Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Is Online Digital Culture a Form of Socialism?

Think, for a second, about Facebook, Wikipedia, blogs, and YouTube. Most of you probably use these Web 2.0 services because they're entertaining, informational, or you just have some time to kill. But have you ever thought of these websites in terms of the economics of labor?

What all of these websites share in common is that they are based on user-generated content - meaning that ordinary people "contribute" to the collective. For example, on Facebook, people upload their photos and videos, post links, and leave comments everyday. They're not being paid to do so; yet they are making Facebook itself more valuable through their contributions.

I bring this up because Kevin Kelly wrote a terrific article in Wired yesterday describing this phenomenon as "The New Socialism". Is that a fair statement? If so, is there anything wrong with it?

He calls these websites based on user-generated content socialist because, when you look at them in terms of labor, millions of people are contributing to "global collectives" without any monetary compensation. There is no profit motive. Throngs of millions are being motivated by something other than the capitalist incentive.

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...

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...

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.

Of course, when most of us are posting photos on Facebook, we're not feeling like subjugated drones in a communist society. We just like to SHARE! As individuals, we think nothing of it; but collectively, all of this non-profit-seeking crowd activity is challenging our traditional capitalist institutions. Blogs are threatening the business model of newspapers, Wikipedia has already forced Encyclopedia Brittanica and its brethren to extinction, and peer-to-peer file-sharing software, like BitTorrent, still poses an existential threat to the music industry.

How do we capitalists explain the tremendous amounts of time, effort, and labor that millions of people are contributing to producing content when there is no profit-motive? It's certainly uncharted waters, at least on such a mass scale. Yochai Benkler has referred to these developments as "The Economics of Non-Market Social Production", and concludes that, despite not being strictly capitalist, it nevertheless enhances individual freedom.

Capitalism and freedom not necessarily linked together? Milton Friedman is turning in his grave.


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