Tiresome Techno-Utopian Big Think Post

Warning: the following is rambling and far from original. Proceed with caution.

Kevin Kelly’s Wired story about “new socialism” is sadly a bit of a gloss, and more often than not a kind of verbal trick. He basically slaps the word “socialism” on the gift economies created by crowd-sourcing and other Web 2.0 techniques, and expounds upon how great this is. He doesn’t even touch the big problem here: we have gift economies for things we want, but we still have (heavily distorted) market economies for the things we need. And this should be terrifying, not liberating, for creative workers who make the former goods.

Think about it. Goods with no marginal production cost, goods that are close to free, are luxury goods: music, movies, ebooks, journalism, etc. None are necessary or sufficient for human existence. And those goods that are essential for life are, by their very nature, always going to cost something. You can’t crowd-source agriculture. Craiglist can help you find an apartment, but it won’t pay your rent. Kelly’s socialism, where content creators work for free in exchange for the free products of others, can only work as an amateur phenomenon. Otherwise, his New Socialist Men will starve.

This isn’t to say that we should go all Matt Crawford on life and storm out of our cubicles to start motorcycle repair companies. Even though physical labor will – as Crawford argues – always be compensated, there will be less of it as the years go by. As technology improves, the need for human labor to grow crops and build apartment complexes will shrink. Eventually, there will be a small corps of R&D types training the machines that make our food and build our buildings. This is the most frightening problem. The jobs that necessarily pay are going away. The ones that don’t need to pay aren’t paying. When the only people who can afford food and shelter are the select few making it, what happens to the rest of us?

That’s where the state, which Kelly so meticulously tries to extract from his brand of socialism, has to come in. It shouldn’t take over the industry necessary for us all to survive, for obvious reasons, but it should make sure that the income generated from it is sufficiently redistributed, so that those of us creating entirely digital, and thus uncompensated, goods can survive. I suppose large-scale redistribution of physical goods combined with a gift economy of digital ones qualifies as a sort of socialism, but it’s far less decentralized and romantic than the one Kelly envisions.

And of course, this is entirely speculative and based on a reductio ad absurdum of trends that could (but I think won’t) stop. Digital content creators are a tiny chunk of the economy right now, and agriculture is nowhere near the level of industrialization and robotization that is required by this scenario. But if the trendlines keep going this way, we need to think about how to have a functioning gift economy in intellectual property in which workers will not wither away and die.

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