In January (2014), a website concerned with proposing and advancing novel and alternative businesses and economic models called Without Model published an interview with Bernard Stiegler concerning his conceptualisation of the economy of contribution. Without Model describes itself as a community of ‘forwarders’, a kind of community of Tardean imitative amplifiers – which is interesting…
In the interview Stiegler reiterates some aspects of his argument for an economy of contribution made elsewhere but also reaffirms the links with an understanding of a libidinal economy. He also, fairly explicitly highlights the constitution of an economy of contribution is no easy task – it requires some fairly hefty (macro-economic) structural challenges. In other words, Stiegler is not simply outlining an alternative business model for trendy ‘right-on’ companies or co-ops but arguing for something like a structural change to the economy, built from the ground-up. Elsewhere he has argued that this requires a rethinking of education, is contingent upon particular modes of infrastructure such as open data and requires a more holistic understanding of value. Quite an ambition then – but, as outlined in his Disbelief and Discredit series of books, Stiegler sees an immediate and urgent impetus to incite such change.
This is, of course, not without risk — in Stiegler’s terms these new capacities for becoming (or in his terminology – transindividuation) are pharmacological, the particular ways in which they play out in the world can be both a ‘poison’ and a ‘cure’ (following Plato’s argument that writing is a pharmakon). Elsewhere, Stiegler argues that such an economy of ‘pharmaka’ is a therapeutic — it is possible to resolve the poison/cure relation either way — that is not dialectical (i.e. an opposition) but rather a composition of tendencies that emerge in the relations of a milieu.
I suppose the one criticism that might be immediately levelled at this version of Stiegler’s argument is that it sort of implicitly assumes that we must create alternative institutions to invoke such change, which of course needs to be ordered and civil, and so the very basis of change is potentially compromised by the inherent contradiction of needing to create another bureaucracy to get rid of the current, corrupt one.
As usual, I have added queries, clarifications etc. in square brackets and with a couple of footnotes. Also, all of the links within the text have been added by be for clarification of particular terms or concepts. I welcome comments and suggestions.
We are at the end of the Fordist model, we must move to mode of contribution
Bernard Stiegler is a philosopher and theoritician of the evolution of technical systems. He discovered free/open [source] models almost by accident while serving as the Director of the INA.
As the founder and president for the philosophical organisation Ars Industrialis, created in 2005, since April 2006 he has also directed the Institute for Research and Innovation (IRI) at the Georges Pompidou centre.
Q. Open, contributory and collaborative models are becoming more numerous and these forms of contribution extend into new territories – how do you interpret this evolution?
B.S. Before responding, it is a necessary precondition [of this conversation] to recognise that all of these models are not equivalent. Facebook is contributory, but in certain ways, it is a worse model [of operation] than its not contributory equivalents, I almost prefer the model of TF1. These mechanisms of the capture and distortion of data lead to a strong depersonalisation, a phenomenon that is exacerbated by ‘big data’. This is both exciting, because the data open up new possibilities, and dangerous.
It is for this reason that I discuss the pharmakon. In all technologies or systems, there are two simultaneous and opposing tendencies – one is good, positive and emancipatory, and the other is negative and predatory. We need to analyse the toxicity of these phenomena, for as they become better they also become more toxic. A pharmakon today necessitates a therapeutic: It must be a an organ of care [organe de soin 1] which like any medicine, if it fails, can kill the patient. It is thus necessary to conduct these analyses honestly and sincerely, in the same ways an accountant does with company accounts. The problem is that we do not have the perspective of hindsight, the training or the capacities [savoir-faire] for doing so calmly with contributory models.
Today, we need a typology of contributory models.
I work a lot with communities of hackers: until the ‘Snowdon crisis’ they did not see the pharmacological character of the net. In the last year things have changed, there is a kind of ‘net blues‘.
Q. How can one define the economy of contribution, for example how can one differentiate the market?
B.S. The economy of contribution is based on a re-capacitation: it augments the capacities of people more than it diminishes them. The term ‘recapacitation’ draws on Amartya Sen’s understanding of capabilities — a capability is a form of knowledge, life skills [savoir vivre], know how [savoir faire] or formal knowledge [savoir formel] – shared with other and which constitutes a knowledge community. Sen has shown that consumerism diminishes capabilities.
An economy of contribution is based in the development of the knowledge of individuals, and the sharing of these knowledges is facilitated by a shared ownership which does not prevent its circulation.
I am not against the notion of ownership [propriété], but it does not have to be proprietorial, at the expense of the collective value of knowledge. Rather than capacitation, the consumerist society is based on proletarianisation, even design is proletarianised.
The economy of contribution is an economy based on parity [parité] – peer-to-peer. In this economy, we often speak of emergent initiatives or the bottom-up, but the bottom-up does not exist alone, there is always an aspect of the top-down – which is to say that there is always an organisation that unites and valorises the bottom-up dynamics. Even when we believe that there is only the bottom-up, there is a hidden top-down that regulates emergence. The real peer is one who can explain the top-down to the bottom-up.
Q. Why is it more important today than it was 20 years ago or will be in 20 years time?
B.S. We are entering a new stage of automisation, of a different nature to that which has taken place thusfar. It is the continuation of what began 200 years ago, but automisation has shifted register. In many sectors, manual labour is no longer necessary, or will be superfluous very soon. Amazon has recently announced it is working towards this, the elimination of all of its jobs and their replacement by machines.
Currently, the elements are in place for automisation to move into a new stage, only the cost of robots limit its progress. One could suppose that when actors such as Amazon announce that they are tackling such a problem that the industrial ecosystem would produce economies of scale that make robots less costly than humans. When that happens, the Fordist model is dead. For without jobs, or purchasing power there will be nobody to buy what the robots produce. It will be a major, violent and systemic crisis. If we do not change regulations now we will have great difficulty coping.
Q. It can be noted that these models are being developed and that there are many initiatives but one often has the impression that they are struggling to sustain or develop themselves – what might be the reasons?
B.S. It is true that the precariousness of contributory models and the high failure rate of these initiatives raise questions.
There is an explanation, it lies in the ecosystem, the macro economy. At the level of the micro (individuals and organisations) these initiatives emerge and spread. We can see that without a macro politics they cannot prosper. When I speak of the macro economy I refer to the labour laws, taxation, social security, and territorial infrastructures. All of these elements do not favour an economy of contribution. Unless they [the macro economic elements] can be changed there is no chance of it [an economy of contribution] developing. Or, perhaps, it is a certain kind of contributory model that can succeed, such as Facebook.
This is the economic project and contemporary politics that we must change. The debates about the minimum subsistance income are interesting in this regard. I prefer to speak of a contributory wage. For me, the contributory wage should be based on the minimum subsistance income but it should not stop there. The contributory wage should be designed to promote the involvement of individuals in contributory projects. It should encourage contributions in order to create social enterprises, they can be monetised businesses but they do not have to be.
Q. Beyond the [structural] systems and the macro-economy, what sort of levers are available to develop contributory logics?
B.S. It is necessary to develop a contributory culture and and education, such that individuals engage in one way or another with contributory projects, making it more and more likely for them to do so. In developing such a culture we would develop the capacity of individuals to detect the toxic aspects of the pharmakon that is the economy of contribution.
On another plane, designers have a major role to play. They are called to become the visionaries and forerunners of contributory systems. A fablab cannot function only with the building and the machines, it functions because there is a social architecture of contribution, this is the work of the designer.
Research will also enable progress, if it becomes more contributory. The pace is so fast, the level of complexity is so pronounced that it is necessary to cooperate in order to understand and analyse [anything]. To open research to those beyond its immediate originators today would allow us all to keep abreast of the latest advances.
Q. You often talk about the libidinal economy when you talk about the economy of contribution, how does Freud come into models for contribution?
B.S. I have a Freudian vision of the economy. The libido is a social link, it is the capacity to channel the [base] drives [pulsions] into what Freud describes as a social investment of desire. Drives function positively when we are able to defer their satisfaction. To defer reaction is to make an action. The libidinal economy is the idealisation (in Freud’s sense) and the sublimation of drives. We can say that free and open source software [logiciel libre] is nurtured by this [kind of] sublimation, in other words by this striving beyond ourselves [ce dépassement 2].
You can find the interview in the original French on the Without Model website here.
1. I have translated organe de soin rather literally because it speaks to Stiegler’s conceptualisation of organs in the mode of technics and the ‘organon’ (in Greek – tool, instrument, prosthesis, organ) – a supplement to the body, through which it (the organ) and the individual are co-constituted. In his philosophical project, Stiegler has proposed a ‘general organology’ that articulates bodily organs (the viscera), artificial organs (instruments, tools and so on), and social organs (groupings ~ organisations).
2. There isn’t really a direct translation of what is written in the final sentence – dépassement means ‘overtaking’, which I have taken as a metaphor for a moving forward beyond ourselves and our present by channeling desires through positive processes of sublimation.