The Historical Consciousness of the Academic Literature on Commons-based Peer Production

16 07 2014



As readers of this blog will know, I’m interested in constitutive historicism (i.e., the ways in competing perceptions of history structure decision-making in the present). There is a large body of literature that examines how historical facts, historical factoids, historical analogies, and historical meta-narratives shape the thinking of people in different domains, such as the making of US foreign policy (see book cover below).


One of my current research projects examines the use of historical analogy by people involved in particular type of technology-based start-up. As I’ve read through the academic literature on open innovation and commons-based peer production (think of Linux and also Wikipedia), I’ve been struck by how frequently academics use ideas about different types of history (e.g., world history, US history, the history of technology, business history) to understand the new part of the economy.


Consider Yochai Benkler’s seminal 2002 article  “Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and” The Nature of the Firm“.” Yale Law Journal (2002): 369-446. Benkler argues that we have entered a new era in the history of innovation in which the old model, whereby innovation was done in-house by for-profit corporations, is becoming obsolete.  In the following paragraph, which references key personalities in post-war US history, Benkler makes this point.

Imagine that back in the days when what was good for GM was good for the
country an advisory committee of economists had recommended to the President of
the United States that the federal government should support the efforts of volunteer
communities to design and build their own cars, either for sale or for free distribution
to automobile drivers. The committee members would probably have been locked up
in a psychiatric ward—if Senator McCarthy or the House Un-American Activities
Committee did not get them first. Yet, in September of 2000, something like this in
fact happened. The President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee
recommended that the federal government back open source software as a strategic
national choice to sustain the U.S. lead in critical software development.


One of the interesting things about this paragraph is that Benkler, who is originally from Israel, assumes a fair amount of knowledge about US history on the part of the readers of the Yale Law Review. Although he does not feel the need to refer to him by name, Benkler alludes to General Motors CEO Charles Erwin Wilson in his first paragraph. In the 1950s and the 1960s, a statement attributed to Wilson “what’s good for General Motors is good for the United States” went viral and became part of the consciousness of many Americans. Today, many Americans believe that some General Motors executive once uttered these words back during the Cold War. This factoid shapes how they thing about the world. Of course, Wilson never actually said the exact words that have been attributed to him, but for the purposes of Benkler’s argument, the important thing is most readers of the Yale Law Review probably think that some suit from GM said it.

If you want more information about what Wilson actually said and did, including the major cuts to spending on defence contracts he made after 1953, you may wish to check out William M. McClenahan Jr and William H. Becker. Eisenhower and the Cold War Economy. JHU Press, 2011, especially pages 21, 48.

Becker, Eisenhower and the Cold War




I’m not saying that the overall argument of Benkler’s article is wrong.  I’m certainly not saying that Benkler (see below) deliberately set out to impart inaccurate historical information to his readers. I’m certain that Benkler, like most educated Americans, believes in the accuracy of the mythical Wilson quote.  I’m more interested in the fact that he and many other people use the familiar world of history to try to understand the brave new world of open source software.







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