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Reading Sample 4 - Produsage and Democracy

Below is the final of four reading samples from Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. These samples were first published as part of a series on the P2P Foundation Website, where the book was honoured as Book of the Week.

In this series:

4 - Produsage and Democracy

A crucial step in the advance towards a more participatory, active, monitorial form of citizenship is the embedding of such practices into everyday life, and blogging and other forms of participation in continuing, produsage-based, deliberative models for discussing and debating the news provide a useful model. As Jenkins points out, this is a question of moving beyond participation in political processes only in the lead-up to elections and in the context of major political issues; "the next step is to think of democratic citizenship as a lifestyle." [1] This does not necessarily provide an argument against the necessarily limited issue-based action coalitions we have discussed already, however; instead, it encourages citizens to participate in a variety of such coalitions, to join a number of the communities of political produsers whose interests and concerns match their own. Much as elsewhere in produsage, to do so will give rise to loose and fluid heterarchies of participation, and ad hoc alliances organizing specific actions and coordinating the development and evaluation of new policy initiatives.

If the core characteristics of produsage are translated to the political process, then, this would lead us to the following principles:

  • Open participation, communal evaluation: political produsage proceeds from the assumption that the community of informed citizens as a whole, if sufficiently large and varied, can contribute more than a closed team of politicians and policy-makers, however qualified they may be, and thereby affirms the probabilistic principle. Policies and political ideas proposed by participants and developed by the community are also evaluated collaboratively by the community.
  • Fluid heterarchy, ad hoc meritocracy: citizens participate in political deliberations and policy-making processes as is appropriate to their personal skills, interests, and knowledges (their equipotentiality to do so is affirmed), and may form loose subgroups to focus on specific issues, topics, or problems; this changes as the produsage project proceeds, and is governed ad hoc, based on merit, by the community itself.
  • Unfinished artefacts, continuing process: political positions and policies as artefacts of the political produsage project are continually under development, and therefore always unfinished; their development follows evolutionary, iterative, palimpsestic paths. No one political actor, no one ideology, holds all answers and is set in stone: instead, politics and policy are reconstituted as granular in structure.
  • Common property, individual rewards: contributors permit community sharing, adaptation, and further development of their political and policy ideas, rather than defending them strongly as their ideas and thereby preventing participants from different political backgrounds to contribute to and collaborate in the policy development process; nonetheless, the developers and implementers of political ideas are recognized and rewarded by the status capital they gain through this process.

Perhaps these principles appear relatively modest at first glance, and perhaps they appear not to extend much beyond the bounds of citizen consultation in the political process as it has been practiced more or less effectively (and honestly) for some time already. However, on closer inspection they signal a major departure from the late-industrial model of politics.

In the first place, the shift to a community-based model of political produsage would mean that policy no longer emerges from the think-tanks and party rooms associated with political parties, but may originate just as well from citizen communities themselves. Further, the fluidity of roles in this process indicates that in order to see policy adopted by governments it would be no longer necessary for such citizen communities to align themselves with political parties, or seek election to office in their own right; instead, they would work with and alongside governments in order to gain broad acceptance of their policy suggestions. In effect, this changes both the procedures for policy generation and the ownership of political and policy ideas: where in the present late-industrial system, political positions are generated and "owned" by specific parties, and adoption of the opposition's policy suggestions is decried and eschewed as a sign of weakness, a produsage-based system of politics would be more permeable to new ideas once they have been sufficiently vetted, debated, and deliberated on by the community of informed citizens. Put another way, where presently, political parties have a tendency to pass off new policy ideas as their own once they have incorporated them into their political agendas, in an open system based on produsage political capital is generated not mainly from being the originator of new ideas, but from the ability to identify, flesh out, and implement them.

This is analogous to the shift of parts of the software industry from closed to open source production models: for companies which have embraced open source, the business model is based not on developing new technologies exclusively in-house for later commercialization as products (whose inner workings are highly guarded trade secrets), but on allowing staff programmers to freely contribute to collaborative open source projects, thereby both building a better understanding of what users want and need, relying on a much larger community of developers, software testers, and users than is available in-house, and identifying further potential for offering commercial products and services around the free resources created in the produsage process. Produsage politics would similarly shift from the in-house production of policy, which suffers from a limited understanding of citizens' lived experience, hopes, and expectations of government, to an open and collaborative engagement with informed citizens in developing policy, and from a "business model" based on outdoing the opposition through surprise policy announcements and government spending in swing electorates to one where approval is gained and maintained by providing the best "products and service" around the collaboratively prodused policy initiatives-that is, approval is gained from demonstrating faithful and efficient development, implementation and management of prodused policy initiatives (thus translating the "common property, individual rewards" principle to the political realm).

Finally, produsage politics like all artefacts of produsage projects must also be seen as inherently unfinished and ready for further improvement; this means that a politics based on produsage is, although not opposed to participants with strongly held ideological positions, then certainly inaccessible to those who are unwilling to engage in open and meaningful political deliberation which may ultimately change their minds. Produsage-based politics would open the pathway to a political structure in which there are constant small, granular, incremental, evolutionary changes to policies and political positions rather than lengthy periods of limited change punctuated by (apparent) political paradigm shifts when government and opposition exchange place. This constantly adjusting model of politics may also be what Lévy has in mind when he writes that

we can't reinvent the instruments of communication and collective thought without reinventing democracy, a distributed, active, molecular democracy. Faced with the choice of turning back or moving forward, … humanity has a chance to reclaim its future ... by systematically producing the tools that will enable it to shape itself into intelligent communities, capable of negotiating the stormy seas of change. [2]

Such politics, and such democracy, is molecular, then, because it no longer relies on the large and (without lengthy periods of socialization and apprenticeship) relatively closed bodies of political parties to contain the majority of the political and policy-making process, in much the same way that software and encyclopedia users now no longer need to rely on the large and closed enterprises of Microsoft and Britannica and their various commercial competitors to produce the products they require. Instead, the molecular approach decentralizes and distributes the process of development into a wider, broader, and deeper network of contributors to the overall project (respectively, groups of informed citizens, open source software development communities, and the interest groups attached to any page or collection of pages in the Wikipedia), and from out of this network emerge the evolving and gradually improving artefacts of the process which can be used in place of traditional industrial products.

  1. Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), p. 234.
  2. Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace, trans. Robert Bononno (Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus, 1997), pp. xxiv-xxv.

(First published at the P2P Foundation site.)

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