An Interview with Adam Arvidsson and Nicolai Peitersen

The Ethical Economy

As we continue our week-long feature of The Ethical Economy: Rebuilding Value After the Crisis, by Adam Arvidsson and Nicolai Peitersen, we look to the authors’ interview with Zoe Romano at Digicult as they discuss the ideas of productive publics, economy reputation, and their joint role in the plausible shift toward an Ethical Economy.

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Ethical Economy. The New Distribution of Value

Zoe Romano: How do you see ethical phenomena like the signal of the emergence of a new way of production (what you call ‘Ethical Economy’) in addition to the emergence of a market niche, a term often used and abused to clean up the image of a company? Are we really facing a substantial change?

Adam Arvidsson & Nicolai Peitersen: The reason why these phenomena do not represent only a market niche is because they are companies’ and brands’ rational response to a deeper structural change. This deep transformation is made of two main elements: On one hand there is the rise of what we call “the productive publics,” and on the other hand the growing of the economy reputation.
In the book we show how the “productive publics” are becoming increasingly important for the organization of both the immaterial and the material. The “productive publics” identify collaborative networks of strangers who interact in a highly mediatic way (which often doesn’t need the use of informatic networks or social media) and who coordinate their interactions through sharing a common set of values. By coordinating production in such a way, the productive publics are different from markets and bureaucracies, not only because they allow one to consider as good reasons a wider range of issues, but also because they tend to be highly independent in conferring a value to the productive contribution of their members. In the book, we suggest that the productive publics are becoming increasingly influential in the information economy, not only in alternative circuits like Free Software, but also within the corporate economy itself, especially around the immaterial assets that in some sectors reach two thirds of the market value. As a result, there is recent growing emphasis on ethics and social responsibility in corporations which can be understood as an attempt to accommodate the orders of worth promoted by the productive publics.

The other transformation is a consequence of the first one. Companies and brands, as well as knowledge workers, are evaluated by other members of the publics to which they belong based on specific values to which that particular public is devoted. This evaluation leads to a reputation value that can be quantified through direct ratings, e.g. the number of retweets, the number of “likes,” and any other kind of feeling expression.

The brand and company’s reputation in the publics determines its ability to attract talent and push it to overcome its duty, engaging non-salaried people (i.e. the productive publics) in co-developing products and services, and to establish a convention of value among consumers that distinguishes the company and its products from its competitors. This is the main driver behind the growing importance of the reputation, which brings corporate investments towards CSR and ethical consumerism.

So, yes, CSR, ethical consumerism, corporate values, and so on are an illusion, but this illusion has been placed there to manage a trend that is much more important: the socialization not only of wealth production (as it happens in productive publics) but also the ability to determine the value of that wealth through the economy of reputation. It is this double tendency that we try to capture at the core of this book.

Zoe Romano: In the introduction of your book you write: “In a universalist ethical system the value of one’s virtue depends on its ability to contribute to the realization of universal principles of moral conduct. In a system of networked ethics, the value of one’s virtue depends on the positive difference made by people who live close to each network.” In this way reputation becomes a useful measure of the productive power that can be translated into non-monetary gratification, but it also works as capital used to mobilize resources and start new projects. On the one hand we are assisting at an abundance of social production, while at the same time we face a new kind of shortage: The ability to make sustainable social relations that are able to start a cooperative production. Insufficient is the ability to create something together, a koinonia, in a situation of diversity and complexity. Can you list some practical example of these kind of situations and explain what are the power games at stake?

Adam Arvidsson & Nicolai Peitersen: Within management thought, this has been debated for a long time. There is a general recognition that the true key to value is the ability to create shortage like in a ‘culture that leans toward innovation’ or a brand that offers a unique experience and so on. The fact that the value shifts from things to the ability to enable people to create cohesion among things is not new. The same principle is applied to the alternative of productive publics, like the Free Software communities. What really makes these productive moments work is not the technical abilities per se, but the ability to create an experience of affective proximity that motivates people to make a contribution and is able to identify and attract skilled individuals.

What are the power dynamics at stake? Well, of course, we live in a mediatic system that is dominated by extremely wealthy actors, so the ability to create ethic capital comes from their market power. However, we think that a new media system is coming in which power is or could be distributed more equally and in which the evaluation of that capital happens in ways that allow wider deliberative processes. Yet this is still a possibility and not a necessity. A lot depends on how media are regulated. For example, will Facebook be able to make data mining on its 500 millions of users? Should it be possible to exclude other actors from the access of such datas? Facebook’s data, for example, would be an excellent resource to create a system able to obtain a peer-based evaluation of corporate social impact. It is important to start facing these political issues that concern, for example, the way to rethink access to data.

Be sure to read the rest of the interview here!

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