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Ideologies of Autonomy

From Lostpedia to Wikipedia, Cox's journeys down the rabbit holes of contribution reveals how collaboration strengthens individual autonomy.
Ideologies of Autonomy
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Jun 11, 2019

Introduction

When I first began routinely using Wikipedia in the early 2000s, my interest owed as much to the model for online curation the site helped to popularize as it did Wikipedia itself. As a model for leveraging the potential of collective online intelligence, emerging modes of online productivity enabled everyday people to help build Wikipedia and, just as importantly for me, proliferated the use of “Wikis” to centralize and curate content ranging from organizational workflows to repositories for the intricacies of pop culture franchises. As a somewhat obsessive devotee of the television series Lost (2004-2011), I was especially enthusiastic about the latter, since the Lostpedia wiki was an essential part of my engagement with the series’ themes, mysteries, and motifs. On an almost daily basis during the show’s run, I found myself plunging ever deeper into Lostpedia, gleaming reminders of previous plot points and character interactions and using this knowledge to piece together ideas about the series’ sprawling mythology. Steadily, as Wikipedia also became a persistent fixture in my online media diet, I found myself using the site in a similar manner, often going down “Wikipedia holes” wherein I bounced from page to page, topic to topic, probing for knowledge of topics both familiar and obscure. This newfound ability to find, consume, and interact with a universe of ideas previously diffuse among various types of sources and institutions made me feel empowered to more readily self-direct my intellectual interests. In other words, I felt more autonomous, a trait inherent among ideas about Wiki-style peer production.

Around the same time as my budding forays into Lostpedia and Wikipedia, scholars advanced ideas about the potential of collectivized online collaboration that preceded the emergence of Wikipedia. In 1994, several years before the launch of Wikipedia, the French philosopher Pierre Levy published Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (subsequently published in English in 1997), a book that highlights the liberatory potential of online communities. As Levy argues, the internet empowers individuals to readily find and collaborate with others, ultimately forming communities built and sustained by the knowledge that each community member brings to bear on the greater whole. To Levy’s mind, this enables people to exist beyond hierarchical restrictions imposed by state governments, cultural norms, and other forces that impose limits upon people’s individual and collective autonomy. Similar ideas about the utopian potential of collectivized knowledge gained traction among popular and scholarly discourse over ensuing years, especially during the 2004-2008 timeframe, which saw the publication of The Wisdom of Crowds (2004), Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (2006), Convergence Culture (2006), The Wealth of Networks (2006), Here Comes Everybody (2008), and Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From Production to Produsage (2008).

In their respective ways, these books stressed newfound forms of renewed individual and collective empowerment at hand for those who use online technologies to self-organize and aim the fruits of their collective prowess at particular outcomes, such as building and curating a centralized online encyclopedia. Many of these works became foundational texts in academic media studies. In 2014, when I entered a PhD program as an outgrowth of my own pursuit for greater intellectual and professional autonomy, many of these works were already staples of digital media courses and reading lists, with Wikipedia often spotlighted as an exemplar of Levy’s “collective intelligence” (1997), Axel Bruns’ “produsage” (2008) (wherein no significant difference exists between producers and users), and the autonomous potential of Yochai’s Benkler’s “networked information economy” (2006) built on peer production taking place outside the commercial auspices of capitalist marketplaces.

Twenty years after the launch of Wikipedia, the site’s popularity and prominence among online information resources has led to a budding skepticism of Wikipedia. This skepticism views the site’s centralized mode of content production and editorial oversight as a process that concentrates and wields power in a manner similar to the very type of power impositions Levy and others sought to circumvent. A highly visible strand of this skepticism emerges from Everipedia, an upstart online encyclopedia launched in 2015 and, in 2017, adopted Blockchain technology and cryptocurrency as models for incentivizing and generating the production of encyclopedic content. Where the emergence of Wikipedia corresponded to utopian ideals about harnessing collectivized knowledge to build resources and communities at a remove from state and market-controlled strictures, Everipedia is bound up with similar ideas about the liberatory potential of Blockchain and cryptocurrencies to establish market-based models for peer production operating beyond the purview of state regulatory regimes. Thus, notions of autonomy undergird the creation and maintenance of Wikipedia and Everipedia, albeit with critical distinctions as to techno-economic conditions that enable greater autonomy. To better understand Wikipedia’s role in the media ecosystem in the last 20 years and the trajectory of social, economic, and technological models affiliated with Wikipedia-style organization and production, I chart the ways autonomy is conceptualized as a critical force amid attempts to (de)centralize encyclopedic production and access. In what follows, I unpack how both off-market peer production associated with Wikipedia and the importance of decentralization and economic incentives to Everipedia provide telling insights as to how individual and collective autonomy is conceived and what this might indicate about the future of online collaboration and production. My own experience with Wikipedia over the last twenty years subsumed notions of autonomy and, going forward, better typifying autonomy amidst overlapping vectors of social, economic, and technological arrangements helps to spotlight the potential for lived autonomy across virtual and material domains. Where Benkler asks “why can fifty thousand volunteers successfully coauthor Wikipedia, the most serious online alternative to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and then turn around and give it away for free?” (5), my ultimate aim is to unravel a nexus of circumstances threated into such questions. One of the most critical circumstances to unravel is competing notions of decentralization and centralization.

Autonomy and (De)Centralizing Online Production and Access

With respect to the design of computer connectivity, centralization and decentralization are different ways to network computers and enable people to access the network. In centralized networks, all information and processes must pass through a single hub at the center of individual nodes within the network. Decentralized networks, on the other hand, have no singular hub at the center of network activity. Instead, the network is arranged into a series of regions branching off from one another. Each region has a central hub that organizes the nodes in the region, yet no one region is at the center of network activity. Centralized and decentralized networks are often allegorized as societal models, casting centralized state governments, banks, and other institutions as forces of power that exert control over all social activity inevitably brought into their domain. As exemplified by network design, centralization and decentralization can be complimentary modes of interactivity, even if presiding social institutions centralize power in a way that obfuscates their potential interrelationship.

In The Wealth of Networks, Benkler describes a networked information economy (NIE) emerging from the “radical decentralization of intelligence in our communications network and the centrality of information, knowledge, culture, and ideas” (2006, 32). Thus, online connectivity offers centralized access to other people, digital media tools, and ways to align people and tools to contribute back to the online world, despite the dispersion of people across geographical, social, and institutional boundaries. Whereas 20th century mass media such as radio and television enabled only specialists to access media tools and use these tools for one-way communication aimed at an aggregated populace (the “masses”), networked connectivity breaks down these barriers, enjoining decentralized contributors to centralized spaces and modes of interactivity. As we will soon see, Everipedia and adherents of the Blockchain tend to situate decentralization and centralization as innately oppositional forces, positing decentralization as a solution to the imposition of power amassed by centralized processes. Benkler, however, stresses their complimentary nature, focusing on how they’re used as organizing principles more so than on which is used.

While the mass media of the 20th century were highly centralized, their ability to restrict access and impose power was not due to their centralization, but because they were concentrated and commercialized at a “mass” economic scale. This distinction is critical, as things (i.e. Wikipedia) or processes (i.e. Wikipedia editing) brought together into a centralized whole do not necessarily aggregate power away from their constituent parts (Wikipedia editors and contributors). Mass media over the course of the 20th century increasingly concentrated because of commercial interests seeking to shore up economic power and, concomitantly, mass media increasingly commercialized because of capitalist logics predicated on continually concentrating economic capital. In other words, mass media amassed power not because they are centralized; mass media become centralized as a result of ongoing concentration and commercialization. In this vein, the “economy” of NIE is predicated on maximizing the ability to centralize resources beyond the commercialized auspices of capitalist marketplaces, since a commons-based approach is more readily capable of maximizing both individual and collective autonomy.

One of the primary assets of NIE is its ability to enhance both individual and collective autonomy. Through off-market, commons-based peer production, NIE enhances an individuality’s capacity to 1) serve their individual self-interests by performing more tasks independently; 2) achieve shared social interests through informal cooperation with others; and 3) maximize the potential of formal organizational cooperation (Benkler 2006, 8). Thus, the commons is not only a centralized space for access, participation, and cooperation but, when not subject to the concentrating effects of commercial pursuits, enables participants to better self-direct their competencies for personal and social gains. Nonetheless, Benkler is not naïve about presiding socio-economic systems and the inevitable creep of marketplace incentive structures. In stressing the ability of NIE to enhance individual and collective autonomy, he notes that contemporary conditions will entail a synthesis of commons-based participation and proprietary mechanisms for production and access (i.e. software protected by intellectual property laws). His larger point is that, over time, enhancing the commons will augment individual and social autonomy, whereas commercialization risks concentrating resources – and autonomy – in the hands of elite power brokers.

Everipedia and Blockchain Autonomy

The emergence of Everipedia built on blockchain and cryptocurrency also connotes notions of autonomy suggestive of commons-style production yet recreates marketplace conditions with the potential to undermine the lived experience of individual and social autonomy. Blockchain is a ledger accessible to parties granted access to this ledger. It is a “chain” in that information is recorded into “blocks” maintained and accessed by participants who are able to see when blocks are added or updated. Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies inclusive of the ability to encrypt techniques to regulate and verify the value and transfer of funds. Cryptocurrencies and blockchain have experienced a symbiotic relationship, as the ability of blockchain to serve as a ledger for histories of transfer and value compliments at a macro scale the microtransactions of cryptocurrencies subject to shifting valuation and terms of transfer. As with many for-profit companies operating on the blockchain, Everipedia has developed its own cryptocurrency dubbed “IQ,” earned through curation and submission of content within the Everipedia database. Cryptocurrencies are also pegged to exchange rates with traditional banking notes, with the current market value of one IQ listed by Coinmarketcap.com at just under five one-thousandths of a U.S. dollar ($0.005) (although exchange rates vales commonly fluctuate in a matter of seconds).

The Everipedia website describes Everipedia’s IQ blockchain as fomenting “a new paradigm change and knowledge economy to disrupt the old centralized internet knowledge and encyclopedia model similar to Wikipedia.” The site describes decentralized participation as more democratic, resistant to censorship and “the control of a central authority,” and capable of engendering better cooperation through financial incentives, all of which will “improve upon all fundamental features of Wikipedia.” Everipedia situates itself against Wikipedia and, in doing so, situates decentralization as oppositional to centralization. As previously noted, through the lens of Benkler, this opposition is unfounded insofar as centralized modes of production and access inevitably concentrate power away from participants. Nonetheless, Everipedia’s self-promotion draws from notions of autonomy baked into ideologies and aspirations about the potential of decentralization, Blockchain, and cryptocurrency. In doing so, ideas about newfound forms of autonomy made possible by this amalgamation risk recreating circumstances that restrict the lived experience of autonomy.

As Lena Swartz notes in her conceptualization of “blockchain dreams,” despite adherents who posit blockchain as the grounds for “revolutionary social, economic, and political change” capable of manifesting a “new techno-economic order” (2017, 86) beyond the purview of centralized regulatory and financial structures, Blockchain projects are susceptible to the types of centralized structures they seek to evade. While Blockchain adherents express a desire for direct, “disintermediated” communication made possible by widespread visibility of blockchain transactions, the incentive for bitcoin accumulation has led to the creation of “bitcoin-specific intermediaries: exchanges, debit cards, other payment portals” that replicate the logic and form of traditional financial intermediaries (2017, 92). A critical dynamic influencing this disjuncture is a close-knit relationship between autonomy and automation and the ways the “radical” blockchain dream entails a distinct vision for how autonomy is experienced, and the role automation plays in this experience.

In addition to operating autonomously from states or banks, the radical blockchain dream envisions this type of autonomy as emerging from a “digital consensus space” (Greenfield 2017, 174) in which all interactions and transactions are “automated, self-organizing, self-regulating, immune from human error or corruption, and therefore fair” (Schwartz 2017, 94). In this sense, the radical blockchain dream envisions automation as a necessary precondition for enabling and maximizing autonomy, both in terms of relatively equitable outcomes and the minimization of human labor necessary to generate such outcomes. By putting automation to work, autonomy is conceptualized at the level of the individual and holistic “decentralized autonomous organizations” (DAOs) that automate consensus, trust, and fair play in blockchain arrangements. Much like the financial incentives and intermediaries emerging from cryptocurrency incentives, the formation of DAO often involves organizing principles that risk concentrating power and autonomy away from humans operating at a remove from automated interactivity.

Organizing Autonomy on the Blockchain

DAOs attempt to reinvent “the company form” through the automation of consensual interaction and organization, imagined as existing outside the legal auspices of incorporation and regulation (Greenfield 2017, 165). However, interrelated questions of technological capacity and human behavior pegged to economic incentives shine a light on whether or not DAO formations are feasible and/or sustainable, to say nothing of operating autonomously to legal frameworks. In automated economies or elsewhere, any economic transaction is only viable insofar as it is informally understood to be enforceable based on formal mechanisms to enforce the terms of the transaction. A lease between a landlord and a tenant, for example, functions based on the assumed good faith effort of both parties to executive their respective responsibilities and legal frameworks (housing regulations, civil courts) in place to ensure the execution of such responsibilities and offer redress when one or more party fails to do so. Since DAOs are not subject to formal enforcement, the expectation of informal good faith operation cannot be assumed, since the administration of transactions through “autonomous chunks of code” (Greenfield 2017, 150) are not autonomous from the will and desires of its programmers. The extent to which legal and technological code function depends on the values, beliefs, and ideologies encoded into these frameworks, meaning that automation cannot operate independently from human will and intervention, as it merely displaces when and how human intervention occurs. Thus, the critical factor is that automated consensus on the Blockchain is largely unachievable when pegged to economic incentives, especially since these circumstances tend to valorize notions of autonomy as an individuated trait unchecked by legal or technological code. In terms of Everipedia, creation and curation must invariably contend with these issues, as the desire to exert individual will stems not only from the personal sentiments one brings to bear on a particular topic but also the economic incentives accompanying the exertion of such will. In this regard, Everipedia is built on a foundation that overemphasizes individual autonomy at the expense of collective autonomy, despite interrelated ideologies of decentralized autonomous dispersion, organization, and accountability.

In addition to ideologies of autonomy built into the conceptual parameters of Everipedia’s reliance on blockchain and cryptocurrency, Everipedia practices also present problems for enhancing the individual and collective autonomy of participants. One of Everipedia’s ongoing tactics is to distinguish itself through contrast itself with Wikipedia, situating Everpedia practices as resolving the limitations of Wikipedia. A header on the Everipedia Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page asks “How is Everipedia different from Wikipedia and similar sites?” In response, Everipedia touts the inclusivity of any and all properly cited topics; the incorporation of GIFs, videos, and other visual forms; the ability for celebrities to have verified accounts; and, somewhat paradoxically, the necessity of Wikipedia to Everipedia’s foundational index of resources: “every page from Wikipedia is already here on Everipedia to build on top of and improve.” Despite decrying centralization and valorizing decentralization, the bulk of Everipedia’s informational infrastructure emanates from Wikipedia. Or, to put it more bluntly, Everipedia is built on a centralized repository. This is not only something of a contradiction in terms of Everipedia’s presiding ethos, but also indicates how Everipedia’s economic transactions pull from the work put into Wikipedia.

Produsing Autonomy and Reprodusing Exploitation

In conjunction with Benkler’s ideas about individual and social autonomy emerging from commons-based peer production, Axel Bruns’ notion of “produsage” is useful to stress notions of work and economic value undergirding Everipedia’s reliance on Wikipedia. Produsage is a term that recognizes the breakdown of traditional barriers between media producers and users (as well as “audiences”) whereby users are the producers and vice versa (Bruns 2006). Much like Benkler, Bruns advocates for produsage as the purview of the commons, as the primary incentive for collaboration is the ability to satisfy both personal and collective desires by developing resources indicative of one’s own intellectual and ephemeral needs that are freely and readily available. Those who use these resources are empowered to produce their own contributions, thus continuing this chain of production and usage. Attempting to economically capitalize on produsage undermines the entire enterprise, as mechanisms of marketplace control (intellectual property, paywalls, etc.) disincentivize production, given the likelihood that as the fruits of unpaid labor will be both cordoned off from collective usage and exploited through economic transactions.

By replicating all of Wikipedia within its infrastructural foundation, Everipedia commodifies Wikipedia pages and the process of their creation. This commodification draws from the social capital of produsage to generate economic capital within the incentive structures of Everipedia IQ traded and exchanged within its domain. Everipedia is, in other words, built upon the ability to transform free labor and the outputs of this labor into economic exchange value. Even prior to a single transaction, Everipedia IQ is always-already suffuse with value inscribed in it by produsers of Wikipedia content. This not only exploits public resources and replicates hierachicical conditions of work performed in capitalist marketplaces, but further stresses contradictions built into Everipedia and its intertwined ideologies around decentralization, autonomy, and techno-economic arrangements. What Everipedia supposes about the future of Wikipedia-style curation and collaboration owes less to existing beyond the control and centralized power structures and more to replicating the ability to amass power through market incentives. Looking forward, one point of speculation about the trajectory of collectivized intelligence and peer production involves possibilities for autonomy if the blockchain sheds its association with cryptocurrency and market incentives.

Looking Ahead: Uncryptic Autonomy

Notably, Adam Greenfield speculates about the possibilities of DAO for “decentralized, non-hierarchical organization of political movements” (2017, 168). If uncoupled from marketplace ideologies and economic incentive structures of cryptocurrency markets, the blockchain possesses the potential to distribute prosocial, democratic power to socio-economic arenas. This might include, for instance, the ability for worker-owned cooperatives to self-organize their work and democratic participation in collective ownership of companies and modes of production. In this way, disentangling blockchain from cryptocurrency opens up possibilities for logics of collective intelligence, commons-based peer production, and produsage built into Wikipedia and other online resources to shape how blockchain and automated technologies can be put to use across virtual and material domains. Twenty years after the emergence of Wikipedia, understanding the circumstances that gave rise to its beneficial aspects warrants continuing focus on socio-economic notions of autonomy, automation, and (de)centralization and their instantiation in social, economic, and political arrangements.

References

Benkler, Yochai. The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press, 2006.

Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and beyond: From production to produsage. Vol. 45. Peter Lang, 2008.

Greenfield, Adam. Radical technologies: The design of everyday life. Verso Books, 2017.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press, 2006.

Lévy, Pierre, and Robert Bononno. Collective intelligence: Mankind's emerging world in cyberspace. Perseus books, 1997.

Shirky, Clay. Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. Penguin, 2008.

Surowiecki, James. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shaped Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations. Doubleday, 2004.

Swartz, Lana. "Blockchain dreams: Imagining techno-economic alternatives after Bitcoin." Another Economy Is Possible: Culture and Economy in a Time of Crisis (2017): 82-105.

Tapscott, D. and Williams, A.D., 2008. Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything. Penguin.

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