Reading Yochai Benkler’s “Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and The Nature of the Firm,” an influential study of peer production systems (most famously the open source movement).

One point he makes is that peer production systems succeed when they do a good job of 1) breaking up a big job into lots of small parts, and 2) using scale– a very large number of contributors– to correct for defects, either by having proofreading/testing, or by statistical averaging of contributions.

It strikes me that one quality that peer production, evolving species, and many other cooperative systems share is the freedom to be profligate with some critical resource. With evolution, you’re profligate with individuals. The larger its population and the more your random mutations, the faster a species will be able to adapt to changes in its environment. With computer systems that use evolutionary techniques to solve difficult problems (like the traveling salesman problem), you’re profligate with processor cycles: you don’t have to be particularly smart or elegant when you can let the system try out a billion different possibilities. With peer production, you’re profligate with creativity: you have a lot of little tasks, and a lot of people, and so each task is bound to be taken up by someone. (And duplication is good, because contributors can double-check each other.)

As someone once said, monkeys sitting at typewriters would, if given enough time, randomly write the collected works of Shakespeare. This is true, but in Benkler is right, they’d get there a lot faster if they had an equal number of monkey proofreaders volunteering small bits of their time to look at a few lines of the typists’ work.

[To the tune of David Bowie, “Outside,” from the album Outside.]