“I am not a Communist,” declared the author-entrepreneur Steven Johnson in a recent column in the business section of the New York Times. Johnson made his disclaimer in the course of celebrating the creativity of “open networks,” the groups of volunteers who gather on the net to share ideas and produce digital goods of one stripe or another. Because they exist outside the marketplace and don’t operate in response to the profit motive, one might think that such collaboratives would represent a threat to traditional markets. After all, what could be more subversive to consumer capitalism than a mass movement of people working without pay to create free stuff for other people? But capitalists shouldn’t worry, says Johnson; they should rejoice. The innovations of the unpaid web-enabled masses may be “conceived in nonmarket environments,” but they ultimately create “new platforms” that “support commercial ventures.” What appears to excite Johnson is not the intrinsic value of volunteerism as an alternative to consumerism, but the way the net allows the efforts of volunteers to be turned into the raw material for profit-making ventures.
Johnson’s view is typical of many of the web’s most enthusiastic promoters, the Corporate Communalists who feel compelled to distance themselves from, if not ignore entirely, the more radical implications of the trends they describe with starry-eyed avidity. In a new book with a Marx-tinged title, What’s Mine Is Yours, the business consultants Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers begin by describing the onset of what sounds like an anti-market revolution. “The convergence of social networks, a renewed belief in the importance of community, pressing environmental concerns, and cost consciousness,” they write, “are moving us away from the old, top-heavy, centralized, and controlled forms of consumerism toward one of sharing, aggregation, openness, and cooperation.” Indeed, we are at a moment of transition from “the twentieth century of hyper-consumption,” during which “we were defined by credit, advertising, and what we owned,” to “the twenty-first century of Collaborative Consumption,” in which “we will be defined by reputation, by community, and by what we can access and how we share and what we give away.”
But, having raised the specter of an anti-consumerist explosion, Botsman and Rogers immediately defuse the revolution they herald. Like Johnson, they turn out to be more interested in the way online sharing feeds into profit-making ventures. “Perhaps what is most exciting about Collaborative Consumption,” they write, with charming naiveté, “is that it fulfills the hardened expectations on both sides of the socialist and capitalist ideological spectrum without being an ideology in itself.” In fact, “For the most part, the people participating in Collaborative Consumption are not Pollyannaish do-gooders and still very much believe in the principles of capitalist markets and self-interest … Collaborative Consumption is by no means antibusiness, antiproduct or anticonsumer.” Whew!
As Rob Horning notes in his review of the book, Botsman and Rogers are more interested in co-opting anti-consumerist energies than unleashing them. Economically speaking, they’re radical conservatives:
Were the emphasis of What’s Mine Is Yours strictly on giving things away, as opposed to reselling them or mediating the exchanges, it might have been a different sort of book, a far more utopian investigation into practical ways to shrink the consumer economy. It would have had to wrestle with the ramifications of advocating a steady-state economy in a society geared to rely on endless growth. But instead, the authors are more interested in the new crop of businesses that have sprung up to reorient some of the anti-capitalistic practices that have emerged online — file sharing, intellectual property theft, amateur samizdat distribution, gift economies, fluid activist groups that are easy to form and fund, and so on — and make them benign compliments [sic] to mainstream retail markets. Indeed, conspicuously absent from the book is any indication that any business entities would suffer if we all embraced the new consumerism, a gap that seems dictated by the book’s intended audience: the usual management-level types who consume business books.
A similar tension, between revolutionary rhetoric and counterrevolutionary message, runs through the popular “wikinomics” writings of Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. In their new book, Macrowikinomics, they once again promote the net as, to quote from Tom Slee’s review, “a revolutionary force for change, carrying us to a radically different future.” And yet the blurbs on the back of the book come from a who’s who of big company CEOs. The revolution that Tapscott and Williams describe is one that bears, explicitly, the imprimatur of Davos billionaires. For them, too, the ultimate promise of open networks, of wikis, lies in providing new opportunities, or “platforms,” for profiteers. Slee notes some of the contradictions inherent in their argument:
On one side, Macrowikinomics exaggerates the political and economic possibilities of digital collaboration as well as the discontinuity between today’s digital culture and the activities of previous generations. On the other side, it ignores the unsavoury possibilities that seem to accompany each and every inspiring initiative on the Internet (every technology has its spam) and inspirational initiatives for change that take place away from the digital world. Most importantly, it does not register the corrosive effect of money (and particularly large amounts of money) on the social production and voluntary networked activity that they are so taken with.
What most characterizes today’s web revolutionaries is their rigorously apolitical and ahistorical perspectives – their fear of actually being revolutionary. To them, the technological upheaval of the web ends in a reinforcement of the status quo. There’s nothing wrong with that view, I suppose – these are all writers who court business audiences – but their writings do testify to just how far we’ve come from the idealism of the early days of cyberspace, when online communities were proudly uncommercial and the free exchanges of the web stood in opposition to what John Perry Barlow dismissively termed “the Industrial World.” By encouraging us to think of sharing as “collaborative consumption” and of our intellectual capacities as “cognitive surplus,” the technologies of the web now look like they will have, as their ultimate legacy, the spread of market forces into the most intimate spheres of human activity.
PS These are the first lolcats I’ve created. Pretty good, huh?