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Not Just Information: Sharing Physical Resources

Back in 2001/2002 I spent a lot of time with colleagues at NYU researching the emerging phenomena of sites based on user-generated content (photos, journalism, music databases), and user-provided resources, such as processing cycles and storage space. Ath that time wireless was exploding, and our minds were aflame with the potential for mesh networks, software defined radio etc. Our framework was centered on information goods, whose non-rival properties are intuitively obvious, meaning that you and I can use the same data without causing each other any inconvenience- everyone can benefit from it.

Wireless, processing cycles and storage space posed a problem to this model, as these are resources which are finite, but which can be shared, because we are sold access to them in quantities exceeding our own requirements (leaving a surplus). They can they thus be considered as shareable goods, and Yochai Benkler (our homie ;)) wrote an excellent paper detailing the concept where he also illustrated the concept using the example of ride-sharing.

 Whilst catching up on old mail, I’ve been going through some discussion on a community that I’ve been around for around four years, Oekonux, where this topic rears its head sporadically. One of the cool thing s about the list is that it attracts people with an inventive streak at briding the gap between software, philosophy and the possibility of new forms of social organization. Thus in October, there appeared a mail about an attempt to set up a site and software to enable the sharing of physical items in Dublin, which hits hard, ‘cos that’s my hometown…. The system is based on  – a free software Content Management System / Applications Framework.

In Italy an analogous attempt was made to launch a site based around book-sharing titled DLP, Distributed Library Project, hosted at, where using ISBN numbers, users can locate books that they are interested in according to proximity to its owner, and then set up a real-time rendez-vous for consignment. The idea thus is to enable the constitution of ‘instant local proximity-based and affinity-based communities’ (thanks Magius!). The project looks sleeps these days, if not downright dormant or even dead, but it occurs to me that this idea will just not go away. And it has struck me frequently of late the degree to which timing is crucial in the success or failure of such projects, and that our short attention spans as children of an innovating generation often impede us from persevering until the right time finally arrives. In fact during september I attended Wizrds of OS, and heard the creator of Magnatunes talk about his new project based on the sharing of books, bookmooch, which seems to be doing pretty well. You list books in your possession which don’t need/want, and then send them to those who request them – that earns you a point, and these points comprise a sort of alternative currency within this alternative economy based on delayed and indirect reciprocity.

 Benkler describes his interpretation as follows:

“Personal computers, wireless transceivers, and Internet connections
are “shareable goods.” The basic intuition behind the concept of
shareable goods is simple. There are goods that are “lumpy”: given a
state of technology, they can only be produced in certain discrete
bundles that offer discontinuous amounts of functionality or capacity.
In order to have any ability to run a computation, for example, a
consumer must buy a computer processor. These, in turn, only come in
discrete units with a certain speed or capacity. One could easily
imagine a world where computers are very large and their owners sell
computation capacity to consumers “on demand,” whenever they needed to
run an application. That is basically the way the mainframe world of
the 1960s and 1970s worked. However, the economics of microchip
fabrication and of network connections over the past thirty years,
followed by storage technology, have changed that. For most functions
that users need, the price-performance trade-off favors stand-alone,
general-purpose personal computers, owned by individuals and capable
of running locally most applications users want, over remote
facilities capable of selling on-demand computation and storage. So
computation and storage today come in discrete, lumpy units. You can
decide to buy a faster or slower chip, or a larger or smaller hard
drive, but once you buy them, you have the capacity of these machines
at your disposal, whether you need it or not.”
(The Wealth of Networks, p.113)

Goods are thereafter divided in three on an arc from from lumpy (major capital investment required) to granular (billing on a consumption basis possible), and in the middle lie the medium grained goods such as compuers, bandwidth etc.

Business models and consumer purchease capacity conspire to create a situation where:

“…a large number of individuals buy and use such medium-grained
lumpy goods, that society will have a large amount of excess capacity
“out there,” in the hands of individuals. Because these machines are
put into service to serve the needs of individuals, their excess
capacity is available for these individuals to use as they wish–for
their own uses, to sell to others, or to share with others.”

(ibid. )

But this does not mean that they will be shared: what are the alternative options open to users to do with their excess capacity? Let’s consider for a moment the large number of people owning second houses that they do not use most of the time – do they open the doors to the homeless? No, they rent them out, and if they succeed in extracting revenue only for the summer months of the year and they are vacant otherwise, so be it. Likewise with regard to underused motor vehicles, and it’s no accident that there is now an emerging commercial market in car-pooling, rather than it being the product of a self-organizing non-monetized process. Maybe Fon is somewhere in between.  But returning to Benkler:

“… the sharing of these material resources, like the sharing of human
creativity, insight, and attention, nonetheless relies on both the
comparative transaction costs of markets and social relations and the
diversity of human motivation.”

 (ibid, p.115)

So this is directly linked to the ease/difficulty of sharing, and the scale of the returns available through monetization measured against the transactional labour to achieve them. ideally then, potential monetaryreturns would be low if processed through the market, and the surplus would be widely distributed so as to include enough people enticed by more social motivations:

“If excess capacity in a society is very widely distributed
in small dollops, and for any given use of the excess capacity it is
necessary to pool the excess capacity of thousands or even millions of
individual users, the transaction-cost advantages of the sharing
system become significant.”

(ibid. p.115)
There spoke the econodwarf. Notwithstanding this  qualification there are other good reasons why social sharing could work, not least ints incredible potential as a media for the formation of community, something which economic gain will never help to attain, and of which we are all starved more every day.


Other examples assembled by p2p researcher Michael Bouwens are:, organizing the lending of goods and described in this article; other peer-based exchanges, are described in this Wired article;Bookcrossings; Community Trading Software; Couchsurfing; Freecycle; Lala; Notemesh; Open Co-op

A how-to for setting up your own site to share resources is available from Free Cooperative here, and the you can read about the motivations of the project’s founder here.

December 22, 2006 - Posted by | material culture, p2p, social cooperation

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