS)

Ghosh continues to do good research, much of which is hosted at FLOSS World.    (KYT)

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