Archive for the 'Labor on the Web (LOW)' Category

Pervasive Social Production Networks

It is remarkable that the development of online collaboration, of social production networks and online communities, and of the New Commons itself, is happening in a backdrop of increased wariness with the perceived maladies of over-extended globalization, the surge in power of transnational corporations, the exclusion of large populations from participation in a world dominated by the unequal relation between technological have and have-nots. 

It seems to be a response by the global digital citizen that will not relinquish his capacity to choose the community, market or production network that he or she is willing to participate in.  The digital citizen that is not content with being forced to consume commercial software, institutional encyclopedias or mass media. 

In some sense it is the creation of a new socio-economic environment for production, integration and collaboration.  The idea may seem just another social Utopia, but the vitality of its emergence and the results to date point to the contrary.   Might the communitarian ideal be possible by pervasive social software?

“Ubiquitous Human Computing” (Zittrain) makes working independent of location, employer and the body itself.  Productive workers can be integrated into a loosely connected PSPN by virtue of residence in the Internet “cloud”.  New and very productive ways of linking people, computers and work are becoming reality.

The work performed in a PSPN is inherent to the community and goes mainly to increase the social capital and common goods of the community.  The advent of the PSPN has been declared a “shadow workforce” (Howe), a group of individuals outside the realm of markets and companies that perform work and are engaged in a productive process of their own making.  There is growing interest in markets and companies to be able to tap into this network of informally working individuals for profit.

Online social networks apparently obey neither market pricing rules nor corporate command.  Their rules are framed by collaboration, trust, common property and personal motivation.  Their social codex can be disturbed if changes in those rules are attempted, which can lead to a sort of “Tragedy of the Commons” (Harding): overuse and failure to generate reciprocity.  Their leading design principle seems to be cooperation, in some cases even altruism, as opposed to selfish (i.e. capitalist) economic interest, running counter the idea of the homo oeconomicus.

Online social networks and the PSPN are not systems that emerge out of pure chance and selfless attrition.  They are indeed economic systems in which motivations and gains can be studied and reproduced.  The communities have an important role in designing and implementing a working organization.  Their characteristics, policies and rules are varied and carried out in many different ways.

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The Herd Effect

We digital citizens are sometimes described as a herd.  We follow leaders, gather at certain places to exchange information, roam.  The herd can muster collective action, very much like swarms, using the most basic signals and feedback.  The herd is also a New Commons and its social capital is digital information.  We can just feed on it, like at the social networking sites, or we can take action, like at the crucial time of the Orange Revolution.  The idea is the collective, the possible aggregation of information to make sense.

Following a part of the herd, I registered at Herdict.org a couple of weeks ago.  I became member number 58.  Herdict.org is a website designed and managed by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society @ Harvard University.  The name comes from the fusion of “Herd” and “Verdict”.  The site aims to collect the verdict of the herd on various issues.  The first two are PC Health and Network Health.   Using a piece of software installed on every herd member’s PC, reports are sent back to Herdict.org with information about its characteristics, installed software and apparent problems. 

Given a large enough number of herd members active in the system, it could be a good source of information about which applications are causing trouble, which malware is extending and giving the herd a though time.  But it could also signal problems with the Network itself.  Problems that go beyond the merely technical.  For example, it could spot areas or countries where Internet access is being cut off, or filtering and blocking of sites is being practiced.   This could make it easier for digital citizens to by-pass restrictions on Internet access and censorship by using tools like Psiphon.  As such it could become a valuable tool for ICT4D and the movement for an open Internet.

But also other possibilities arise.  These are not at once evident, but Herdict.org could be a call for collaboration of a very different sort.  In one Gedankenexperiment, herd members could put to use their healthy computers to assist and clean up infected computers or “zombies”.  In this way a user that has advanced knowledge on how to fight off malicious software could help many users worldwide that don’t have the skills or that don’t know that their PCs have been sequestered.  Herdict.org could very well become a place to start such actions and measure success.

See an article in MIT Technology Review: The Web’s Dark Energy: Community policing can make the Web safe, by J. Zittrain.


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