[ExI] Wired: The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online

Emlyn emlynoregan at gmail.com
Thu May 28 04:37:04 UTC 2009

The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online
by Kevin Kelly


Bill Gates once derided open source advocates with the worst epithet a
capitalist can muster. These folks, he said, were a "new modern-day
sort of communists," a malevolent force bent on destroying the
monopolistic incentive that helps support the American dream. Gates
was wrong: Open source zealots are more likely to be libertarians than
commie pinkos. Yet there is some truth to his allegation. The frantic
global rush to connect everyone to everyone, all the time, is quietly
giving rise to a revised version of socialism.

Communal aspects of digital culture run deep and wide. Wikipedia is
just one remarkable example of an emerging collectivism—and not just
Wikipedia but wikiness at large. Ward Cunningham, who invented the
first collaborative Web page in 1994, tracks nearly 150 wiki engines
today, each powering myriad sites. Wetpaint, launched just three years
ago, hosts more than 1 million communal efforts. Widespread adoption
of the share-friendly Creative Commons alternative copyright license
and the rise of ubiquitous file-sharing are two more steps in this
shift. Mushrooming collaborative sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, the
Hype Machine, and Twine have added weight to this great upheaval.
Nearly every day another startup proudly heralds a new way to harness
community action. These developments suggest a steady move toward a
sort of socialism uniquely tuned for a networked world.

We're not talking about your grandfather's socialism. In fact, there
is a long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not
class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may
be the newest American innovation. While old-school socialism was an
arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state.
This new brand of socialism currently operates in the realm of culture
and economics, rather than government—for now.

The type of communism with which Gates hoped to tar the creators of
Linux was born in an era of enforced borders, centralized
communications, and top-heavy industrial processes. Those constraints
gave rise to a type of collective ownership that replaced the
brilliant chaos of a free market with scientific five-year plans
devised by an all-powerful politburo. This political operating system
failed, to put it mildly. However, unlike those older strains of
red-flag socialism, the new socialism runs over a borderless Internet,
through a tightly integrated global economy. It is designed to
heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization. It is
decentralization extreme.

Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective
worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories
connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and
shovels, we share apps, scripts, and APIs. Instead of faceless
politburos, we have faceless meritocracies, where the only thing that
matters is getting things done. Instead of national production, we
have peer production. Instead of government rations and subsidies, we
have a bounty of free goods.

I recognize that the word socialism is bound to make many readers
twitch. It carries tremendous cultural baggage, as do the related
terms communal, communitarian, and collective. I use socialism because
technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies
that rely for their power on social interactions. Broadly, collective
action is what Web sites and Net-connected apps generate when they
harness input from the global audience. Of course, there's rhetorical
danger in lumping so many types of organization under such an
inflammatory heading. But there are no unsoiled terms available, so we
might as well redeem this one.

When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a
common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute
labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it's not
unreasonable to call that socialism.

In the late '90s, activist, provocateur, and aging hippy John Barlow
began calling this drift, somewhat tongue in cheek, "dot-communism."
He defined it as a "workforce composed entirely of free agents," a
decentralized gift or barter economy where there is no property and
where technological architecture defines the political space. He was
right on the virtual money. But there is one way in which socialism is
the wrong word for what is happening: It is not an ideology. It
demands no rigid creed. Rather, it is a spectrum of attitudes,
techniques, and tools that promote collaboration, sharing,
aggregation, coordination, ad hocracy, and a host of other newly
enabled types of social cooperation. It is a design frontier and a
particularly fertile space for innovation.

In his 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody, media theorist Clay Shirky
suggests a useful hierarchy for sorting through these new social
arrangements. Groups of people start off simply sharing and then
progress to cooperation, collaboration, and finally collectivism. At
each step, the amount of coordination increases. A survey of the
online landscape reveals ample evidence of this phenomenon.


The online masses have an incredible willingness to share. The number
of personal photos posted on Facebook and MySpace is astronomical, but
it's a safe bet that the overwhelming majority of photos taken with a
digital camera are shared in some fashion. Then there are status
updates, map locations, half-thoughts posted online. Add to this the 6
billion videos served by YouTube each month in the US alone and the
millions of fan-created stories deposited on fanfic sites. The list of
sharing organizations is almost endless: Yelp for reviews, Loopt for
locations, Delicious for bookmarks.

Sharing is the mildest form of socialism, but it serves as the
foundation for higher levels of communal engagement.


When individuals work together toward a large-scale goal, it produces
results that emerge at the group level. Not only have amateurs shared
more than 3 billion photos on Flickr, but they have tagged them with
categories, labels, and keywords. Others in the community cull the
pictures into sets. The popularity of Creative Commons licensing means
that communally, if not outright communistically, your picture is my
picture. Anyone can use a photo, just as a communard might use the
community wheelbarrow. I don't have to shoot yet another photo of the
Eiffel Tower, since the community can provide a better one than I can
take myself.

Thousands of aggregator sites employ the same social dynamic for
threefold benefit. First, the technology aids users directly, letting
them tag, bookmark, rank, and archive for their own use. Second, other
users benefit from an individual's tags, bookmarks, and so on. And
this, in turn, often creates additional value that can come only from
the group as a whole. For instance, tagged snapshots of the same scene
from different angles can be assembled into a stunning 3-D rendering
of the location. (Check out Microsoft's Photosynth.) In a curious way,
this proposition exceeds the socialist promise of "from each according
to his ability, to each according to his needs" because it betters
what you contribute and delivers more than you need.

Community aggregators can unleash astonishing power. Sites like Digg
and Reddit, which let users vote on the Web links they display most
prominently, can steer public conversation as much as newspapers or TV
networks. (Full disclosure: Reddit is owned by Wired's parent company,
Condé Nast.) Serious contributors to these sites put in far more
energy than they could ever get in return, but they keep contributing
in part because of the cultural power these instruments wield. A
contributor's influence extends way beyond a lone vote, and the
community's collective influence can be far out of proportion to the
number of contributors. That is the whole point of social
institutions—the sum outperforms the parts. Traditional socialism
aimed to ramp up this dynamic via the state. Now, decoupled from
government and hooked into the global digital matrix, this elusive
force operates at a larger scale than ever before.


Organized collaboration can produce results beyond the achievements of
ad hoc cooperation. Just look at any of hundreds of open source
software projects, such as the Apache Web server. In these endeavors,
finely tuned communal tools generate high-quality products from the
coordinated work of thousands or tens of thousands of members. In
contrast to casual cooperation, collaboration on large, complex
projects tends to bring the participants only indirect benefits, since
each member of the group interacts with only a small part of the end
product. An enthusiast may spend months writing code for a subroutine
when the program's full utility is several years away. In fact, the
work-reward ratio is so out of kilter from a free-market
perspective—the workers do immense amounts of high-market-value work
without being paid—that these collaborative efforts make no sense
within capitalism.

Adding to the economic dissonance, we've become accustomed to enjoying
the products of these collaborations free of charge. Instead of money,
the peer producers who create the stuff gain credit, status,
reputation, enjoyment, satisfaction, and experience. Not only is the
product free, it can be copied freely and used as the basis for new
products. Alternative schemes for managing intellectual property,
including Creative Commons and the GNU licenses, were invented to
ensure these "frees."

Of course, there's nothing particularly socialistic about
collaboration per se. But the tools of online collaboration support a
communal style of production that shuns capitalistic investors and
keeps ownership in the hands of the workers, and to some extent those
of the consuming masses.


While cooperation can write an encyclopedia, no one is held
responsible if the community fails to reach consensus, and lack of
agreement doesn't endanger the enterprise as a whole. The aim of a
collective, however, is to engineer a system where self-directed peers
take responsibility for critical processes and where difficult
decisions, such as sorting out priorities, are decided by all
participants. Throughout history, hundreds of small-scale collectivist
groups have tried this operating system. The results have not been
encouraging, even setting aside Jim Jones and the Manson family.

Indeed, a close examination of the governing kernel of, say,
Wikipedia, Linux, or OpenOffice shows that these efforts are further
from the collectivist ideal than appears from the outside. While
millions of writers contribute to Wikipedia, a smaller number of
editors (around 1,500) are responsible for the majority of the
editing. Ditto for collectives that write code. A vast army of
contributions is managed by a much smaller group of coordinators. As
Mitch Kapor, founding chair of the Mozilla open source code factory,
observed, "Inside every working anarchy, there's an old-boy network."

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some types of collectives benefit
from hierarchy while others are hurt by it. Platforms like the
Internet and Facebook, or democracy—which are intended to serve as a
substrate for producing goods and delivering services—benefit from
being as nonhierarchical as possible, minimizing barriers to entry and
distributing rights and responsibilities equally. When powerful actors
appear, the entire fabric suffers. On the other hand, organizations
built to create products often need strong leaders and hierarchies
arranged around time scales: One level focuses on hourly needs,
another on the next five years.

In the past, constructing an organization that exploited hierarchy yet
maximized collectivism was nearly impossible. Now digital networking
provides the necessary infrastructure. The Net empowers
product-focused organizations to function collectively while keeping
the hierarchy from fully taking over. The organization behind MySQL,
an open source database, is not romantically nonhierarchical, but it
is far more collectivist than Oracle. Likewise, Wikipedia is not a
bastion of equality, but it is vastly more collectivist than the
Encyclopædia Britannica. The elite core we find at the heart of online
collectives is actually a sign that stateless socialism can work on a
grand scale.

Most people in the West, including myself, were indoctrinated with the
notion that extending the power of individuals necessarily diminishes
the power of the state, and vice versa. In practice, though, most
polities socialize some resources and individualize others. Most
free-market economies have socialized education, and even extremely
socialized societies allow some private property.

Rather than viewing technological socialism as one side of a zero-sum
trade-off between free-market individualism and centralized authority,
it can be seen as a cultural OS that elevates both the individual and
the group at once. The largely unarticulated but intuitively
understood goal of communitarian technology is this: to maximize both
individual autonomy and the power of people working together. Thus,
digital socialism can be viewed as a third way that renders irrelevant
the old debates.

The notion of a third way is echoed by Yochai Benkler, author of The
Wealth of Networks, who has probably thought more than anyone else
about the politics of networks. "I see the emergence of social
production and peer production as an alternative to both state-based
and market-based closed, proprietary systems," he says, noting that
these activities "can enhance creativity, productivity, and freedom."
The new OS is neither the classic communism of centralized planning
without private property nor the undiluted chaos of a free market.
Instead, it is an emerging design space in which decentralized public
coordination can solve problems and create things that neither pure
communism nor pure capitalism can.

Hybrid systems that blend market and nonmarket mechanisms are not new.
For decades, researchers have studied the decentralized, socialized
production methods of northern Italian and Basque industrial co-ops,
in which employees are owners, selecting management and limiting
profit distribution, independent of state control. But only since the
arrival of low-cost, instantaneous, ubiquitous collaboration has it
been possible to migrate the core of those ideas into diverse new
realms, like writing enterprise software or reference books.

The dream is to scale up this third way beyond local experiments. How
large? Ohloh, a company that tracks the open source industry, lists
roughly 250,000 people working on an amazing 275,000 projects. That's
almost the size of General Motors' workforce. That is an awful lot of
people working for free, even if they're not full-time. Imagine if all
the employees of GM weren't paid yet continued to produce automobiles!

So far, the biggest efforts are open source projects, and the largest
of them, such as Apache, manage several hundred contributors—about the
size of a village. One study estimates that 60,000 man-years of work
have poured into last year's release of Fedora Linux 9, so we have
proof that self-assembly and the dynamics of sharing can govern a
project on the scale of a decentralized town or village.

Of course, the total census of participants in online collective work
is far greater. YouTube claims some 350 million monthly visitors.
Nearly 10 million registered users have contributed to Wikipedia,
160,000 of whom are designated active. More than 35 million folks have
posted and tagged more than 3 billion photos and videos on Flickr.
Yahoo hosts 7.8 million groups focused on every possible subject.
Google has 3.9 million.

These numbers still fall short of a nation. They may not even cross
the threshold of mainstream (although if YouTube isn't mainstream,
what is?). But clearly the population that lives with socialized media
is significant. The number of people who make things for free, share
things for free, use things for free, belong to collective software
farms, work on projects that require communal decisions, or experience
the benefits of decentralized socialism has reached millions and
counting. Revolutions have grown out of much smaller numbers.

On the face of it, one might expect a lot of political posturing from
folks who are constructing an alternative to capitalism and
corporatism. But the coders, hackers, and programmers who design
sharing tools don't think of themselves as revolutionaries. No new
political party is being organized in conference rooms—at least, not
in the US. (In Sweden, the Pirate Party formed on a platform of
file-sharing. It won a paltry 0.63 percent of votes in the 2006
national election.)

Indeed, the leaders of the new socialism are extremely pragmatic. A
survey of 2,784 open source developers explored their motivations. The
most common was "to learn and develop new skills." That's practical.
One academic put it this way (paraphrasing): The major reason for
working on free stuff is to improve my own damn software. Basically,
overt politics is not practical enough.

But the rest of us may not be politically immune to the rising tide of
sharing, cooperation, collaboration, and collectivism. For the first
time in years, the s-word is being uttered by TV pundits and in
national newsmagazines as a force in US politics. Obviously, the trend
toward nationalizing hunks of industry, instituting national health
care, and jump-starting job creation with tax money isn't wholly due
to techno-socialism. But the last election demonstrated the power of a
decentralized, webified base with digital collaboration at its core.
The more we benefit from such collaboration, the more open we become
to socialist institutions in government. The coercive, soul-smashing
system of North Korea is dead; the future is a hybrid that takes cues
from both Wikipedia and the moderate socialism of Sweden.

How close to a noncapitalistic, open source, peer-production society
can this movement take us? Every time that question has been asked,
the answer has been: closer than we thought. Consider craigslist. Just
classified ads, right? But the site amplified the handy community swap
board to reach a regional audience, enhanced it with pictures and
real-time updates, and suddenly became a national treasure. Operating
without state funding or control, connecting citizens directly to
citizens, this mostly free marketplace achieves social good at an
efficiency that would stagger any government or traditional
corporation. Sure, it undermines the business model of newspapers, but
at the same time it makes an indisputable case that the sharing model
is a viable alternative to both profit-seeking corporations and
tax-supported civic institutions.

Who would have believed that poor farmers could secure $100 loans from
perfect strangers on the other side of the planet—and pay them back?
That is what Kiva does with peer-to-peer lending. Every public health
care expert declared confidently that sharing was fine for photos, but
no one would share their medical records. But PatientsLikeMe, where
patients pool results of treatments to better their own care, prove
that collective action can trump both doctors and privacy scares. The
increasingly common habit of sharing what you're thinking (Twitter),
what you're reading (StumbleUpon), your finances (Wesabe), your
everything (the Web) is becoming a foundation of our culture. Doing it
while collaboratively building encyclopedias, news agencies, video
archives, and software in groups that span continents, with people you
don't know and whose class is irrelevant—that makes political
socialism seem like the logical next step.

A similar thing happened with free markets over the past century.
Every day, someone asked: What can't markets do? We took a long list
of problems that seemed to require rational planning or paternal
government and instead applied marketplace logic. In most cases, the
market solution worked significantly better. Much of the prosperity in
recent decades was gained by unleashing market forces on social

Now we're trying the same trick with collaborative social technology,
applying digital socialism to a growing list of wishes—and
occasionally to problems that the free market couldn't solve—to see if
it works. So far, the results have been startling. At nearly every
turn, the power of sharing, cooperation, collaboration, openness, free
pricing, and transparency has proven to be more practical than we
capitalists thought possible. Each time we try it, we find that the
power of the new socialism is bigger than we imagined.

We underestimate the power of our tools to reshape our minds. Did we
really believe we could collaboratively build and inhabit virtual
worlds all day, every day, and not have it affect our perspective? The
force of online socialism is growing. Its dynamic is spreading beyond
electrons—perhaps into elections.


http://emlyntech.wordpress.com - coding related
http://point7.wordpress.com - ranting
http://emlynoregan.com - main site

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