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Human Motivation in the Digital Commons: Reflections on Robbie McClintock’s Conception of Formative Justice

by Darryl De Marzio & Timothy Ignaffo — 2016

Background & Purpose: According to McClintock, persons and groups exercise formative justice as a strategy of selecting the behaviors, powers, and potentials that ought to receive educational attention to achieve their maximization. We argue that the question of what motivates individuals and collectives to utilize certain capacities to realize specific goals becomes paramount to the issue of formative justice. Drawing on distinguished work in experimental psychology and network theory, we explore the relationship between human motivation and the utilization of commons-based digital resources in education. We argue that the insights gained in the course of integrating commons-based digital resources into educational practice can also further advance our critical understanding of Robbie McClintock’s conception of formative justice. In particular, we focus on the twin notions of value and human motivation in both formative justice and digital culture. Formative justice and digital culture share an emphasis on the pursuit of goals for intrinsic purposes rather than as a means toward extrinsic rewards such as monetary compensation. This shared approach to value theory makes formative justice an increasingly important contribution to 21st-century educational theory.

Research Design: We analyze Robbie McClintock’s conception of formative justice, as well as work in experimental psychology and network theory, in order to give substance to the theory of human motivation implied in his account.

Conclusions/Recommendations: We conclude by suggesting that formative justice as an educational paradigm is best served by an emergent curriculum that responds to the evolving interests of students in connection with the teacher’s knowledge base and interests.


Like almost every other aspect of society, education has been compelled to adapt to the changes brought about by the emergence of digital information technology (DIT) over the past several decades. While DIT’s impact on educational practice has been too variegated to characterize in any sweeping way, the appearance of massive open online courses (MOOCs), collaborative writing and authorship (Wikipedia), and open-access online journals has significantly impacted education at various levels. In this paper, we shall focus on the somewhat underexplored transformative potential of DIT and its potential to shape significantly our understanding of the concept of formative justice.

While both the values engendered in digital culture and the concept of formative justice are multifaceted topics, we believe that one shared feature in particular is central to understanding both: their treatment of human motivation. We locate our inquiry around the problem of motivation for two main reasons: first, with regards to commons-based digital resources, we contend that what makes such resources presently viable and salient (though not necessarily permanently so) is that they are fields in which individuals contribute and participate in collective cultural and educational projects for the sake of the project rather than being motivated to do so through a market-oriented system of rewards and exchange. Such commons-based resources emerge from, and are defined by, their distinctive network of social relations, functioning as a cooperative enterprise in which, as Yochai Benkler describes, “the inputs and outputs are shared, freely or conditionally, in an institutional form that leaves them equally available for all to use as they choose at their discretion” (2006, p. 62). In this paper, therefore, we follow a line of thought in which the motivational principle supporting shared inputs and outputs of digital resources becomes intrinsic to the culture—where persons and groups understand that the value of the resources is derived from the very processes associated with its accrual, not from its scarcity. However, we push this line of thought further to question why persons and groups are motivated to invest their efforts in an open public resource rather than a private or acquired one. We argue that the resources of the digital commons1 are defined by a central characteristic: their cultivation is motivated by intrinsic rather than extrinsic incentives. Such an approach to motivation offers persons the opportunity to participate in a shared project of self and cultural formation that ultimately extends beyond the individual but is also transparent in its reliance upon the contribution of the individual. This stands in dramatic contrast to received motivational schemas in which cultural and self-actualization are (at best) ancillary consequences of the extrinsic incentive structure.

We suggest that the problem of human motivation is the locus between the digital values—especially the idea of an intellectual digital commons—and McClintock’s conception of formative justice. According to McClintock, persons and groups exercise formative justice in response to a particular kind of environment: one in which their development and behavior is constrained by external forces, preventing them from bringing all of their vital capacities into full play. McClintock argues that formative justice is best understood as a strategy to help agents who find themselves in limiting environments select behaviors, powers, and potentials to develop such that the agents are likely to maximize received formative attention (2005, pp. 77–78; 2012, p. 282). Therefore, the question of what motivates individuals and collectives to utilize certain capacities to realize specific goals becomes paramount to the issue of formative justice.

We argue that decision-making processes such as the one implied by the concept of formative justice, similar to those which are operative with commons-based digital resources, are best guided by cultural and intrinsic principles of motivation. In this way, we extend McClintock’s suggestion that digital resources suit formative justice in that their outputs can be utilized for self-maintenance and educational emergence and argue that what motivates contributions to commons-based digital resources also suits the exercise of formative justice (see especially 2012, pp. 71–73).


In both Homeless (2005) and Enough (2012), Robbie McClintock makes the case for a formative and educational engagement with the concept of justice. McClintock argues that the foundational texts which have taken up the concept of justice—the most notable being Plato’s Republic—have subsequently been framed by politically-oriented thinkers and have become fully incorporated into the canon of Western political science. The educational and formative issue of justice once dealt with by Plato (How does one live according to justice?) has been covered over by the analytic concern of substantive justice (What is justice?) and the prevailing political problem of distributive justice (How are goods and resources allocated according to justice?). Viewed historically, these philosophical developments involving the concept of justice have led to the on-the-ground task of education becoming reduced to a pragmatic, political problem of distribution: “Education collapses into schooling, so much seat time devoted to this or that, with the only issue of justice being one of access to formal opportunities, which get counted among the cornucopia of public goods. Who will get so much of what kind?” (McClintock, 2005, p. 79). In our time, this issue of distributive justice in education gets resolved by the tribunal of the marketplace—access to formal educational opportunities is achieved based on one’s ability to pay, or, if it is based on merit and ability, then the assumption is that such ability is the outcome of significant investment and risk (for discussion, see Besley and Peters, 2007, pp. 155–174). Such an account rests fundamentally on a particular understanding of human psychology, one in which people act and choose, as it were, “for the money” rather than “for the love.” If this psychological model turns out to be flawed—if people are capable of or even disposed toward acting for love rather than money—a novel approach to the issue of distributed justice in education becomes necessary. McClintock’s work thus demonstrates how a rehabilitation of Plato’s formative conception of justice might yield pedagogical insights for our historical moment. As we suggest, our historical moment is characterized in large part by the emergence of DIT, both in society at large, but in education in particular. We shall turn now to an examination of how McClintock’s picture of distributive justice might be reworked in light of DIT’s emergence.

We can see McClintock’s argument operating as a kind of “untimely meditation” in direct response to our age, an era dominated by the concerns of distributive justice. His call for rehabilitating Plato’s conception of justice places the project of individual and collective self-formation back at the core of the educational enterprise. Furthermore, within a political and social system where the problem of just distribution dominates, the principle of motivation for individuals and collectives involved in education turns out to be economic: finite educational resources are available and need to get divvied up, and formal schooling becomes primarily just another site for sorting out competing claims for goods. The more the popular discussion of education comes to be dominated by the view that education is an act of consumption—that college education, for instance, is a commodity to be purchased by those with means without any expectation of self-improvement—the more salient this point becomes. More often than not, the choices and actions committed by students, teachers, and administrators within this system are motivated by the hope of attaining the measurable and identifiable merits needed to affirm their just claims on available resources. Formative justice, however, is not solely concerned with the question of the just distribution of resources, but perhaps more saliently with the just cultivation and subsequent development of human capacities and the fulfillment of human potentials. Accordingly, we could reasonably speculate that the operative principle of motivation assumed by the exercise of formative justice is distinct from the operative principle involved in distributive justice. That is, a distributive justice orientation to education centers on finding the optimal way of parceling out the kinds of resources that can serve as extrinsic motivators for behavior. Formative justice, on the other hand, focuses less on the problem of resource distribution and more on the problem of the cultivation of motivation. While both approaches nominally share the same goal, the background assumptions about the best path to the realization of that goal differ widely. Both see human motivation as central to creating a just educational system, but emphasize very different motivating forces. Motivation is thus at the center of our discussion here, but to what extent is the issue of motivation essential to McClintock’s conception of formative justice?

In Homeless (2005), McClintock links the exercise of formative justice to that of an ongoing decision process dealing with the issue of those human potentials upon which one should act. He writes:

Issues of formative justice have to do, not with public goods, but with human potentials. In education, possibilities exceed feasible achievement, forcing choices. A person cannot actualize all her possibilities; nor can a group. Which ones will receive what effort? By exercising formative justice, a person selects among her possibilities and allocates a finite supply of talent and energy, of motivation [italics added] and discernment, in pursuing these chosen goals. Formative justice thereby determines the mix of potentials that a person or group will effectively act to achieve. (p. 79)

This passage suggests that formative justice in education works as follows: individuals and groups engaged in self-formation are presented with a set of possibilities that they have the potential to realize. This “mix of potentials” includes, as McClintock states above, finite supplies of “talent and energy” as well as “motivation and discernment.” Once this “mix of potentials” has been presented, agents are encouraged to select from viable possibilities, and work to pursue them. In other words, exercising formative justice entails confronting questions such as: What do persons and groups have the power to achieve? What interests and purposes motivate individuals, and how are they motivated by these interests and purposes? Furthermore, how will they discern that it should be these talents, powers, and purposes, above other available options, which ought to receive formative attention? If, as we suggest here, the operative principle of motivation within the framework of distributive justice is economic—which is to say, goods and resources being limited, persons are motivated solely by their acquisition—then the operative principle of motivation in formative justice is something altogether different, what at this point we shall simply call “cultural”: human potentials being what they are, persons are motivated to fulfill them even in the absence of extrinsic motivators or rewards.  

We refer to this principle of motivation as cultural for two main reasons: first, because human potentials imply the possibility of being cultivated, as opposed to being merely acquired; and, secondly, because the fulfillment of human potentials involves culture, both as a resource which one utilizes and as a resource to which one contributes as a result of the fulfillment of human potentials. To put this latter point in other terms, distributive justice considers goods and resources as motivators insofar as they can be not only distributed but acquired. In the context of public education, for example, skills and knowledge are considered resources to be distributed so that students may acquire them through a process of learning. From the perspective of formative justice, however, knowledge and skills are not mere commodities subject to the vagaries of the free market. That is, formative justice presents talents, skills, and knowledge not as economic goods whose value is governed by supply and demand, but as something more. There is an element of parity here due to formative justice’s direction for cultivating these resources: in both cases, the focus is on intrinsic rather than economic or derived value. There is, thus, a neat bit of symmetry between the two sides of the formative justice coin—intrinsic motivations are leveraged to cultivate resources that are themselves to be valued for intrinsic features. Here the paradigm of the market seems inadequate to the task at hand. We struggle with the market-based explanation for how accrued goods in this case actually increase in value proportionate to their abundance and accessibility.

In this way, McClintock’s articulation of a formative conception of justice overcomes certain limitations of distributive justice—those which assume and rely upon this standard market-based account of learning and teaching. When we consider what motivates persons and groups to contribute to cultural and educational resources that can be utilized for the purposes of self-formation, we see that the model of distributive justice, while important and accurate in some contexts, fails to capture relevant aspects of human behaviors in many other contexts. In cases where intrinsic motivation leads to skills that are intrinsically valued, McClintock’s formative justice seems to capture the educational reality in respect of coming to terms with the ways in which technology is changing both the nature of education and the nature of how communities are formed.

Nowhere does the issue of human motivation in formative justice come into play more than with McClintock’s notion of “educational emergence,” particularly as it relates to the use of digital educational resources. McClintock calls for the utilization of digital resources as a means of “responding to the diverse interests of students with immediate, informative feedback” (2012, p. 163). For McClintock, educational emergence takes place when a student utilizes a newly formed capacity to enhance meaning and organization in their lived experience, leading to greater self-maintenance through the integration and utilization of still more capacities. Digital educational resources would serve this emergence with diverse and rapid feedback, as one might be served by going online to access a recipe while in the midst of cooking a meal. But an even more fascinating aspect of digital educational resources, we contend, is not only how they inform our inquiries through instant feedback, thus becoming resources for our own self-maintenance, but how such innovations might also provide opportunities for persons and groups to contribute resources for others to utilize. In other words, not only does an online recipe website2 function as an educational resource for those engaged in the activity of cooking, but it also functions as a digital commons for those who cook to contribute recipes so that the resource itself accumulates without any particular individual taking on the task of scribe. Thus, when McClintock states that, guided by formative justice, “each person exerts educational effort to bring his or her mix of aptitudes to their full employment in pursuit of sustainable fulfillment” (2005, p. 78) we want to add that, in the case of commons-based digital resources, each person contributes their educational efforts in pursuit of the sustainable fulfillment of both their own capacities as well as that of the shared resource itself.

It is no surprise, then, from the futuristic perspective of the year 2162, which McClintock assays in Enough, the predominant form of educational resources is that of the digital game. Here we catch a glimpse of McClintock’s hope in the educational potential of digital resources, a potential identified precisely in the emergent quality of the contemporary digital gaming phenomenon. Over the last two decades, game designers, with increasing regularity, have intentionally (and sometimes unintentionally) inserted problems into their games without explicitly designing solutions to those problems. Here, solutions to problems emerge from the gameplay of the users rather than the direction of the game designers. Such “emergent gameplay” may take the form, for example, of utilizing a discovered glitch unintended by the game programmers for creating new performances. Or, as we see with Massive Multiplayer Online Games, it make take the form of players within the network-commons establishing websites in order to share in the identification of in-game problems, potential solutions, or even accounts for the purpose of gambling on game outcomes.

Historically, discussion of digital games as educational resources has moved from an early emphasis on entertainment value—a form of positive feedback that players get from the game—to an emphasis on emergent value, a type of thoughtful response the players contribute to the game itself.3 In traditional, more directive game design, where the problems and solutions are an a priori facet of the design itself, opportunities and supports for exercising the gamer’s power, purpose, and interests, as well as that of an entire gaming community, are limited to what is required by the structure of the game. In emergent gameplay, the game itself becomes a resource for not only locating and realizing one’s capacities, but for bringing one’s potentials to bear on its design and purpose.

The distinction between traditional and emergent gameplay easily maps onto the distinction between formal curriculum and what is often referred to in curriculum theory as “emergent curriculum.”4 In the context of his notion of educational emergence, McClintock highlights this distinction as that between a formal curriculum and a digital, networked curriculum. He writes:

Within a formal curriculum, students often had to pursue their emerging capacities in its interstices, making choices between what is required and what they found illuminating. In contrast, networks supporting the student’s open-ended study would provide usable tools of advanced scholarship, real intellectual resources, and immediate feedback, positive and negative, helping him go wherever he was leading, informing what the student decided should next take place. (2012, p. 158)

By assisting the student in deciding what “should next take place,” the curriculum-as-digital resource is emergent and accruable: it is not a fixed good that gets distributed in order to meet the student’s capacities and interests where they are, but is instead a resource that increases in value as the student engages with it, becoming enhanced and developed in its own right, and evolving as new generations of students rediscover and redefine this digital educational resource.5

As we saw above, the distributive conception of justice brings into play economic and extrinsic principles of motivation. Attuned to the problem of how to effectively allocate limited resources in a fair way, distributive justice places as the goal of human activity the acquisition of such resources, assuming that individuals and groups will bring into play the motivation to position themselves to make just claims on the resources available. Furthermore, with such a distributive scheme, there resides the principle that the scarcest resources available are the most valuable, thus functioning as extrinsic motivators able to generate the highest levels of both contingent natural talents and material investments. For example, in education, this is seen perhaps most obviously when we consider the limited availability of placements within prestigious colleges. Not only does the quality of the resource add to its motivational force—that is, because it is a high-quality educational resource, it is highly desirable—but the fact of its scarcity also ends up contributing to its quality, which is to say that because only the most elite and talented students are placed in a school, the quality of the school increases as a result. In this way, the framework of distributive justice, along with its logic of economic and extrinsic motivation, serves as a useful model for institutions and social bodies trading in limited resources.

However, what if we change our understanding of the resources? Or, as McClintock puts it, what if we realize that distributing goods and opportunities is “by no means the only activity in life” (2012, p. 169)? As a framework for justice and human motivation, distributive justice becomes irrelevant when the concern becomes not the allocation of limited commodities, but rather the development and cultivation of ever-expansive and creative human resources. In a social system where the prevailing goods are valued not for being scarce but for being accruable, creatively diversifiable, and emergent, distributive justice no longer serves as a helpful model. In particular, the conceptual model of distributive justice does not help us understand the digital commons where, accounting for access and time, scarcity of material resources ceases to be the primary concern. In respect to the digital commons, formative justice is a far more attractive conception as it does not compel us to qualify the agent as having to choose between either a self-serving or a public good. In the digital commons the prevailing good—the formation and cultivation of open-source communities and their emergent discourses—is accrued and becomes utilized toward the individual’s own self-formation. Supporting and encouraging the development and actualization of other agents, then, benefits the individual both directly, in that she is then presented with a more rich community of peers with which to interact and pursue her own self-development, and indirectly, in that the social system as a whole bends toward justice. Formative justice thus undergirds a highly cooperative educational and social system in which individuals and groups pursue their passions for the love of the pursuit and support similar pursuits by others. What we have witnessed with the advent of personal computing and programming is the emergence of a unique kind of good that can be shared without loss. Digital objects can be copied, manipulated, and shared without limitation and without damage to the original. This feature of a DIT-backed world evinces a clear connection with formative justice as articulated by McClintock. The digital world’s emphasis on sharing, collaboration, and pursuing intrinsic goals rather than extrinsic ones weakens the argument for a conception of justice solely conceived through the lens of the economic, as the openness of the resource is distinguished from the organizational and structural resources upon which distributive justice is reliant.


In Enough (2012), McClintock documents the ways in which the distributive paradigm—or, as we also suggest, the economic and extrinsic principle of motivation—seized control of the historical development of the concept of justice. As a way of articulating the metaphor of the commons, and the shift in our understanding of resources, McClintock tracks his argument onto the example of a professional sports team (pp. 172–174). To be sure, McClintock says, those governing the team have certain resources (financial resources generated from the likes of ticket and advertising sales) to distribute in the form of fielding talent, hiring coaches, acquiring equipment and practice facilities, etc. Additionally, there are team as well as league rules that need to be enforced. In respects such as these, it is quite simple to see just how distributive and retributive justice fit into the picture, but each has some substantial blind spots.

From the moment an individual is introduced to a sport, say baseball, his interest in it, his talent, and his character are cultivated from internal and external influences; an aspiring baseball player’s journey, like that of anyone following a calling, becomes in large part a journey of self-formation. Likewise, a baseball team must follow its own journey of formation, forging an identity. But the success of the team goes beyond that. The team is successful too insofar as the sport of baseball also flourishes, and “the good of baseball” in this regard is not solely dependent upon what financial resources can be generated from its activity. The value of the sport increases as more individuals play it at all levels of skill. To measure the success of baseball in terms of ticket sales or advertising revenue would not only be crude, it would also be entirely inaccurate. Baseball qua sport accrues value the more persons are involved in it through interest, organization, and play: more people interested means a larger pool of talent; it means that the sport has opportunities to evolve in both written and unwritten code. As a result, teams will field better talent and have greater opportunities to form identities and develop communities. One might even say that while the business of any professional sport on its surface is “business,” it stands on the shoulders of its real foundation: an economy of gift and talent.

Perhaps a more potent example for educators would be that of literacy, a good whose value accrues with its proliferation. The many benefits of literacy are difficult to quantify within a traditional market-based paradigm; the benefits and costs are dispersed both spatially and temporally, and changes in literacy levels can have nonobvious impacts on many aspects of the social system. This makes it effectively impossible to calculate, or even speak about sensibly, the monetary value of literacy education—its role in the economic system is just intractably complex. Of course, certain crude measures exist regarding the economic disadvantages to illiterate persons and the relative value added to one’s salary by a specialized skill in a given field—say, for example, literacy in computer programming.6 However, this line of thought fails to grasp the discourses gained and lost, let alone the trajectory and evolution of the medium in which they occur due to the proliferation of knowledge and skill. A critical mass of literate persons forces the transmission of culture and tradition from an oral to a written orientation. Likewise, a critical mass of literate programmers allowed for Wikipedia to usurp Microsoft Encarta as the dominant digital encyclopedia in a matter of just a few years (see Lih, 2009, pp. 204–205). How does one grasp the value or importance of such historical events using only a crude economic model? Furthermore, one can point to literacy rates and discuss how best to distribute resources to raise them, but that discourse serves only to illuminate the inadequacy of the distributive model in capturing the kind of good literacy is and the value it provides for individuals and communities.

Throughout Enough, McClintock sprinkles passages that capture not only the formative and educative potential of commons-based digital educational resources but their historic potential for radical transformation of existing cultural and educational institutions, “changing the constraints by making all cultural resources accessible to all persons from any place at any time.” He adds, “What previously the school could uniquely do, could take place wherever and whenever people made use of appropriate digital networks. In due course, these changed constraints would be the context for radical transformation of educational practices” (2012, pp. 137–138). No longer bound by geography or other limits to the access of educational resources, communities of learners arise out of shared interest and create social bonds through that interest rather than the physical and often economic contingencies tied to the campus of a school or university. However, we should be careful to remember that the essential openness of commons-based digital resources is only partly encoded by its very structure as an accruable good, but in a very real way became that only after an act of distribution. For example, when CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, relinquished intellectual property rights to the code that became the World Wide Web (W3), they effectively secured the trajectory of the internet as an organic, decentralized outgrowth of the public domain rather than a top-down structure emanating from private interests and established governments (European Organization for Nuclear Research [CERN], 1993). Through this act, the DNA of the internet became embedded in the public domain in the sense that it became at its core open to anyone, and as such, it has allowed communities with heretofore unseen structures to proliferate and flourish throughout the world. Digital communities in which the allocation of limited resources becomes a secondary concern supplanted by the application of human resources—creative capacities, interests, purposes, and so forth—toward an ever-accruing good have flourished in such an open environment. In this way, individuals and groups are enabled to dedicate themselves to self-formation by the very project and community they are involved in creating.

However, this public core of the digital commons does not explain why persons and groups become subjects of the digital commons, subjecting themselves to the norms of the common enterprise. To take Wikipedia as just one example, does the fact that it is an open-source, collaborative project explain why people are motivated to participate and contribute in the first place? To be sure, the enterprise itself—that of being a collective, online encyclopedia resource—is a self-conscious one: those who participate by contributing and editing the entries, and who take part in discussion fora, do so knowing what the enterprise is. But why participate in the project and subject oneself to its norms, particularly when the economic and extrinsic motivators—income, permanent recognition of authorship, education credits, and so on—are absent?

The answer given by modern psychology is that human motivation is not a monolithic proposition—that what moves us is never an instance of either extrinsic goods or intrinsic goods, but is more a case of both/and—so that for some, acts and decisions are motivated by extrinsic factors, for others, they are motivated by intrinsic ones. Therefore, we might be able to explain why persons contribute to commons-based digital resources by saying something like the following from Benkler:

For all of us, there comes a time on any given day, week, and month, every year and in different degrees over our lifetimes, when we choose to act in some way that is oriented toward fulfilling our social and psychological needs, not our market-exchangeable needs. It is that part of our lives and our motivational structure that social production taps. (2006, p. 98)

However, tapping into our intrinsic “motivational structure” and “fulfilling our social and psychological needs” for autonomy, social connection, personal growth, and so on, does not explain why individuals’ contributions to commons-based digital resources turn out to be better, more creative, and more efficient than an extrinsic motivational structure. In other words, the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, though descriptively helpful in explaining why certain human potentials are utilized in order to achieve specific goals, could not have helped us predict why Wikipedia would usurp Encarta, or why an open-source browser like Mozilla and an open-source operating system like Linux would take a sizable market share away from Internet Explorer and Windows respectively, the cornerstones of the once monolithic Microsoft Corporation.

One answer that comes from research in experimental psychology is that persons engaged in problem-solving tasks that require creative solutions are more likely to meet the challenge in a more efficient and effective manner precisely when the good derived from solving the problem is cultural and intrinsic, and that the process gets thwarted when motivated by and economic and extrinsic good. In a series of papers published throughout the mid-1960s, Sam Glucksberg observed that individuals tend to become fixated on a narrow range of functions for an object (for example, only seeing the function of a tack box as being a container for tacks) when the stimulus for utilizing that object in order to solve a problem (using the tack box as a candle holder) is the attainment of an economic and extrinsic reward (see Glucksberg, 1962, 1964; Glucksberg & Weisberg, 1966). Glucksberg also observed that when the stimulus was more of a cultural and intrinsic goal, such as solving a problem for the sole purpose of contributing to a scientific experiment, then the individuals were more likely to solve the problem in a more timely and creative fashion.

The relevant insight that emerges from Glucksberg’s experiments might be that the reason for the success of commons-based digital resources goes beyond the market edge that they offer to consumers in being free or the mere satisfaction of intrinsic psychological needs they offer those who contribute to them. Rather, the insight here is that when motivated to contribute to cultural and intrinsic goods, human potentialities are realized more fully. But while the literature on human motivation is currently in vogue—take, for example, the success of recent books by Daniel Pink (2009, 2012)—it would be a mistake to pretend this is a “surprising truth” coming out of Silicon Valley or the field of applied psychology. Instead, as McClintock demonstrates, what accounts for the success of commons-based digital resources turns out to be a revival of a forgotten insight of social-organizational motivation belonging to Plato, what McClintock describes as a “public regimen.” In discussing what made Wikipedia successful, McClintock captures what so many commentators on human motivation and the digital commons seem to have forgotten—that is, the very procedures which allow for the resource to accrue, and thus increase its value: “What made this huge, complicated self-organizing effort possible was its public regimen, its enunciated rules and procedures, adapted and adopted by common consent, enforced through communal self-regulation” (2012, p. 203). Therefore, individuals create and submit themselves to the digital commons in the same sense, and for the same reasons, that Plato thought citizens might submit themselves to the just order of the Republic—that is, they are motivated by the fulfillment of the good in each and all. As McClintock asks rhetorically, “What did Plato mean by the Form of the good? Was it an esoteric culmination of a lifelong inquiry that only a very few, if any person, could undertake? Or was it a capacity deeply characteristic of all life, a capacity of great significance for the human dignity of each and every person?” (2012, p. 191).

What we are arguing, therefore, is that the operative principle of motivation which supports the digital commons is that these resources offer persons and groups an opportunity to participate in the good, and to contribute to the excellence of oneself and the group. But what makes the digital commons itself excellent? In part, the answer comes in the semblance of a phenomenon known as “network effect.” Articulated in what is now famously referred to as “Linus’ Law,” attributed to and named after the software engineer and creative founder of Linux, Linus Torvalds, the law states that “Given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow.” This quote served as the thesis of Eric Raymond’s equally famous essay, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” (1999), which argues that with a large enough user base, each and every problem, glitch, or bug in a software system—however deeply embedded or hidden—will eventually become exposed, rendered shallow, and fixed. As a result, the organic development of software through open and transparent channels will not merely be less expensive, but it will also be more efficient and lead to better, more excellent software. Might the same hold true for organizations?

While Linus’ Law has been famously applied to network effect and has become something of a mantra for the open source movement, Torvalds actually intended to make a point about human motivation, explaining that once survival and basic sustenance are accounted for, people are inclined to ascend to realize higher ambitions: the motivation to collaborate through creative expression. People appreciate the opportunity to take part in creative, productive activities, which in turn provide opportunities to develop skills and teach others. It is in this light that we can see that the motivation to create and submit to a digital commons is cultural and intrinsic; we might also understand this motivation as an expression of the good—or, in McClintock’s terms, as an exercise in formative justice motivated by a capacity within all of us, undertaken communally, toward excellence.7


Discourse on education is still beholden to a mode of thinking focused on resource allocation. Taking commons-based digital resources seriously required a revitalization of Platonic discourses on education and a moving beyond distributive justice to a notion of an accruing good. But why, exactly, is taking part in the collective enterprise of commons-based digital resources an educative and formative exercise? One reason is that within such a project, one’s role is determined by external requirements such as skill, capacity, and need. For example, the role of a contributor to Wikipedia is determined by their knowledge and writing skill, as well as by what the project needs—for example, new articles, updated information, and so forth.8 Still, there is an explicit expectation that through the project, one’s skills will be developed, feedback will be given, and teachers will emerge who will help one develop one’s skills.9

Another reason has to do with the aforementioned notion of emergent curriculum. As noted earlier in the context of emergent gameplay, emergent curriculum describes a model of implanting a responsive, fluid curriculum based on student and teacher interest. Such a curriculum requires openness, creativity, flexibility, communication and, above all else, a playful disposition.10 Rather than combining daily lesson plans into a “unit” as in the traditional curriculum, an emergent curriculum responds to the evolving interests of the student in communication with the teacher’s knowledge base and interests. In such a model, the teacher is a conductor attending to the interests of students while guiding their formative journey. It is no wonder that McClintock employs the same metaphor of the “conductor” to describe the task of formative justice as a “cueing the part of each capacity, orchestrating all into a life of chosen sense and meaning” (2012, p. 132).

This type of curriculum model is currently popular in a number of early childhood settings, particularly in Reggio Emilia schools (see Wien, 2008). The playful disposition required to successfully collaborate in an emergent curriculum are also in vogue in Silicon Valley, where tech giants such as Google and Apple cultivate an environment of creativity to motivate innovation. One might identify the following educative insight regarding human motivation as follows: when a person identifies their own formation and development as integral to their participation in society or an organization and distinctly recognizes themselves as a factor in its development and motivation, a balance of formative, sustainable fulfillment is realized.


1. We should explain what is implied here by the term “the digital commons.” By the digital commons we mean that collective of cultural resources (information, data, texts, etc.) that are, at least by design, made available to all persons for their contribution and utilization. In this way, the digital commons is a form of what is often simply referred to as “the commons,” but differs from the more general and often more naturalistic category of the commons in that the digital commons cannot be reduced (either quantitatively or qualitatively) through its utilization. Unlike the natural resources of the commons, the digital commons is, in principle, nonsubtractible. The digital commons differs in this sense also from what some writers refer to as “the human commons” in that the utilization of human resources may have an adverse effect on the quantity and quality of those resources. This is precisely why we argue that the problem of motivation is unique in the case of the digital commons, and that it relies strictly on principles of intrinsic motivation, whereas decision-making in the natural and human commons is almost strictly considered in the terms of extrinsic rewards for either the individual or the collective. For theoretical discussion of these various categories, see especially Avraham and Camara, 2007; Bresnihan, 2016; Hardin, 1968.

2. See, for example, www.epicurious.com

3. McClintock is critical of the entertainment value model of educational game design precisely because such games lack the quality of emergence. He writes that “successful entertainment, especially when produced at expensive production values, [places a premium] on getting people to come back repeatedly for more of the same. In contrast, good education [facilitates] a person’s effort to change, altering her tastes and capacities” (2012, p. 157).

4. See especially Osberg and Biesta, 2008. For thick connections between emergent gaming and emergent curriculum, see Kickheimer-Rust and Albert, 2009.

5. Some critics may argue that the kind of networked digital educational resources we are describing here are neither as transformative nor radical in the manner we are suggesting, citing, for example, the long history of educational machines that have supported student learning with immediate assessment and feedback, dating back to the 1930s and Sidney Pressey’s “Teaching Machines.” However, these earlier technologies sought to refine formalized instruction toward the attainment of predetermined learning objectives, leaving formative decision-making out of the hands of the students themselves. In such cases the technology is manipulating the student, getting the student to arrive at a predetermined destination; by contrast, the networks we are describing here are being utilized by the student in their decision-making process. See Petrina, 2004.

6.Here we are referencing, of course, the whole family of theoretical and empirical research linked to “human capital theory” emerging out of the Chicago School of neoliberal economics. For the classic sources, see especially Becker, 1976; Schultz, 1971.

7. Benkler and Nissenbaum (2006) also explore the link between commons-based digital resources and ancient ethics, particularly through Aristotelian virtue ethics.

8. On the role of Wikipedia contributors, see Benkler, 2006, pp. 70–74.

9. As in any classroom setting, the quality of contribution is often dependent upon the type of pedagogical response to that contribution. One extensive study of Wikipedia notes that positive feedback will lead to positive contributions (Zhu, Zhang, He, Kraut, & Kittur, 2013).

10. The work of Paley (2004) highlights the connections between play and emergent curriculum.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 10, 2016, p. 1-18
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21620, Date Accessed: 11/20/2018 7:22:38 AM

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About the Author
  • Darryl De Marzio
    University of Scranton
    E-mail Author
    DARRYL DE MARZIO is Chair and Associate Professor of Foundations of Education in the Education Department at the University of Scranton. His main areas of scholarship include philosophy for children, the ethics of teaching, humanistic teacher-education, and the philosophy of Michel Foucault. Recent publications include “What Happens in Philosophical Texts: Matthew Lipman’s Theory and Practice of the Philosophical Text as Model,” Childhood & Philosophy (2011); and “Modern Art, Cynicism, and the Ethics of Teaching,” Philosophy of Education Yearbook (2012).
  • Timothy Ignaffo
    E-mail Author
    TIMOTHY IGNAFFO is a Visiting Researcher at the Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel in Germany, researching “Educational Responsibility in Times of Social Crisis.” He is the cofounder of the Philosophy Outreach Program at Columbia University and is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
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