Bernard Stiegler: “We are entering an era of contributory work”

The website Rue89 have published an interesting and accessible interview with Bernard Stiegler on the theme of an economy of contribution. In the interview Stiegler offers some general observations and examples of how contributory work might function. I have made a quick translation of the interview, below, I hope it is of interest. As ever, please do offer comments, corrections etc.

The Big Interview – Bernard Stiegler: “We are entering an era of contributory work”

Bernard Stiegler’s offices face the Pompidou Centre, beneath the roofs of Paris. It is for his famous neighbour that the philosopher founded the Institute for Research and Innovation (IRI), in order to “anticipate changes in the supply and cultural consumption enabled by new digital technologies.”

But in the spirit of this teacher-author-entrepreneur, everything is connected: culture, consumption, technology, work, politics. For him, the consumerist model is dying, as with all permanent progress. Everything is automated. Economic interest can be the only pursuit. We must rehabilitate knowledge, cognition, creativity. How? By developing an “economy of contribution”, which will revolutionise the way we work.


Rue89: What brought you to an interest in the world of work?

Bernard Stiegler: I have been working in that direction, I went through unionism, but I was also at the helm of big organisations like INA, IRCAM, the Institute for Research and Coordination of Acoustics / Music, and now IRI, the Insitute of Research and Innovation at the Pompidou Centre.

More fundamentally, I am interested in technics and how technics drives work. The world of work is always more or less technical, a technical world that can be more or less poor, more or less rich.

R89: And what strikes you today about the nature of work?

B.S: I have seen people in these different workplaces, and it struck me, after a while, I discovered that they were strong supporters of free software. In fact they prefer to work at home, even to be paid less than in large companies, companies working on proprietary software. They seem to me more motivated by their work by their salary. I discovered that economy.

R89: The use of free software forges different working relationships?

B.S: It really depends on the model. Take the example of IRCAM. At the time that I headed the Institute, they had developed eight software applications that were distributed worldwide. We collectively changed this software every year in communities of contributors who came from around the world.

It could be developers, composers, sound editors cinema, etc.. They brought proposals, software mashups [? – moulinettes logicielles] that they developed as “open source”. Open source means that everyone can use it, retrieve it, and improve it. This is an incredible dynamism.

R89:  Does hierarchy tend to disappear with such a contributory way of working?

B.S: No, no. A pure “bottom up” [organisation] does not exist. What we call bottom up is to bring all information and grounding decisions to the participants, rather than having a few decision makers that impose their order. I think this is not possible. Someone always decides.

Very large companies in the United States and Germany who use contributory systems, are organized on that model. I think free software companies, such as Redhat, but also hybrid models, such as Google, which lies between consumerism and contribution or Facebook, or Wikipedia, each of these companies has its own organisation but there is always a leader and a hierarchy.

It is the mechanism of decision-making that is different. The decision maker, the one who judges the best, is also the one who best animates communities of knowledgeable people.

But there are not people who have the role of simply following orders [un rôle d’exécutants]. Everyone has a voice in all that concerns the content, everyone is involved in this decision. The customers themselves can participate.

R89: Can you explain how freelance workers and customers can participate?

Fnac, early in its trading, worked on a contributory model. All vendors were amateurs Fnac: musicians, photographers, etc.. Fnac was a kind of sponsor, making them work.

All amateurs went to Fnac. To interact with sellers. I went there, I was a fan of jazz. And when I came in the evening I played with the sellers.

Fnac dismantled this 25 years ago. This was a very serious mistake. That’s the model that people seek today. Employees, customers, fans, everyone brings their ideas. Employees, freelancers, clients, all become contributors to the business.

R89: There are therefore more consumers?

B.S: No, we speak of contributors instead. I think consumerism has had its day. This is a business model that has become toxic to people and the environment.

We live at the beginning of a new way of working: the era of contributory work, the contributor is not just a producer, or simply a consumer.

R89: How does this model actually contributing? Can you give an example?

B.S: I once taught designers and stylists at the School of Decorative Arts in Paris. We developed a contributory business model for fashion. We conceived, theoretically, of a fashion company in which there were only consumers.

There were contributors, who were part of a club. They had a membership card, and the company’s shares. Not to have phoney benefits, but to have the right to decide on the choice of recruitment, the collection, etc.

They had the right to give ideas. How to say them, for example, to lay out this collection there. The real fashion lovers invent things. They play. Their opinions count.

R89: It is the reign of amateurs?

B.S: Yes. The contributor of tomorrow is not a Sunday handyman [someone doing DIY to save money – trans.]. This is an amateur, in the old sense of the term. This is someone who is primarily motivated by their interests rather than by economic reasons.

They can also develop greater expertise than those motivated by economic reasons.

R89: This is a radical change, how to implement it?

B.S: This is a new model of work, which I call “deproletarianisation”. We bring not only our labor but our knowledge. This is a huge gain.

Do not forget that automation will generalize and make employment less necessary. Look at the self-checkouts in supermarkets, automated tolls, but also the software robots that do housekeeping at Wikipedia. I argue that this is a good thing.

On one condition: that it enhances the ability of people to develop their social skills, their knowledge, their work in the strict sense of the term, rather than solely their job.

This is the necessary condition for rebuilding a viable model.

R89: But these contributors, should they pay? If so, how?

B.S: Yes, you must pay them. I would not exactly need to pay the amateurs on the model of occasional workers, but there are solutions here.

Concerning the amount of compensation, there could be a formula with one part as wages and another part as a contributory profit. One can imagine stuff like that. All this is a form of value that we call positive externalities.

As for the practical implementation of such measures, it should be the object of social innovation, experimentation, works of specialists, which I am not, and negotiations.

R89: Can this contributory model be transposed into all sectors?

B.S: More or less. It comes in various forms.

In the energy field, for example, contribution is very important. There are several types of contributors. Individuals first. I, for example, I have a [water] mill. I can also put on my 300 m2 of photovoltaic panels on my roofs. I could resell 3-4 times the amount of energy I use, but I do not do it because the security conditions for doing so are such that I would have to invest a lot of money.

It is the same with ‘fab labs’, workshops where everyone can come to make their own objects. These are local laboratories that make invention accessible to all by providing digital fabrication tools, such as the 3D printer.

The real issue is: how to ensure that people leave behind the consumer attitude.

We live in a transitional phase, where the challenge is, in France, for the current government, to begin to draw a critical path for our society: a path where we invent real growth based on the development of knowledge, and which surpasses the consumerist model.

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