Jonathan Taplin on Jul 25
The British journalist Paul Mason published a provocative except from his new book Postcapitalism in the Guardian last week. His theory is that the sharing economy is ushering in a new age.
Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed — not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.
Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies — the giant tech companies — on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.
Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.
Since the 1930’s when Lord Keynes worried about a future in which we would have so much leisure time that we might not be able to create enough poets to fill our evening hours. So of course I am skeptical as most of my friends are working longer hours than 10 years ago when their every waking hour wasn’t harried by smartphones chirping.
But I do believe that Mason’s point, about the potential of Open Source technology to break up the “fragile corporate edifice” constructed by the tech monopolies that I have written about, is real. Consider the edifice that was Microsoft’s Windows operating system in 1998 when the Justice Department brought its anti-trust action. Since that time two Open Source software systems, Linux and Apache have made huge inroads into the corporate and Web server business. Both systems were constructed by hundreds of thousands of man hours of free labor contributed by geeks interested in improving the software and sharing their improvements with a large community for free. So in that sense, Mason is right that this is a post capitalist construct.
But here is the current problem with the sharing economy. It tends towards a winner take all economy.
Whether Uber ends up buying Lyft is yet to be determined, but my guess is that market will look like markets dominated by AirBnb, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google. As Susie Cagle recently pointed out:
While technology has provided underlying infrastructure to spark and support new peer-to-peer network behavior, it hasn’t really changed anything about how those networks are built and owned. For example, we now have the tools and ability to disrupt the taxi industry by allowing collectives of drivers to reach customers directly — but instead, we have Lyft and Uber, multibillion dollar companies that neither offer benefits to their drivers, nor truly give them the opportunity to run their own independent businesses.
Likewise, we have the tools and ability to build collectively owned messaging and social platforms — but instead, we have Twitter and Facebook, which mediate what users can see from other users and collect personal data to better tailor advertising sales.
My concerns relate to the media and entertainment industry that we study at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. And in that world the possibility of using the Open Source model to build a new kind of Digital Distribution Cooperative seems very possible.
Ask yourself this question: why should YouTube take 55% of the ad revenue from a Beyonce (or any other artist) video when all they provide is the platform?
They provide no production money, no marketing support and their ad engine runs lights out on algorithms.
Imagine in today’s music business a distribution cooperative that would run something like the coops that farmer’s use (think Sunkist for orange growers). Here is how they are described.
Many marketing cooperatives operate through “pooling.” The member delivers his product to the association, which pools it with products of like grade and quality delivered by other members. After doing whatever processing is necessary, the co-op sells the products at the best price it can get and returns to the members their share of total proceeds, less marketing expenses.
In our model (much like the early days of the United Artists film distribution company formed in the 1920’s by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W.Griffith) the producers of music would upload their new tunes to the coop servers, do their own social marketing and probably end up getting back 85–90% of the revenues rather the 45% they get from YouTube. The coop could rent cloud space from Amazon Web Services just like Netflix and Spotify do.
All of this is possible because in the world of entertainment the artist is the brand. No one ever suggested to you, “let’s go to a Paramount movie tonight.” It is possible that we are entering a post capitalist age, but it cannot exist as long as the sharing economy is dominated by a few monopolists. Perhaps some bold experiments on the part of music artists could point the way towards a truly innovative way of using technology for the good of the artist rather than for her exploitation.