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On Friday journalist Paul Mason published a fairly long article in the Guardian entitled ‘The End of Capitalism Has Begun.’ It features some interesting thoughts, and will hopefully help disseminate some ideas which have been floating about in academia for quite a while to a broader audience. That said, there are a few things in the piece which I think are somewhat naieve and require a response to.

The main thrust of Mason’s argument is that capitalism is inevitably on the way out because of several social changes being wrought by contemporary networked information processing technologies. Firstly, Mason argues that because of the increased levels of automation brought by digital systems, there will be a dramatic reduction in the volume of work required within a society. Secondly, he argues that the fundamental laws of economics have been broken by an information economy within the contemporary state of informational abundance. Finally, he argues that ‘cognitive capitalism’ is predicated on a mode of collaborative and networked social production which itself is contradictory to the type of individualised wealth production associated with capitalism.

The first of these points is hardly new. The displacement of labour from humans into various forms of machinery is, of course, something which has occurred for at least a couple of hundred years, as was presciently observed and described by Karl Marx (in the Fragment on Machines, a text which Mason cites later in his essay). Alongside the ongoing historical transformation of production processes, there have always been the claim that technology will make everyone’s life better by reducing the need for arduous and boring labour tasks, instead freeing humanity to enjoy increased levels of leisure time accompanied by a higher level of material wealth and comfort. And whilst there are certainly some humans who are in that situation today, we could also point to the increasing precariousness of work, particularly within neoliberal economies where full employment has never been an important goal, as a reminder that decreasing the overall level of manual labour does not necessarily entail benefits for all.

Rather than seeing work and wealth equally being divided amongst citizens, today we instead find millions of unemployed or underemployed humans who are effectively used as an industrial reserve force to reduce any demands for increased wages, reduced working hours and other kinds of benefits which were associated with the collective action of the twentieth century trade union movements. Whilst a relatively small number of humans become more materially wealthy than any of their predecessors, this occurs alongside a growing inequality between the global super rich and everyone else. As research last year found, the richest 85 individuals on the planet now own more than the poorest 50% of the global population, around 3.5 billion people.

Additionally, in a ‘creative’ ‘digital economy where communicative acts are themselves commodified over corporate social networks, what does and does not count as productive work is itself problematised. Theorists ranging from autonomist Marxists such as Franco Berardi through to cyberutopian capitalists such as Clay Shirky have argued that what used to count as leisure time is now a key motor of wealth generation, as your online ‘leisure’ activities are used to tailor personal, location-aware advertising to your behaviour.

Which brings us to Mason’s second point, that economics is predicated upon scarcity, and that the current abundance of information demarcates that we have entered an era where traditional economic theory cannot adequately function. Again, rhetoric surrounding the end of the economics of scarcity is not new, but such thinking fundamentally fails to grasp the dynamics of scarcity surrounding informational systems, and systems is a key word here, because economics is about circulation and flows, not a single thing (be it information, energy or anything else). Information is certainly a crucial component of digital networked ecologies, and the volume of contemporary information – what Mark Andrejevic and Berardi have both described as information overload – is certainly not one of scarcity, but the key is to think in systemic terms as to what type of scarcity is generated as a consequence of the abundance of information. The answer, is that human attention is what become scarce when information is abundant.

Indeed, the notion of the attention economy is not that new, with early versions of the term being deployed by authors such as Michael Goldhaber and Georg Franck around the turn of the century. For an excellent overview of contemporary debates surrounding economies of attention I would suggest reading this article by Patrick Crogan and Sam Kinsley. The key point, is that far from rendering the economics of scarcity redundant, what we instead find is that the abundance of online information means that human attention is increasingly scarce and thus becomes a desirable and lucrative commodity, which is why heavily targeted online advertising is a booming multi-billion business, one which ventures such as Google’s search engine, Facebook, YouTube and other major online players are almost entirely dependent upon for their revenues and astronomical market valuations.

The third point Mason raises, that online networks are predicated upon modes of social cooperation and collectivity which are contradictory to the mode of capitalism they are located within, and thus contain the seeds of a new social system which will eventually replace capitalism itself, is arguably the most complex and interesting point he raises. However, this too is hardly a new statement, as it is one of the central tenets of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s triad of books Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth, as well as being an argument which has been raised in differing forms by theorists such as Bernard Stiegler (via the economy of contribution) and Michel Bauwens (via peer-to-peer production). I wont go into these positions in much detail here, but what I do think is worth highlighting is that many of these claims about biopolitical production, economies of contribution and peer-to-peer production were originally made quite a while ago (Empire was released in 2000), and that since those times, there has been the emergence of the the big corporate social media players whose financial model is entirely predicated on the exploitation of the free cooperative labour of their users.

This isn’t to say that people don’t get anything from Facebook (basically some cost-free server storage, a fairly clean user interface, and access to the billion-plus strong Facebook network), but that Facebook’s market valuation of over 250 billion US dollars is entirely built upon its ability to commodify the social relationships of its users. Far from existing outside of, and in opposition to a capitalism which is wrongly assumed to by monolithic and rigid, we see the way that capitalism (which depends upon finding new areas to provide growth) has found a way of extending what it understood to be a commodity, so that many aspects of our social lives, which were previously thought to be intangible, unquantifiable and thus could not be monetised, are now major players in global financial markets.

Indeed, whereas during the early days of the internet, the underlying technology itself and the modes of cooperation it made possible such as the distributed mode of production that underpins Free and Open Source software were seen as radical new technologically-enabled alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, what we have seen more recently has been the way that capitalism has been able to find novel ways of reintegrating these innovations into financial markets, such as the way that Google utilises open source software outside of search in areas such as Android and Chrome. Indeed, one of the most interesting analyses of contemporary capitalism comes from Jodi Dean, who argues that our current era is marked by a stage of communicative capitalism, whereby far from forming alternatives to global capitalism, participation in networked digital telecommunications has become a central driver of the capitalist economy.

Mason surmises his argument by stating that:

The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information; and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy: between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next

This presents a straightforward binary opposition between network and hierarchy, between the new, good digital ways which point towards a postcapitalism and the bad, old ones which represent our capitalist past and present. However much I might wish this to be the case, and it would be really lovely to think that current technologies will inevitably lead to the replacement of a system of gross global social inequalities and catastrophic climate change with something better, I find the kind of technological determinism present in Mason’s essay to be blinkered at best. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari remind us in the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, it is not a case of opposing hierarchical models with networked and decentralised ones, but a case of understanding how these two tendencies occur in different ways in actual systems which are almost always a combination of the two.

Thinking this way means mapping the new hierarchies and modes of exploitation associated digital technologies whilst also looking for the lines of flight, or positive ways of transforming the situation that the new technological formations present. That doesn’t mean that there can be no hope for change that involves technology, but that positing this situation as a good/bad binary opposition, or suggesting that technology itself holds essential characteristics which will necessarily transform society in a particular direction is a misguided approach. Indeed, some of the most interesting materials coming out of the P2P foundation recently have argued that openess is not enough, that just making things open or collaborative can lead to growing inequalities as the actors with the most attentional, algorithmic and economic resources are ususally those best placed to leverage open data, open culture and open source ventures. Alongside openess, they argue that we need to think about sustainability and solidarity in order to bring about the type of social and ecological transformation that would mark the end of capitalism. That to me sounds like a far more productive call to action than simply gesturing towards the digital technologies whose introduction has not thus far been accompanied by a more egalitarian and sustainable global society.

 

 

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This is a brief write-up of a talk I gave at the Cube Microplex last night as part of a night co-organised by Permanent Culture Now, Bristol Indymedia and Bristol Radical Film Festival. The night itself was an interesting mix, with the film This Land is Our Land kicking things off, followed by my inchoate ramblings, and Mike from PCN reading a text about commons, sustainability and land.

Whilst This Land is Our Land presents a really useful introduction to the notion of the commons, demarcating a range of types of commons ranging from communally managed land, through to ‘natural resources’ such as air and water, to public services and the Internet – I think that it’s worth taking a step back and considering whether or not classifying these phenomena as the same thing is really all that useful. Whilst they all are not forms of private property, they do exhibit some differing characteristics that are worth further explication.

The first mode of commons I’d like to discuss is the model of common land – what we could think of as a pre-industrial mode of commons, albeit one which still exists today through our shared ownership and access to things like air. Land which was accessible for commoners to graze cattle or sheep, or to collect firewood or cut turf for fuel. Anyone had access to this communal resource and there was no formal hierarchical management of the common land – no manager or boss who ensured that no one took too much wood or had too many sheep grazing on the land (although there did exist arable commons where lots were allocated on an annual basis). So access and ownership of this communal resource was distributed, management was horizontal rather than hierarchical, but access effectively depended upon geographical proximity to the site in question.

A second mode of commons is that of the public service, which we could conceptualise as an industrial model of commonwealth. For example consider the example of the National Health Service in the UK: unlike common land, this was a public service designed to operate on a national scale, for the common good of the approximately 50 million inhabitants of the UK. In order to manage such a large scale, industrial operation, logic dictated that a strict chain of managerial hierarchy be established to run and maintain the health service – simply leaving the British population to self-organise the health service would undoubtedly have been disastrous.

This appear to be a case which supports the logic later espoused by Garret Hardin in his famed 1968 essay the Tragedy of the Commons, whereby Hardin, an American ecologist forcefully argued that the model of the commons could only be successful in relatively small-scale endeavours, and that within industrial society this would inevitably lead to ruin, as individuals sought to maximise their own benefit, whilst overburdening the communal resource. Interestingly, Hardin’s central concern was actually overpopulation, and he argued in the essay that ‘The only way we can preserver and nurture other, more precious freedoms, is by relinquishing the freedom to breed.’ Years later he would suggest that it morally wrong to give aid to famine victims in Ethopia as this simply encouraged overpopulation.

More recent developments, however, have shown quite conclusively that Hardin was wrong: the model of the commons is not doomed to failure in large-scale projects. In part this is due to the fact that Hardin’s model of the commons was predicated on a complete absence of rules – it was not a communally managed asset, but a free-for-all, and partially this can be understood as a result of the evolution of information processing technologies which have revolutionised the ways in which distributed access, project management and self-organisation can occur. This contemporary mode of the commons, described by Yochai Benler and others as commons-led peer production, or by other proponents simply as peer-to-peer(P2P) resembles aspects of the distributed and horizontal access characteristic of pre-modern commons, but allows access to these projects on a nonlocal scale.

Emblematic of P2P process has been the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and Creative Commons movement. FOSS projects often include thousands of workers who cooperate on making a piece of software which is then made readily available as a form of digital commons, unlike proprietary software which seeks to reduce access to a good whose cost of reproduction is effectively zero. In addition to the software itself, the source code of the program is made available, crucially meaning that other can examine, explore, alter and improve upon existing versions of FOSS. Popular examples of FOSS include WordPress – which is now used to create most new websites as it allows users with little technical coding ability to create complex and stylish participatory websites – the web browsers Firefox and Chrome, and the combination of Apache (web server software) and Linux (operating system) which together form the back end for most of the servers which host World Wide Web content.

What is really interesting, is that in each of these cases, a commons-led approach has been able to economically outcompete proprietary alternatives – which in each case have had huge sums of money invested into them. The prevailing economic logic throughout industrial culture – that hierarchically organised private companies were most effective and efficient at generating reliable and functional goods was shown to be wrong. A further example which highlights this is Wikipedia, the online open-access encyclopaedia which according to research is not only the largest repository of encyclopaedic knowledge, but for scientific and mathematical subjects is the most detailed and accurate. Had you said 15 years ago that a disparate group of individuals who freely cooperated in their free time over the Internet and evolved community guidelines for moderating content which anyone could alter, would be able to create a more accurate and detailed informational resource than a well-funded established professional company (say Encyclopaedia Brittanica) most economists would have laughed. But again, the ability of people to self-organise over the Internet based on their own understanding of their interests and competencies has been shown to be a tremendously powerful way of organising.

Of course there are various attempts to integrate this type of crowd-sourced P2P model into new forms of capitalism – it would be foolish to think that powerful economic actors would simply ignore the hyper-productive aspects of P2P. But for people interested in commons and alternative ways of organising, a lot can be taken from the successes of FOSS and creative commons.

Now where some this gets really interesting, is in the current moves towards Open Source Hardware (OSH), what is sometimes referred to as maker culture, where we move from simply talking about software, or digital content which can be entirely shared over telecommunications networks. OSH is where the design information for various kinds of device are shared. Key amongst these are 3D printers, things like RepRap, an OSH project to design a machine allowing individuals to print their own 3D objects. Users simply download 3D Computer-Assisted-Design (CAD) files, which they can then customise if they wish, before hitting a print button – just as would print a word document, but the information is sent to a 3D rather than 2D printer. Rather than relying on a complex globalised network whereby manufacturing largely occurs in China, this empowers people to start making a great deal of things themselves. It reduces reliance on big companies to provide the products that people require in day-to-day life and so presents a glimpse of a nascent future in which most things are made locally, using a freely available design commons. Rather than relying on economies of scale, this postulates a system of self-production which could offer a functional alternative which would have notable positive social and ecological ramifications.

Under the current economic situation though, people who contribute to these communities alongside other forms of commons are often not rewarded for the work they put into things, and so have to sell their labour power elsewhere in order to make ends meet financially. Indeed, this isn’t new, capitalism has always been especially bad at remunerating people who do various kinds of work which is absolutely crucial the the functioning of a society – with domestic work and raising children being the prime example. So the question is, how could this be changed so as to reward people for contributing to cultural, digital and other forms of commons?

One possible answer which has attracted a lot of commentary is the notion of a universal basic income. Here the idea is that as all citizens are understood to actively contribute to society via their participation in the commons, everyone should receive sufficient income to subsist – to pay rent, bills, feed themselves and their dependants, alongside having access to education, health care and some form of information technology. This basic income could be supplemented through additional work – and it is likely that most people would choose to do this (not many people enjoy scraping by with the bare minimum) – however, if individuals wanted to focus on assisting sick relatives, contributing to FOSS projects or helping out at a local food growing cooperative they would be empowered to do so without the fear of financial ruin. As an idea it’s something that has attracted interest and support from a spectrum including post-Marxists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri through to liberals such as British Green Party. It certainly seems an idea worth considering, albeit one which is miles away from the Tory rhetoric of Strivers and Skivers.

For more details on P2P check out the Peer to Peer Foundation which hosts a broad array of excellent articles on the subject.

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http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/portal/publications/network-notebooks/the-telekommunist/

The telekommunist manifesto is an interesting and inventive re-imagining of the communist manifesto for the network society penned by Dmitri Kleiner. In the age of international telecommunications, global migration and the emergence of the information economy, how can class conflict and property be understood? Drawing from political economy and concepts related to intellectual property, The Telekommunist Manifestois a key contribution to commons-based, collaborative and shared forms of cultural production and economic distribution.

Proposing ‘venture communism’ as a new model for workers’ self-organization, Kleiner spins Marx and Engels’ seminal Manifesto of the Communist Party into the age of the internet. As a peer-to-peer model, venture communism allocates capital that is critically needed to accomplish what capitalism cannot: the ongoing proliferation of free culture and free networks.

In developing the concept of venture communism, Kleiner provides a critique of copyright regimes, and current liberal views of free software and free culture which seek to trap culture within capitalism. Kleiner proposes copyfarleft, and provides a usable model of a Peer Production License alongside a useful critique of Web 2.0 as a capitalist reterritorialisation of the space of possibility for commons based peer production.

Encouraging hackers and artists to embrace the revolutionary potential of the internet for a truly free society, The Telekommunist Manifesto is a political-conceptual call to arms in the fight against capitalism.

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