[iDC] The New Socialism

trebor at thing.net trebor at thing.net
Sat Jun 20 11:09:02 UTC 2009

Hi all,

Kevin Kelly recently argued that the culture around new social media
amounts to a new form of digital socialism. Having grown up under real
existing socialism I'd say that he may be missing a thing or two but you
tell me...



The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online

By Kevin Kelly Email 05.22.09

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

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.

A History

Thomas More's Utopia

Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason

First US commune

Marx & Engels' The Communist Manifesto

International Workingmen's Association

Bolshevik Party elects Lenin

Russian Revolution

Stalin consolidates power

State-run health care in Saskatchewan

Cuban Revolution

Che Guevara executed

Salvador Allende deposed


Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost

Soviet Union dissolves

Linux 1.0

Venezuela elects Hugo Chavez


Google: 1 billion indexed pages


Brazil elects Lula da Silva

Public Library of Science


Amazon's Mechanical Turk


Facebook: 100 million users

US allocates $700 billion for troubled mortgage assets

YouTube: 100 million monthly US users

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

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.

The Old

The New
Authority centralized among elite officials

Power distributed among ad hoc participants
Limited resources dispensed by the state

Unlimited, free cloud computing
Forced labor in government factories

Volunteer group work a la Wikipedia
Property owned in common

Sharing protected by Creative Commons
Government- controlled information

Real-time Twitter and RSS feeds
Harsh penalties for criticizing leaders

Passionate opinions on the Huffington Post


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 problems.

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.

Senior maverick Kevin Kelly (kk at kk.org) wrote about correspondences
between the Internet and the human brain in issue 16.07.

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