Inaugural Elinor Ostrom Prize Winner Announced
Fabio Landini was recently named as the winner of the inaugural Elinor Ostrom prize at WINIR 2014.
We asked Fabio to discuss his prize winning article ‘Institutional change and information production’ published in Journal of Institutional Economics.
During last 150 years, the organisation of information production has undergone a deep transformation. For more than a century the corporation has been the predominant institution of information production. The latter has been characterised by exclusive intellectual property rights, vast capital investments and highly hierarchical managerial structures, classic examples being Hollywood, the broadcast networks and the recording industry. Today, the move to a communication environment dominated by the Internet is changing all of that. Alongside corporations, radically decentralised systems of production have emerged, where loosely connected communities of volunteers openly share information on the basis of non-exclusive property rights claims. Examples include communities of free software developers (e.g., GNU/Linux), open-content on-line wikis (e.g., Wikipedia), collective blogs (e.g., Global Voices), multi-player online games (e.g., EverQuest) and distributed platforms for resource sharing (e.g., Flickr). In some niches (e.g., software, online encyclopaedia), these systems of peer production have proven capable of generating impressive intellectual outcomes and have started to represent a serious threat to the survival of corporations.
These impressive changes in the modalities of information production raise important questions. What are the factors that have actually favoured the emergence of peer production in the last ten to twenty years? Is the latter a purely technology-driven phenomenon caused by the Internet, or other factors did play a similarly important role? Does the emergence of peer production mean that corporations will inevitably be displaced as conventional forms of information production?
Contrary to most of the previous literature this paper argues that the diffusion of digital technologies has been a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence of peer production. While cheap processors, computer networks, and highly modular software architectures have certainly improved the viability of widely distributed communities of peer producers, they cannot by themselves explain how peer production has actually emerged. As in any process of institutional change, in fact, some time is required before new optimal modes of organisation can be adopted among the viable ones. During this period new institutions are extremely vulnerable and in the absence of protection they risk extinction.
On this note, the paper argue that in the case of peer production some crucial protection derived from culture of free software (in particular the GNU/Linux community). By sustaining the adoption of free software packages on moral grounds rather than actual performance this culture has reduced the competitive pressure generated by proprietary packages and has in turn allowed the new communities of developers to learn how to optimise their internal organisation. Because peer production could emerge within this “protected environment,” it then extended to other sectors of the information industry (e.g., online encyclopaedias, video sharing) and eventually became an effective institution of information production. In this sense peer production is seen more as the result of a political choice, rather than as the outcome of pure technological change.