Friday, December 9, 2011

Yochai Benkler on the new open-source economics

In this TED Talk given back in 2005, Yochai Benkler talked about how the development of "social production" is the long term shift caused by the Internet. Examples of this include
  • Linux - note that 70% of critical web servers are controlled by Linux
  • Wikipedia (of course)
  • Google - in the sense that they have esentially outsourced the decision of what is relevant to the web community as a whole in its page rank algorithm.
  • Seti@home - which was for a time the most powerful supercomputer cluster in the world
Why is this happening? Yochai says that for the first time in history, the capital for generating and distributing information is cheaply available to everyone. Previously it was too expensive to have decentralized production. What we're seeing now is the emergence of social sharing and exchange that in some contexts it is more efficient than markets or firms. It is sustainable and growing fast.

Yochai also makes the amusing observation that money is not the greatest motivator. If you leave a $50 check after dinner with friends, you do not increase the chances of being invited back. If the dinner example is not obvious, think of sex.

The biggest disagreement I have with his view is that this is not the first time this is happening. Open source collaboration is in fact the fundamental operating model of the scientific method. Applied science and engineering is often done for economic profit and protected by patents. Basic research however is freely shared with everyone, and done more for social status and personal enjoyment than to achieve large monetary gains.

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