[iDC] The New Socialism

Michael H Goldhaber michael at goldhaber.org
Sat Jun 20 18:33:01 UTC 2009

In 2003 I produced a draft chapter on "Values, Technology, the  
Internet, and a New Opening for Humane Socialism;" I wrote it somewhat  
reluctantly for a book a friend and his co-editor were producing to  
explain socialism (positively) for a new generation. It upset the  
other editor so much it was never included.

It's here if anyone is interested: http://www.well.com/user/mgoldh/Technosocialism.html

On Jun 20, 2009, at 4:09 AM, trebor at thing.net wrote:

> 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...
> best,
> Trebor
> http://www.wired.com/print/culture/culturereviews/magazine/17-06/nep_newsocialism
> 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
> 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.
> Socialism:
> A History
> 1516
> Thomas More's Utopia
> 1794
> Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason
> 1825
> First US commune
> 1848
> Marx & Engels' The Communist Manifesto
> 1864
> International Workingmen's Association
> 1903
> Bolshevik Party elects Lenin
> 1917
> Russian Revolution
> 1922
> Stalin consolidates power
> 1946
> State-run health care in Saskatchewan
> 1959
> Cuban Revolution
> 1967
> Che Guevara executed
> 1973
> Salvador Allende deposed
> 1980
> Usenet
> 1985
> Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost
> 1991
> Soviet Union dissolves
> 1994
> Linux 1.0
> 1998
> Venezuela elects Hugo Chavez
> 1999
> Blogger.com
> 2000
> Google: 1 billion indexed pages
> 2001
> Wikipedia
> 2002
> Brazil elects Lula da Silva
> 2003
> Public Library of Science
> 2004
> Digg
> 2005
> Amazon's Mechanical Turk
> 2006
> Twitter
> 2008
> Facebook: 100 million users
> 2008
> US allocates $700 billion for troubled mortgage assets
> 2009
> 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
> 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.
> The Old
> Socialism
> The New
> Socialism
> 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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