Against the “Networked Information Economy”: Rethinking Decentralization, Community, and Free Software Development
The free, libre, and open source software (FLOSS) movement is often cited as an example of fundamental changes in production associated with the rise of information networks. Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams see it as an example of wikinomics, a powerful new form of economic production based on sharing and self-organization.1 Yochai Benkler argues that the form of social or peer production evident in FLOSS can compete with or even displace traditional forms of capitalist organization and sees it as a symptom of the “networked information economy,” replacing the “industrial information economy,” which has been in force since the late-nineteenth century.2 The main feature of this networked information economy is the much greater role within it for decentralized individual action.3
This essay contests this broadly liberal take on the significance of the free software movement. It argues that Benkler is typical of an approach that tends to view the Internet as the primary enabler of decentralization (for example, in the form of decentralized software development). Of course, it would be foolish to discount the role that networks have played in the success of FLOSS. But, as I will argue, an examination of its history suggests that its origins can’t be entirely accounted for in purely technological and economic grounds. The proponents of such an approach often resist the claim that their focus on networks is technologically determinist,4 arguing that the network itself is shaped by social and cultural factors. However, this makes the explanatory power of networks rather circular: the existence of networks explains social and cultural behavior at the same time as being explained by it. The explanation of free software in terms of the economic properties of networks is simply too static and asocial; it serves to explain how a particular mode of production can functionally compete with the market without really being able to account for how this change has come about. In particular, as I will show, the marginalization [End Page 385] of the question of labor in theories of peer production disconnects the analysis from wider changes in the nature of economic production. Moreover, the emphasis on the empowerment of individuals ignores the possibility that decentralization consists in radical new forms of sociality and collectivity, something that can perhaps be seen in the communities built around particular free software projects. As I will argue, Gilbert Simondon’s concept of individuation may help inform a better understanding of the emergence of such free software communities.