On The Horizon: 'Peer Production' Promises To Leap In Importance

Technologies that get others to do some of your work for you can be profitable

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

January 4, 2002

4 Min Read

When NASA set out early last year to produce a map of Mars, it tried an experiment: It invited Internet users to help identify the more than 40,000 craters on the Martian surface, a task that would ordinarily take a trained researcher months or years (see http://click workers.arc.nasa.gov/top). In a single day, more than 90,000 entries were recorded; in a two-month period, visitors to the site made 1.9 million crater-identification entries. The work of these volunteer "clickworkers" was, in the words of NASA's evaluation report, "virtually indistinguishable from the input of a geologist with years of experience in identifying Mars craters."

The biggest IT story of 2001? Hardly. During the past year, there were some real earthquakes, major events that produced and will continue to produce substantial dislocations and changes in the entire technology landscape: the events of Sept. 11, of course, but also the still-disputed Microsoft antitrust case settlement and the huge drop in Nasdaq stock prices.

Sometimes, though, it's worth trying to identify the smaller, less earth-shaking events, the minor tremors, that also might signal the movement of the continents beneath our feet. Our candidate for 2001's most significant under-the-radar-screen development: the emergence of what New York University law professor Yochai Benkler calls "peer production"--the aggregation and concentration of decentralized inputs and efforts for the efficient performance of a specific task, exemplified by NASA's experiment--as a serious new player in the IT world.

Peer production's poster child is open-source software--free of proprietary claims, owned by nobody, reproducible and able to be modified by anyone, and whose continued development is in the hands of a bunch of volunteers working without any central direction. When 2001 began, open-source software was still viewed as the domain of hobbyists and hackers, and the open-source process was seen as incapable of producing stable, mission-critical business applications. But no more. The open-source Linux operating system remains the fastest-growing operating system out there, and with IBM's huge investment in Linux products, it's moving steadily toward the IT mainstream. Another open-source product, Apache, has cornered an astounding 60% of the Web-server software market and is installed on 8 million machines worldwide.

Google shows another side of peer production. It has become, almost overnight, the gold standard for search engines. What makes Google different from and better than other search engines is that it evaluates the usefulness of each of the billions of Web pages out there and the relevance of each page to a particular query by counting and analyzing the links leading into the page in question. In other words, it lets the network do the hard work of ranking Web pages. It's as though everyone who builds a Web page and links to other pages is working for Google, helping it provide better service to its customers.

Then there's Napster, which had, before legal problems overwhelmed it, the fastest-growing software application in history. The peer-to-peer file-sharing system that it pioneered will surely be back, simply because the idea that you can provide people with things they want without actually collecting, storing, or owning those things yourself--as long as you can point them to someone, somewhere on the network, who has those things--is too powerful to be held back for long.

It is, in a sense, the solution to an old, familiar problem: how to get other people to do some of your work for you. If two heads are better than one, what about 2 million? The global network provides any number of new ways to harness the collective efforts of a large, decentralized group of people to achieve some goal--new methods of leveraging collective effort, ideas, and expertise to produce valuable new assets. Events in 2001 proved the concept: Peer production can work, and it can even be profitable. It's going to have a profound effect on the business landscape in 2002 and beyond; those who figure out how to use it are going to have an edge in the new networked world in which we live.

Bradford C. Brown is chairman of the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. He can be reached at [email protected]. David Post is a Temple University law professor and senior fellow at the National Center for Technology and Law. He can be reached at [email protected].

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