Technoutopia socialism

Kevin Kelly talks about “social media” and social-ism, saying “the frantic global rush to connect everyone to everyone, all the time, is quietly giving rise to a revised version of [the s-word].” This is a new brand of socialism that “operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government—for now.”

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.

He uses the word socialism, he says, “because technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions.”

Heralds of the transition:

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.

I don’t know that I would make that prediction, and while I’m swimming in all this, I’m feeling a bit circumspect about the future (which, incidentally, isn’t here yet and never will be, despite what you’ve heard.) We’re increasingly dependent on computers, for instance, and global energy shortages or outages could be problematic (better crank out a lot more thin-film photovoltaics). But it’s cool to feel a bit of utopian optimism, if only briefly, between newscasts.


  1. Bob Melcher says:

    I have to disagree with using the term “Socialism in this context”. Socialism connotes a higher authority owning the means of production and allocating the benefits. Some people find socialism easy, and in the beginning of the web, when the common person wanted the connection, but not the hassle, there was the AOL big brother to help them (Kudos to Big Brother to help millions get started!).

    The Internet is now the perfect democracy. And its perfect capitalism. Its built out of hundreds of suppliers who sell small connections to homes and businesses. A common customer is $20 per month, and a big customer is $10,000 per month.

    The hundreds of suppliers agglomerate bandwidth and then take some portion of their revenues to connect to intercity carriers. If they’ve got their own relationship with ARIN, they can easily change carriers at will and often do.

    Anger a customer and they ‘vote’ their internet money elsewhere. Change a rule on a social media website and we just stop visiting. Can’t charge for advertising to an audience that isn’t there. ANd if your audience goes elsewhere, you are no longer important!

    Social media is a series of self-selected members who ‘vote’ their presence based on message, functionality, tolerance (or lack thereof) and return for their effort. Its merchant capitalism, where the merchant attracting the most customers to the highest margin sales wins.

    But its also a college, in which experts come together to provide each other with resources to protect integrity and disseminate knowledge. How many very specialized groups do you know that have a Linux server made of spare parts and strict rules to guarantee that the content of their expertise is kept whole and yet is available to all disciples of the religion?

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