James Governor's Monkchips

Creating The Contribution Society

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As regular readers will be aware I am no fan of the Ownership Society idea. I believe that it is a call for naked self-interest and a frame that will be used to take money out of the pockets of those that can least afford it. Universal healthcare and universal education are not pipe-dreams, but they can’t be provided without making a contribution to society.

It seems to me that social software, and architectures of participation, are two means to delivering on the promise of a Contribution Society, where your worth is at least partially measured on what you contribute, rather than what you own. Frankly i am bored by what you own- hell – YOU are probably bored by most of what you own. I was therefore pleased to see Chris Allen making an explicit link between social networking and social software. He was speaking at the Future of Voluntary Health Associations Conference. As Chris says

Ideally Social Software can help increase their sense of touch with their volunteers, it can empower volunteers to collaborate and work harder and in new ways, it can increase information sharing and innovation, and it can help drive fund-raising numbers higher.

Am i an unrepentant commie? A creative commie perhaps. The blogging phenomenon makes it clear that millions of people want to contribute. The Creative Commons shows that we want to share our works and see them widely distributed. The genuine outpouring of love shown by contributions from citizens to Tsunami appeals, which shamed those of sovereign governments, illustrate an urge to contribute.

Open source software is the perhaps the most obvious illustration of the Contribution Society at work, with all the economic disruption it entails. Classical economic theory is very bad at explaining why folks do things for free, why they help people out. I believe we’re at least partially hard wired to contribute. We may also be predisposed to ownership, but in my mind there must be better bases for status. I have recently read Alain de Botton‘s Status Anxiety, an ace litttle book of philosophy, art and life.

Other evidence for the Contribution Society comes from places like flickr and the work of “amateurs” and or “prosumers”.

Contribution Society may not be a perfect name, and it also tends to undercut a recent argument i made about Open Source being a cornucopia not a singleton. I also know the opponents of contribution are great at making the complex seem simple, monochrome, so i have tried to do the same. Now i just need to stay on message and try and spread the meme. If you want to help, please just mention the Contribution Society in conversation or on your blog or whatever. Or if you can think of a better name for a push back frame against the Ownership Society let me know.

In the course of this story i just found out that a nemesis is emerging. I found a reference to a Cato-ite called Richard A. Epstein. I assume this is the same chap that wrote the extremely ill-informed screed against open source in the FT recently.


  1. Don’t you realize that what you own is a function of what you contribute?

  2. Hi, James,

    I jumped over here from slacktivist. Basically, I agree with you; while copyright, patent, trademark and similar “intellectual property” laws were originally designed to protect individual contributions to society, they have been coopted as ways to steal from genuinely creative folks in the name of profit. In many cases today, the people who actually created the works cannot do what they want because some corporation owns part or all of the copyright.

    The new edition of Utne talks about this in depth, especially in relation to how South American govts and artists are trying to buck the corporate tide by using more shareware, “commons” licenses, etc.

    Bob, what you say is true in theory. There are certainly quite a few ethical wealthy people who DO make great contributions to society, but in practice a lot of wealth sits in the hands of people who got their money by taking from society, by manipulating people, and by playing what amount to legal shell games. To them, what they own is simply a tool for amassing greater wealth and power, not one for giving back to the community that made their wealth possible. Although sometimes they do give to other people, their intent is anything but generous.

  3. cheers Gus. like minds

  4. An oldie, but a goodie, huh? This pre-dates Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and the whole ‘national bender’ meme, so this comment may be a bit awkward, but…

    That thought that we just numbed ourselves with TV for the past 4 decades got me thinking about how that really was the basis for consumer culture. So I’ve been using the term “producer culture” in much the same way you’re talking about Contribution Society.

    Couper les cheveaux en quatre? Bien sur.

  5. Agree totally. In fact, working in open source communities these last few years (and even in the scientific community before that), all this reminds me of my history classes in college. I took a lot of Native American Indian classes, and some of those cultures were based on the concept of giving — not owning.

  6. Agree with much of this sentiment – apart from the opening. If we really understood our self interest we would own and consume far less. The problem is not self interest – it is our poor understanding of it and what flows as a consequence of pursuing our self interest ‘poorly understood’.
    Once we have properly negotiated our self interest we may choose to act very differently. Especially if we come to believe that ‘givers gain’.

  7. James,

    The self-publishing phenomenon demonstrates that people crave an audience for their opinions. Practically everyone wants to be heard by anyone who will listen – more of a Celebrity Society than one of Contribution. Our written opinions are our valuable “contributions” if only in our minds.

    When the Total Cost of Contribution (used in jest) is low, our willingness to “contribute” is off the charts.

    Now try to think of examples where the Total Cost of Contribution is much higher (i.e. requires substantially more effort on our part). The spike in volunteerism following natural disasters aside, how many people are willing to make regular contributions outside the boundaries of their homes and cubicles? Relatively few by any measure.

    I should also point out that open source software and most of the “contributions” in the blogosphere are possible because the contributors’ have other sources for income, sustainability and sustenance. However, if the cost of contribution goes up and they perceive a negative impact on their day-to-day lives, their participation in such activities typically goes down. The enormous number of abandoned open source projects, blogs and websites is the most obvious illustration of the effects of TCC on social contribution.

    I admire your worldview and even agree with some of it. My intent is not to minimize the wonderful work of those who continue to commit themselves to making contributions that make this world a better place. I only wish to challenge the notion of a Contribution Society and push everyone to be more critical of the types of contributions they make, and their motivations.

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