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Coase’s Penguin: creativity & play

April 8th, 2004 · No Comments

One night, while Ted and I were discussing my idea of creating a group blog/publication for Bainbridge Island, my husband mentioned Yochai Benkler‘s paper on “commons-based peer production”: Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and The Nature of the Firm.

Ted read it last year. I finished reading the paper this afternoon, and I appreciate how Benkler’s work addresses not only open source software, but many other collaborative projects which are made possible by the Internet’s “digitally networked environment”.

…groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals rather than either market prices or managerial commands. p. 2

I haven’t read many (any?) academic papers on economics or law and I expected it to be an intense trek into foreign territory for me. But I didn’t expect how Coase’s Penguin focussed on the nature of creativity. How each person has unique talents and resources. “Commons-based peer production” seems to be an efficient way to maximize individual’s gifts and desires by allowing freedom of resources and providing integration of these contributions into an entire product. People working on small pieces of varying size and difficulty can come together into one goal, creating community and fulfillment, creating a sense of “us” as well as a sense of “me”: my part in the whole.

It’s helped me think about this publication project and what would be required for it – or other collaborations I might like to try – to happen:

Peer production is limited not by the total cost or complexity of a project, but by its modularity, granularity and the cost of integration. p.62

It’s helped me as a mom to look at people, life and my own children in a new way. I grew up with rigid homogenous expectations of myself and others. Everyone should be able to do the same amount, the same way. I felt guilty for the ways I wasn’t as good as others in my abilities, as if I had become a lumpy or broken cube, missing the mold. Benkler encouraged “heterogenous granularity” (multiple-sized modules) in a project which will allow people to contribute based on individual talents, time and motivation. He described how “people have different innate capabilities, personal, social and educational histories, emotional frameworks and ongoing lived experiences”. p. 45

The picture that comes to mind for me, as I’m sitting here in the kitchen with my kids, are two ways the girls and I have done edible construction projects. I grew up believing everyone was supposed to be like a sugar cube, all identical, same talents and gifts. After all, everyone could grow up to be president, right? I felt guilty for the ways I “failed” to be as good as others were in their abilities, as if I had missed the standard, become a lumpy cube. It’s easy to build something out of sugar cubes: they all look and fit the same, fitting together into an anonymous mass. But what Benkler wrote reminded me more of our gingerbread house: specialization, different pieces different sizes, experimentation, creativity all fitting together. In a sense, he described the gummy bears and loops of frosting, the lumpy chimney we designed.

While reading this paper, I started thinking about my own motivations and talents, and how I can encourage my children in theirs. It’s easy for me already to see how different my children are from each other in their innate gifts and abilities. I want them to grow up – not as being molded into identical sugar cubes – but finding what they do best and where they can contribute, aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and knowing how and where – having places – to use what they’ve been given in life. Coase’s Penguin certainly builds a strong case for open source software, something near and dear to my heart, but I think his concept of “commons-based peer production” celebrates humanity, encouraging diversity, and describing how individual creativity can best be channeled in an efficient and productive way.

The advantages of peer production, then, are improved information about, and allocation of, human creativity. p. 9

By connecting a very large number of people to these potential opportunities to produce, the e-text projects, just like clickworkers, or Slashdot, or Amazon, can capitalize on an enormous pool of underutilized intelligent human creativity and willingness to engage in intellectual effort. p.30

Central to my hypothesis about the information gains of peer production is the claim that human intellectual effort is highly variable and individuated. […]
As human intellectual effort increases in importance as input into a given production process, an organization model that does not require specification of the effort required to participate in a collective effort and allows individuals to self-identify for tasks will be better at gathering and utilizing information about who should be doing what than a system that does require specification. p.45

Moreover, having different people with different experience and/or creative approaches attack the same problem will likely lead to an evolutionary model of innovation, where alternative solutions will present themselves, giving the peer production process the ability to select among a variety of actual solutions rather than pre-committing to a single solution. p.51

People are creative beings. They will play at creation if given the opportunity…p.52

And here I am, giving the girls an afternoon of quiet play time after two busy days of activity. So what are they doing? Playing at creation. They asked for pens, paper, crayons and glue. They are sitting at the table with their resources and imagination, making what one of them described as something “no one else has ever seen”. I’m taking a break from “schooling”, from the workbooks and activities we tend to do in the afternoons, but one could argue that they are getting an education and producing as much as when I sit down to teach them.

Perhaps this “commons-based peer production” makes work into play again (as I quoted Michael Card in an earlier post):

Work, even a little work, exhausts me, takes away from me. Play, even a little play, pours something back in. Work has to do with anxiety, with doing a good job. Play springs from inexhaustible joy.

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