“Images of free market society that made sense prior to the Industrial Revolution continue to circulate today as ideals, blind to the gross mismatch between the background social assumptions reigning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and today’s institutional realities. We are told that our choice is between free markets and state control, when most adults live their working lives under a third thing entirely: private government[emphasis added].“
What else could you call the modern workplace, where superiors can issue changing orders, control attire, surveil correspondence, demand medical testing, define schedules, and monitor communication, such as social-media posts? —Nathan Heller on Elizabeth Anderson, The Philosopher Redefining Equality
Society’s structure and governance impacts almost every aspect of our lives. How civic discourse frames our actual structure and governance conditions what we think is ethical. Ever since Richard Cantillon and Adam Smith developed the concept of the free market, political economists have framed the choice for society as one between free markets and state control.
More value can be gotten out of voluntary participation than anyone previously imagined, thanks to improvements in our ability to connect with one another and improvements in our imagination of what is possible from such participation. —Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky
In his thought-provoking book, Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky reminds us that, until recently, most of the discussion about how to make things happen has focused on two seemingly competing mechanisms.
The first way to make things happen is private production, where something gets done when the cost of doing it is less than what the doers believe the result will be worth. This is how many consumer products and services are created.
The second way to make things happen is public production, where a society decides that something is worth doing for the common good. An example is the provision of universal health care by a government for its citizens.
There is a third way to make something happen.
Social production is the third way to make something happen
Social production, as Shirky describes it, is the creation of value by a group for its members, using neither price signals nor managerial oversight to coordinate participants’ efforts. Social production occurs because a group’s members derive benefit from the results of their shared work, and often through their enjoyment of community during the process.
Until recently, the scale of social production was limited. Shirky gives picnics and bowling leagues as examples. What has changed is that internet technologies now give us inexpensive and effective means for group coordination and cooperation. This allows us to aggregate the free time of many people in ad hoc groups that come together for mutual benefit to work on “tasks we find interesting, important, or urgent”. Examples of social production include Wikipedia, Linux, and countless community-run online forums.
How social production will impact meeting design
The rise of social production is important for events such as meetings and conferences, because the collective knowledge and experience of peer groups normally rivals or surpasses, the knowledge and experience of any one “expert”. When an audience collectively knows more than the presenter at the front of the room (and I’d argue that today this is true more often than not), the question naturally arises: are standard presentations the best way to use attendees’ time?
Traditional conference culture restricts the provider of session content to presenters. Social production culture, on the other hand, supports appropriate openness, sharing, and participation as a norm. When events adopt a social production culture, attendees become participants, involved not only in their own learning but also in the learning of their peers. Everyone benefits from the increased pool of resources, and the opportunity to shape what happens during the event. This adds real value to each attendee’s experience and also to the event’s civic value, i.e. the effect of the event on the world outside it.
As social production becomes an increasingly common way to create value, we need to recognize and acknowledge its ramifications for events. Attendees are going to be less willing to put up with conferences that are designed to make money for the organizers or put on as a public service. Instead, they will go to events where they can participate in and shape what happens.
What are you doing to facilitate social production at your events?