Production in Communities or Networks?

In Software and Community in the 21st Century, Eben Moglen suggests that “in the twenty-first century the most important activities that produce occur not in factories, and not by individual initiative, but in communities held together by software.” This is a big claim that captures the importance of software and commons production in the world we live in.

Moglen’s Community Production

What does Moglen mean by production taking place in communities? The obvious interpretation, supported by his discussion of the importance of steel in the 20th century, is that 21st century economies rely on software and are organized around communities rather than hierarchies. His example of eBay transactions, for instance, is a clear example of online communication supporting economic production (claims for community are something else, an issue I will turn to later). But Moglen means something more than this. Economic production, after all, is supposed to produce goods – to fulfill human needs and wants, and to help people develop their potential. So when a system like MySpace provides emotional support to an alienated teen, as Moglen describes, that is also production:

We are making communities that produce good outputs and other people are looking at them as business models where eyeballs are located.

When production is defined this broadly to include the social integration of individuals and the construction of community itself, then the claims that they are the most important forms of production and that they happen mainly in communities are easy to defend. After all, community, its norms, the social capital of its members, and its ability to reason and act from shared values and understandings, are the foundation of other human activity, including that which occurs in the market.

The claim becomes much bolder in its obvious relation to conventional economic production. If software is the basis for most production, from automobiles to television shows, and if that software is most efficiently produced by free and open source communities, then the claim is supportable. But what about communities producing things other than software? Will cars be made by communities rather than by hierarchical corporations?

Castells’s Networks

Hierarchical corporations are giving way to more distributed networks, as Manuel Castells details in The Rise of the Network Society. Modern communication technology, enabled by software, has enable production to be broken down and outsourced or subcontracted: design in California, phone support in Nova Scotia, marketing in London, fabrication in Taiwan, and so on. As Castells describes these networks, they only include and exclude individuals and organizations according to the ability to help the network achieve its goals. For example, a manufacturer from Taiwan may be excluded from the network to be replaced by a cheaper one from Vietnam. A contractor may be hired temporarily to fix a problem, then let go when the problem is solved.

Castells’s characterization is familiar – obvious even. Yet Castells is not talking about communities. Indeed, he contrasts the logic of networks, with their tenuous connections to places and people, with the human need for attachment and identity. The networks are everywhere, but they are nowhere; their power and behavior is disconnected from people living their everyday lives.

This is a sobering alternative to Moglen’s optimism for community production. The same software that builds community and human relationships can also be used to build impersonal networks, whose efficient production is taking place anywhere but in communities.

Ideas and Community

The network is an efficient arrangement for producing cars, computers, sneakers, and so on. But cars, computers, and sneakers are not the most important products of the 21st century. Ideas are: software obviously, but also biotechnology, music, movies, education, democracy, the market, religious fanaticism. And these things are produced in communities, and in our time those communities are, to greater or lesser degree, held together by software.

And, I might add, by commons regimes. It is important that the software not be owned, because software is infrastructure – it magnifies the value of everything based on it, and that magnification is greatest when software is free. Ideas are also infrastructure. They are based on other ideas: scholarly research proceeds from earlier research, music samples and is inspired by other music and traditions, education captures the learning of humanity throughout our history, democracy is built on reason and tradition.

The process in which ideas are built on others takes place above all in communities. The fixed forms of ideas – the software source code, the journal article, the roll of film, the constitution, the religious text – are never and can never be complete. Their meaning exists partly within them, even more in the minds and relationships of the people who from the community that surrounds them. If all we had were the physical embodiments of our ideas, the greater part of them would be lost to us1. They would be as dead to us as is Latin or the worship of Baal.

I think Moglen is right that the important production of the 21st century takes place in communities. It is necessary, however, to place his claim in the context of the production of ideas, lest it become a Utopian but futile hope in the face of globalized networks of production. And it is necessary to understand how such production works so we can support it happening and deliver goods that benefit human beings.


1 I believe Jane Jacobs describes just such a scenario of cultural loss in the first chapter of Dark Age Ahead (a book I found otherwise disappointing).