George Dafermos on the Peer Governance of Open Source Projects
Source: Interview conducted by Michel Bauwens and Neal Gorenflo
While peer production is now well-known after the pioneering work of Yochai Benkler and the evident success of open-source software, the governance of these communities is the subject of much less debate and study. Yet, evaluation of governance is crucial, as there can’t really be any real peer production if the allocation of resources is not the result of the social relationships themselves, but driven by commercial interests and command. Indeed, many commercially driven and managed projects may well be parading as open source, but if they are managed in a classic way, the potential for social change is quite limited. George Dafermos from Delft University of Technology has been one of the few researchers specializing in the governance of free software communities and, thereby, has established more clear criteria for genuine peer production.
Michel Bauwens: You’re well-known in the P2P Foundation community for your research of governance of free / libre and open source software (FOSS or FLOSS) projects. For those who are unfamiliar with your work, please tell us about your background and research.
My journey in the free open source software (FOSS) milieu spans more than a decade. As a researcher, I’ve participated in several studies of FOSS of which, perhaps, the best-known is Management and Virtual Decentralised Networks: The Linux Project, one of the first analyses of large FOSS projects from an organisational perspective. I’ve been involved in copyleft activism and have contributed to some projects as a consultant on FOSS licensing. In the last five years, however, my research work has centred on the organisation of the development of FreeBSD, one of the largest and oldest FOSS projects, and I’m currently preparing a PhD dissertation on the topic at Delft University of Technology. Like other social scientists, I consider FOSS to be an emerging paradigm for the organisation of collective activities and a laboratory of experimentation in structures for the decentralised development of technology.
Michel Bauwens: At the P2P Foundation, we distinguish peer production, peer governance, and peer property. Would you agree with this trilogy, and is it a fair assessment to say you are one of the few researchers specializing in the peer governance of peer production communities? Do you agree that there is a specific modality of governance which applies for peer production communities and how does peer governance relate to democracy?
The approach of the P2P Foundation is, without doubt, extremely useful in probing peer production, as it calls attention to key dimensions of this phenomenon. What sets peer production apart from other modes of production is precisely its mode of governance and property. To put it differently, what is special about this phenomenon is the way in which people participate in the production of a good and organise collectively their efforts, as is the way in which the goods that result from their activities are distributed. It is, therefore, obvious that peer production is characterised by a definite modality of governance, which consists of the self-selection of tasks by participants who make decisions collectively, based on consensus. And that, of course, has a striking resemblance to the concept of direct democracy.
As to whether I am one of the few researchers focusing on practices of peer governance, I’d say that, though researchers of peer governance are still few compared to those studying the governance of traditional organisations, peer production is no longer an exotic research field and the number of social scientists turning to peer production has been continuously rising over the last 10 years. No doubt, awareness of the promise of research in peer production is spreading in the academia.