Highly collaborative self-organising communities are supposed to be utopian dreams. But across a large swathe of the economy, from music and games, to information and media self-organising communities are sustaining themselves often in competition with traditional corporations. These new non-organisations are like pigs that can fly.
Pigs Can Fly
An online encyclopaedia created and maintained almost entirely by amateurs attracts more people than the New York Times online, carries more content than most other encyclopaedias combined and threatens to dwarf similar services offered by large publishing companies. A computer programme started by a wispy Finnish computer science student and initially developed almost entirely by unpaid volunteers is the main challenger to the computer operating system created by Microsoft’s, one of the world’s largest corporations with the best-funded research teams.
Most email depends on a programme created by barefoot programmers and most Internet transactions depend on servers running what might be called barefoot software. The world’s record industry has had its business model upended by a bunch of hackers creating file sharing systems that have as their common currency the MP3 file, an innovation given away for free by its creator, a publicly funded German computer scientist. The main alternative to the might of Wal Mart is not another hypermarket chain but a trading system through which millions of participants buy and sell with strangers, by setting their own prices, advertising their own products, doing their own deals and deciding how to ship their products. The most successful computer games outsell Hollywood blockbusters because they allow the players to fiddle, tamper and change the action, creating their own characters and storylines. These player-developers then contribute their innovations, for free, back to the larger community playing the game. Computer games generate more revenue than films in part because they mobilise unpaid player-developers in their millions. The most powerful super computer in the world was not created by IBM but by amateurs pooling the downtime of their personal computers to search for signs of extra terrestrial life. An army of millions of amateur clickworkers, working for free, were as effective as Nasa in finding craters on Mars.
At the start of the 21st century this should not be happening. The last decades of the 20th century witnessed the triumph of the market and corporations. Cooperative and collaborative values were in retreat. In an increasingly materialistic and venal world, people do not do things for free: there has to be something in it for them. And if there is nothing in for them, then they have to be told, instructed what to do by managers. Those are the only two ways to get things done: markets and hierarchies, incentives and instructions. Yet in field after field we are witnessing the same phenomenon: large groups of committed and knowledgeable amateurs, working without pay, are creating highly collaborative forms of organisation, which operate with little hierarchy and bureaucracy and yet mobilise resources of a scale to match the biggest corporations in the world.
Linux, the open source software programme, is one of the biggest challengers to Microsoft. Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, attracts more traffic than the New York Times and its news reports are as trusted as those of the BBC. Apache is the citizen software that runs on more webservers than proprietary software produced by Sun Microsystems. eBay traders buy and sell more than 25m items a day, in volumes to match the biggest global retailers. In the UK more people use eBay than vote in local council elections. The Sims, the computer game, is as big at the box office as Star Wars in part because 90% of the content for the game is now generated by people who play it. The biggest super computer in the world has not been created by IBM but by the SETI project to track down life beyond our galaxy. Many more projects of this kind are in development in law, education, banking, betting, drugs development and politics.
Everything we have been told about organisations and work tells us this should not be possible, especially in an age of rampant consumerism dominated by large companies. Yet here are large groups of people voluntarily committing their labour together, without seeking financial reward or being told what to do, and managing to create complex products and services that millions of people rely upon each day. It should not be possible. Pigs, famously, do not fly.
We are told that to be organised we need an organisation. Yet all these are complex and highly organised activities without a single organisation being in charge of everything that goes on. We are told that to make sure order is maintained someone has to be in control. Yet these activities seem ordered precisely because no one seeks to be in control and so people have to exercise their sense of responsibility, adjusting to one another, sorting out disputes as they go. The order comes from within these communities not from the top. To get complex tasks done reliably we have assumed we need a clear division of labour, so everyone knows in advance what they are supposed to do, whose job it is to do what. Yet in these non-organisations people seem to voluntarily distribute themselves to work, as and when it needs to be done. They find their own niches to work in alongside other people. Consumers, we are told, are happiest when they are being treated like Kings, waited on hand and foot and offered the widest possible choice. Yet in these vast communal efforts the consumers willingly become workers, devoting some of their time, effort and imagination to develop products for one another. They do not want to be just passive recipients but players and participants, at least some of them do, some of the time. They do not just want more choice but more say. These are activities of mass participation rather than mass consumerism.
We have come to expect that innovation will come from special people – boffins, geeks, designers, artists – working in special places – labs, garages, studios. They create their inventions and push them down a pipeline to waiting consumers. Every invention has a moment of birth and an inventor who can say, in advance, what their clever gizmo is for. Yet in these new endeavours innovation is the work of multiple authors. It is cumulative, collaborative and often depends on the contributions of intelligent users. It takes place all over, not just in specially designated zones. We expect that innovation will not take place unless people have the financial incentive to be creative. That means they have to be able to patent and protect their intellectual property so they can exploit it commercially. Strong patent protection is the basis for innovation, we are told. Yet in these swirling swarms of creativity innovators share their ideas quite freely and welcome it when others borrow what they have done, to improve upon it. They put a lot of unpaid effort into their innovations and then, bizarrely do not seek to profit from them, nor to control their use.
Sitting in your office at Microsoft, working your socks off, meeting constantly updated plans imposed by impatient managers who want you not just to deliver relentless growth but to do so with a smile on your face, while endorsing all the nauseating corporate brand speak, it must be bewildering. You are being beaten by a bunch of people who mainly work from home, create products for free, because they enjoy it and with no one telling them what to do. When you are on a plane to Redmond, Seattle, Microsoft’s head quarters, to account for your latest deviation from the corporate plan, hoping to save your bonus, these open source guys are probably in the pub, and they still do a better job. How did that happen?
It happened because the barefoot philosophy that Bunker Roy developed in Tilonia is scrambling up the logic of managerial capitalism. Consumers turn out to be producers. Demand breeds its own supply. Leisure becomes a form of work. A huge amount of creative work is done in spite, or perhaps because, of people not being paid. These new non-organisations pose a huge challenge to the established organisational order and the professions and managers who design, control and lead them. They embody a new ethic of collaborative, shared effort, often not motivated by money. As a result these scrambled organisations excel at practical tasks – sharing knowledge, providing news, trading goods and services, innovating new products – which large, hierarchical organisations thought were their terrain. You do not have to buy into alternative, hippyish, altruistic values to believe these collaborative forms of work are significant. They matter because they get things done, usually at very low cost. These collaborations are especially effective at a form of rolling, mass innovation. Given that innovation is at the heart of capitalism’s dynamic that is a pretty significant development. We have found a new way to innovate together, at very low cost and mass scale, globally. These collaborations are not designed for mass production, so much as production by the masses. They are emerging, designed for an era in which creativity could become a mass activity not just an elite one.
The truth is that most traditional commercial organisations do not want their consumers to become contributors. They quite like them passive and so dependent. They do not want their staff self-organising, they want them to be aligned to the corporate plan. They do not like it when innovation comes from all over. They want ideas to emerge in orderly fashion from their R & D labs so they can control them. Industrial era organisations were designed for a heavy, slow world. They do not want to face competitors designed for an era when ideas flit about like pollen carried by swarms of bees. Leaders quite like their self-image as lonely, harsh, authoritative figures, cut off from the organisations they drive into corporate battle. The idea that you might be able to lead more effectively in a far more open, transparent and conversational way ruins all the fun.
The irresistible force of collaborative mass innovation is about to meet the immovable object of entrenched corporate organisation. This book is about that coming conflict and what will emerge from it.