Monday, May 25, 2009

WIRED: New Digital Socialism and Dot-Communism

I recognize that the word socialism is bound to make many readers twitch. It carries tremendous cultural baggage. 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.

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.

~From "
The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online" in the current issue of Wired Magazine, by Kevin Kelly


At 5/25/2009 5:44 PM, Anonymous Dr. T said...

"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."

Yes, it is unreasonable to do so. You cannot conflate a group hobby with a nation's economic system. You may call the group's attitude and behavior socialistic, but what they are doing is not socialism.

What these "Wired" groups do is little different than what antique car groups do when they voluntarily organize and put on local, regional, and national antique auto shows. I doubt the antique car owners believe they are practicing socialism or communism.

Wired's writers often use such overblown rhetoric to describe what are often just silly trends that employ internet-based technologies. I find the writers to be arrogant, self-centered, and self-congratulatory, which is why I stopped reading Wired years ago.

At 5/25/2009 6:28 PM, Blogger randian said...

Pure Newspeak: change the definitions of words so the masses can't speak out against something.

At 5/25/2009 7:22 PM, Anonymous Steve Olson said...

My question is this...
Is socialism socialism when it is done voluntarily?

There is no physical force which makes social media and social networking tick. It is a pure free market meritocracy.

I'd say the Web 2.0 phenomenon is more like a true anarchy or a libertarian victory than a communist one.

It's proof that people can be trusted to create and share without being forced to do so.

At 5/25/2009 7:45 PM, Anonymous gettingrational said...

I think people will unite for causes that transcend borders and connect with people's imaginations for a sense of purpose.Labeling these transnational unifications as communistic or socialist is reaching.

There is a danger that opinions originating from countries with high state control such as China or Iran would unduly represent a viewpoint . The threat is that opinions posted in forums of free speech countries are monitored in state controlled countries. This results in posts that represent the state controlled propaganda rather then the individual.

At 5/25/2009 8:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Two points:

First, this reminds me of the story about how Ronald Coase, then a socialist, first visited the United States. Coase toured an auto factory, and wondered how such a massive organization could 'plan' its operations so successfully when some economists were criticizing the central planning of the Soviet economy's operations. Coase came to realize that the planning in the auto firm was voluntary, just like those in today's digital revolution, unlike the forced labor and oppression of the Soviet gosplan. And, of course, this led to one of Coase's famous essays entitled "The Nature of the Firm" in which he wrote that the business firms in an economy exist to overcome the transactions costs of using markets, and therefore some activities are organized inside the firm, instead of an economy solely consisting of independent, self-employed people who deal with each other.

And my second point concerns labor and leisure. As you know, economists distinguish between labor and leisure as two mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustible events which form the labor supply curve in response to changes in the wage rate. And this article claims that these people "contribute labor without wages."

Well, I would argue that rather than contributing labor, most, if not all of these people are instead engaging in leisure activity, because they truly enjoy it (I, myself, don't consider reading economics or posting on a blog to be labor activity, but rather leisure) and because the incredible productive forces unleashed by capitalism has created very high living standards which afford them this time to enjoy more leisure and less labor.

But, either way, I think that it would be incorrect to classify them as labor.

Your thoughts?


At 5/25/2009 10:02 PM, Blogger QT said...

Dr. T,

Have to agree that the use of the term socialism bears little relationship to the Oxford dictionary definition. The practice of coining phrases that are not remotely connected to the english language seems to be a techie penchant.

Isn't this just the Adam Smith's invisible hand at work?

Media thrive on punchy headlines that grab one's attention. Adam Smith doesn't make the boiler plate.

At 5/25/2009 10:08 PM, Blogger Robert Miller said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5/25/2009 11:56 PM, Anonymous Klockarman said...

Good comments here, but I'd just like to add that typically all of the time set aside by these "digital socialists" and "dot-communists", as well as the tools that they use in this supposedly socialist activity are provided courtesy of...


That is to say that not only were the computers produced via capitalism, but that with out their non-socialist sources of income these so-called "socialists" could not afford the time nor the tools (computers, internet ISP service, etc.) to even participate in these "socialist" activities.

At 5/26/2009 10:25 AM, Blogger Robert Miller said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5/26/2009 10:29 AM, Anonymous Rhys said...

I can't really disagree with the comments here. Wired can be silly at times, and also maybe desperate for material. The article isn't really saying much at all, if you really look at it. Wired isn't equating the internet with the economic system of socialism. It's just saying there are resemblances, which is the case of plenty of activities. For instance, I used to live in a vegetarian co-op. It had a sort of socialist way of doing things, but it wasn't actually socialism. So I don't think Wired's article is particularly right or wrong, it's just filler. I wish Wired would tackle something more interesting, like The Small Revolution ( ) talked about by the authors of The Power of Small.

At 5/26/2009 11:42 AM, Anonymous Cheech (in) Marin said...

The article isn't really saying much at allThis is a brilliant observation which corresponds to randian's reference to Newspeak. Most news articles, including this one, really don't say anything at all.

It says nothing, yet it seems to speak volumes to all types of readers. The fact that we react to it so negatively and socialists/ progressives would react to it positively is frightening. Why is so much emotion being generated over a pointless exercise in vocabulary and grammar?

It reminds me of the machine-generated poetry, songs, and literature for the proles in 1984. It won't be long before all journalists (and political speeches) could be replaced by machines like this:

At 5/26/2009 2:41 PM, Blogger like such as said...

These are all great comments! One point that i'd like to add is the fact that the internet and "the real world" have one fundamental difference - the scarcity of resources. Where the author here is marvelling at the online community's proclivity to collaborrate and share resources to the degree that "we capitalists" never would have thought possible is to suggest that there has been in the past some example of the ability to mass produce material at zero charge. The fact that I can go to a bit torrent site and download an album doesn't prove that I should logically be able to go to Best Buy and freely take the physical copy of that same album; the internet helps to solve the age-old question that economics searches to answer - how to best allocate scarce resources in light of unlimited wants. This is why socialism can't work (there is no rational basis for allocation). However, the nature of the internet has rendered the question of scarce digital media moot.

At 5/26/2009 3:07 PM, Blogger Robert Miller said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5/26/2009 7:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what do you call a market place?

A socialist exchange?

At 5/26/2009 8:06 PM, Anonymous Cheech (in) Marin said...

Rob, you watch way too much Star Trek.

At 5/26/2009 9:34 PM, Blogger glenzo said...

the critical difference between this 'socialism' and that we have experienced in the past 100 years or so, is that this is founded and marked by participation that is voluntary and not compulsory.

also, those that participate expect and probably receive utility and enjoyment in producing something that is not monetary but some other utility, such as enjoyment, learning something new, gaining a skill maybe many other things.

As such, volunteering in something such as a church meals program that serves the poor would also not be coined classical socialism either. So maybe the definition should not be socialism

At 6/01/2009 2:58 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> why I stopped reading Wired years ago.

...probably about the same time I did, which was when Time, Inc., bought them, ca. 1998.

I've never trusted them for a moment since.

At 6/01/2009 3:01 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6/01/2009 3:03 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> It says nothing, yet it seems to speak volumes to all types of readers.

Karl Marx is to economists what Khalil Gibran is to philosophers. In the real world there is no Marxist program, but inside the human brain he tickles the mood centers.
- Alexis A. Gilliland, 'Long Shot for Rosinante' -

Gilliland's SF has a lot of fun in it, and he's an unabashed anti-Marxist. The Rosinante trilogy is a good read, if you can find it.

At 6/01/2009 3:11 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> Who would want to continue playing a game where EVERYONE had the Vorpal Sword of the Lich King?

I would, as long as I always get to use mine first.



(If you don't get the joke, you don't know what a Vorpal Sword does)

At 6/02/2009 3:09 PM, Blogger pbuxton said...

I feel it necessary to add my voice to the chorus: socialism is not socialism when people are free to opt in or out. Coercion is the entire problem with socialism/national socialism/communism.

Hell, my family was basically a diumvirate dictatorship whose "citizens" bolted as soon as they were old enough and free to do so. Food for thought. ;-)


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