How Many Digital Socialists Does It Take to Change A Light-Bulb? A Response to Kevin Kelly’s “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society is Coming Online”

From Open Source Software to Socialist Utopia?


In a fascinating and often insightful article in Wired [vol. 17, no. 6, May 2009], longtime digiculture maven Kevin Kelly makes a remarkable argument. He proposes that the open-source software movement that began in the 1990s out of various attempts to challenge the Microsoft monopoly has, via the broadband internet and the Web, morphed and mushroomed and multiplied into a new form of socialism: “Bill Gates once derided open source advocates with the worst epithet a capitalist can muster. These folks, he said, were a “new modern-day sort of communists,” a malevolent force bent on destroying the monopolistic incentive that helps support the American dream. Gates was wrong: Open source zealots are more likely to be libertarians than commie pinkos. Yet there is some truth to his allegation. The frantic global rush to connect everyone to everyone, all the time, is quietly giving rise to a revised version of socialism.”


Incidentally, it’s worth adding that Gates has other reasons to worry about “socialism” and “communism.”  A number of leftist governments in Latin America and elsewhere (Brazil and Vietnam, to name two) have chosen to go open source as they update and extend computerization. In this way they have sidestepped Microsoft’s steely contractual grip and notoriously extortionate business model—and saved themselves a mountain of money. Even some state governments in the US, such as Massachusetts, are going open source. So one can add to the peculiarities of what Kelly is calling a “new socialism” that it’s competing in business, toe to toe, with one of the most powerful corporations on the planet… Whoa. I’ll take a step back, for non-digerati who use their computers the way a non-mechanic drives his car, having only a vague notion of what goes on under the hood: what is “open source,” anyway?


“Brazil: Free Software’s Biggest and Best Friend” (NYT, 3/29/05)

The term “open source” comes from “source code,” which is simply the set of instructions, written in whatever computer language, that makes up a given piece of software. Typically, the source code for commercial software is “closed”—that is, the license says you’re not allowed to alter it, or even copy it except under the terms of the license, and that you must pay fees or royalties for using it. (You’ll find that in the small print of all those gnarly User License Agreements you have to sign before you’re allowed to install the software you just bought.) That also means that the software has been developed in a centralized way under proprietary conditions, whereby the software itself and all the work that leads up to its release is the company’s exclusive intellectual property and the company-employed authors are bound by nondisclosure agreements.

Open source software is released under almost exactly opposite terms. The license says that anybody with the necessary skills can copy, alter, or adapt it at will and circulate the (hopefully) improved version back to the community of users—or even bundle all or part of it with other software. What that user can’t do is restrict other users to whom they pass on their versions from themselves amending the code. And open-source code is almost always distributed free of charge. Much open-source software today is right from the start the creation a widely distributed group of authors, working for free because the code is given away too.

This last point is crucial to understanding Kelly’s whole argument. The web browser Mozilla Firefox is the open-source product you’re most likely to have used if you’re still in the Microsoft or Apple “universes.” But the single biggest competitor to these closed-source companies and their proprietary software is an open source operating system (more about what those are in a minute) called Linux. Since the original source code for the Linux kernel (again, more below) was released in 1991, Linux has been worked on by literally thousands of people and is installed on millions of machines worldwide, including a whole lot of internet servers. It exists in a bunch of different proprietary versions or flavors—but anyone can still take the original code and adapt it.


The “Cancer” Eating Bill Gates? Linux Booting Up

The fact that so many authors have found and fixed flaws, streamlined code, and generally improved functionality makes Linux exceptionally stable and robust—unlike, say, Windows Vista or countless other proprietary (closed-source) products. For purely bottom-line reasons, these usually don’t have enough programmers working on them to ensure that they’re solid. Also, they’re nearly always released too soon, given that they can’t be amended by the users who purchase them, and who then (in the Microsoft model) have to buy patches to fix the bugs that weren’t caught before release. And again, the vast majority of the people who work on open source products like Firefox and Linux are not getting paid. No wonder Microsoft early on referred to Linux as a “cancer”!

Kevin Kelly’s Four Steps to E-Socialism

Since Linux, the open source idea has generated an entire “culture” and a kind of semi-underground social movement, which has now surfaced in a host of developments. As Kelly continues: Communal aspects of digital culture run deep and wide. Wikipedia is just one remarkable example of an emerging collectivism—and not just Wikipedia but wikiness at large. Ward Cunningham, who invented the first collaborative Web page in 1994, tracks nearly 150 wiki engines today, each powering myriad sites. […] Nearly every day another startup proudly heralds a new way to harness community action. These developments suggest a steady move toward a sort of socialism uniquely tuned for a networked world. Kelly goes on to distinguish the emergent socialism he perceives in these phenomena from “your grandfather’s socialism.” I’ll return later to the version of “your grandfather’s socialism” he establishes as a foil—or a straw man. But first I want to summarize the positive side of his argument. Kelly borrows from media theorist Clay Shirky’s 2008 book Here Comes Everybody a hierarchy of how this socialism evolves. “Groups of people start off simply sharing and then progress to cooperation, collaboration, and finally collectivism. At each step, the amount of coordination increases.” • Under “Sharing”, Kelly cites social media sites like Facebook and MySpace, Yelp and other service and product review sites, Delicious for website bookmarks—and of course YouTube, to which users add a staggering 6 billion clips a month. As he remarks, “sharing is the mildest form of socialism, but it serves as the foundation for higher levels of communal engagement.”

firefox-logo-fullThe Open-source embrace: Mozilla Firefox

• Under “Cooperation,” Kelly offers the photo aggregator site Flickr as one prime example, with its 3 billion photos that any user can tag with categories, labels, and keywords or collect into sets of their own. Flickr  is an instance of Creative Commons licensing, which “means that communally, if not outright communistically, your picture is my picture.” Also instanced are sites like Digg and Reddit, which let users vote on the web links they display most prominently and so are gaining enormous power in “steer[ing] public conversation” (even as, one might add, traditional media are losing that power). As he remarks: “Serious contributors to these sites put in far more energy than they could ever get in return, but they keep contributing in part because of the cultural power these instruments wield. A contributor’s influence extends way beyond a lone vote, and the community’s collective influence can be far out of proportion to the number of contributors. That is the whole point of social institutions—the sum outperforms the parts.”

• With “Collaboration,” Kelly arrives at open-source software, where he began. “In these endeavors,” he writes, “finely tuned communal tools generate high-quality products from the coordinated work of thousands or tens of thousands of members.” He points out that “these collaborative efforts make no sense within capitalism” because workers on them do a huge amount of high value work without being paid, because we regular-type users don’t pay for the product either, and because it can be freely copied and used to make new stuff. “Instead of money, the peer producers who create the stuff gain credit, status, reputation, enjoyment, satisfaction, and experience.”


Linux Dreaming of Open Source World Domination

• Finally, there is “Collectivism.”  Kelly points out that cooperation as Shirky defines it doesn’t require complete consensus or much accountability from individual participants. He defines a collective as a group in which such consensus and accountability are crucial to success, “where self-directed peers take responsibility for critical processes and where difficult decisions, such as sorting out priorities, are decided by all participants.”  He goes on to suggest that in reality some degree of hierarchy, formal or otherwise, is usually necessary for collectives to succeed: “Indeed, a close examination of the governing kernel of, say, Wikipedia, Linux, or OpenOffice shows that these efforts are further from the collectivist ideal than appears from the outside. While millions of writers contribute to Wikipedia, a smaller number of editors (around 1,500) are responsible for the majority of the editing. Ditto for collectives that write code. […] As Mitch Kapor, founding chair of the Mozilla open source code factory, observed, ‘Inside every working anarchy, there’s an old-boy network.'”


How a Wiki  Works

Kelly sensibly points out that if things have to get produced and delivered under constraints such as limited time and exacting standards, a hierarchy is usually required (though, one might add, it could be an elected and temporary one). However, he concludes: “In the past, constructing an organization that exploited hierarchy yet maximized collectivism was nearly impossible. Now digital networking provides the necessary infrastructure. The Net empowers product-focused organizations to function collectively while keeping the hierarchy from fully taking over.”

Summarizing these developments, Kelly proposes that they be understood and deliberately fostered as a “third way” between centralized state planning (which he identifies with the “old socialism”) and “the chaos of market capitalism.” Pointing out that “hybrid systems that blend market and nonmarket mechanisms are not new,”  he alludes both to the “socialization” of education and other public goods like highways in even very capitalist societies, and to the industrial cooperatives of northern Italy and the Basque region of Spain, which are owned collectively by their workers. These he views as models, or at any rate analogies, for what he thinks the nascent digital collectivism might become.

Mondragon Co-op structure

The organization of  FAGOR, a Basque cooperative enterprise

Finally, Kelly suggests that the sheer number of Americans who now participate in these digital communities, from sharing videos and links to collectively designing software, may already be influencing our national politics in a socialistic direction. It’s a truism that net-based organizing and counter-propaganda (such as devastating “then and now” comparisons of candidates’ mutually contradictory recorded statements made on The Daily Show and instantly posted on YouTube) helped elect Barack Obama and a host of progressive House Democrats In 2008. After acknowledging all the problems of “the last few decades” that “the market” helped solve and  government could not, not Kelly concludes: “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.”


Inside the Matrix: Source Code for Virtual Reality

Information: Free or Expensive?

To begin assessing both the value and the limits of Kelly’s argument, I want to take a couple of steps back and review some history—not just of computers and the internet, but of the political and social context in which the foundations for this digital socialism were being built. Along the way I’ll talk a little about my own experience of that time. There’s a deep tension at the core of the digital universe, as it exists in the present (capitalist) world. This tension was succinctly expressed by Stewart Brand, founder of hippy-tech bible the Whole Earth Catalog and internet pioneer, at the first Hackers’ Conference in 1984:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”


Information wants to be free…

That was 25 years ago. (As Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix when he’s learned what it is and is marveling at its meticulous realism: “Amazing—isn’t it?”) Brand was right, but he was missing a deeper point, more obvious now as Moore’s Law hurtles us to the close of the Silicon Age. Nanocomputing and quantum computing are on the horizon, with promises of computational power thousands or millions of times greater than we can achieve with even the fastest chip-based logic. These will be matched by equivalently speedy forms of digital transmission that use only light, not electrons, to carry the bit stream. Bottom line: Information “wants to be free” because it is infinitely and almost instantaneously reproducible and transmissible from anywhere in the whole wired world to anywhere else. In this situation, every individual or organization that wants to secure or copyright information, whether as intellectual property or as a plain old secret, is facing an accelerating arms race with pirates and crackers. Securing data is one thing: at least until quantum computing arrives, it can be protected with really serious encryption so long as users follow security protocols—though as always, the best encryption is no match for the clowns who still use obvious passwords, sticky-note their passwords to their workstations, or take the data home in a laptop they then leave on the train. The same applies to closed networks. But if, as with any form of commercial software or “content,” you want to sell copies but limit reproduction, you cannot hope to win the arms race.


…But it also needs to be paid for: the paradox of creation as merchandise

The “music industry” is one obvious case in point. In the 1990s, media companies tried to replicate the old vinyl disk (and analog cassette) business model for selling recorded music. As most people under 50 know by now, it has failed. Any encryption scheme that will allow the CD to be played but not copied—or copied some limited number of times—can and will be cracked. And the combo of broadband and .mp3 technology has made the physical medium of the CD obsolete anyway.

The upshot is that the model for musicians has flipped: instead of making most of their money from selling records, as they did from the 1960s through the 1980s, and promoting the record with a tour, they now make their money gigging and touring, offering recordings free on sites like MySpace to promote their live performances. There’s not a lot of room for media companies in this model, to put it mildly. The information that is the musicians’ recordings wants to be free, and is. What is not free, for the most part, is the actual experience of hearing them play: unique, physical, unreproducible except as a two-dimensional recorded reminiscence—and so worth money, because everyone in their audience understands that bands need to put food on their tables and strings on their guitars.

I’ll come back to that issue of “real life” in a minute. But first, to paraphrase a lyric by my friend Tom Ward of the Funktionaries, take a little trip in time with me back to 1984.

1984: Birth of the Matrix, Death of the Old Socialism


A double dose of the corporate entity branded “Ronald Reagan”

Nineteen eighty-four was by all sorts of standards a banner year in political, social, and technological-cultural history. Ronald Reagan re-elected by a landslide. The Iran-Contra deal still secret but about to be uncovered. Counterinsurgency war in Central America and elsewhere. Neoliberalism, aka “free-market society,” ascendant. But also… The year William Gibson published Neuromancer, the brilliant novel that gave us the terms “cyberspace” and “the Matrix” to name a near-future digital universe still dominated by corporations and the military, but so complex that it has become an ecosystem, evolving its own life-forms and escaping institutional control. The year Stewart Brand made his percipient statement at that first Hackers’ Conference. The year Apple unveiled the first Macintosh, announcing it with one of the most celebrated TV ads of all time, in which a hall full of zombified proles is gazing at a telescreen from which the Leader is droning totalitarian bullshit, only to be “freed” by a pretty young blonde in athletic top, booty shorts, and sneakers who hurls a sledgehammer through the screen.

image002The Famous 1984 Macintosh Ad

Contrary to Apple’s bold claim in the ad’s teaser tag line—“ …1984 won’t be like ‘1984’”—the year did in fact bear nasty similarities to Orwell’s dystopian date: it was the time of the hysterical nationalism unleashed at the 1984 Olympics and the associated conformist pressure, the ongoing spying against the Central America and South Africa solidarity movements, the rise of the Religious Right as a protofascist force, the nuclear saber-rattling toward the (actually tottering) Soviet Union, and so forth. And in the UK, where I was toward the end of the year, it was the time of the Thatcher government’s brutal and naked repression of the nationwide coal miners’ strike, unchallenged by the rest of the unions—the death of the British labor movement and of old-school working-class socialism.


Miner’s wife and cop: Thatcherism in action, Orgreave, Yorkshire, 1984

At the very moment that the nascent cyberculture was beginning to know itself as such and be awed by the vistas of possibility that were opening before it, then, capitalism was reverting to some of its most vicious traits. Crushing unions and pushing down wages and benefits. Shredding the social safety net for all but the ill, the very poor, and the elderly. Reviving crude racism and sexism as a way to bond white male workers to the white elite. Stepping up blatant imperialism in Central America and the Middle East. Engaging in speculative frenzies made possible by deregulation—though nothing compared to what it’s done since. Privatizing (read: stealing) every public good in sight. So, underlying the tension Brand spoke of was emerging another, still greater tension: between the genuine liberatory possibilities of computers and the internet, and the globalization and financialization of capitalism, which could exploit the new technologies in ways even Gibson, let alone Brand, was not yet able to imagine.

homeless, 1984

The New Homeless, 1984 (photo by Chris Shames)

And 1984 was also the year right before I got into the whole digital thing. I came back from Britain in the late spring of ’85 politically depressed and personally at a loose end. I had trained to be an elementary-school teacher before I left but, following some grim and exhausting experiences substituting in my local public schools, had decided I wanted to do something else. Through the four years before I left I had been a collaborator in the notorious underground office-worker ‘zine Processed World, drawing cartoons and writing articles. But—true confession—I was the only member of the core group who had never actually worked in an office. I’d never used a dedicated word processor, a photo-typesetting machine, or any other kind of computer then in operation. I couldn’t even type well. (I feel better in retrospect having learned that when he wrote Neuromancer, William Gibson had never used a computer either; he composed the book on a manual typewriter.) But what I did know how do was write.

So through contacts in the Processed World circle, which was increasingly attracting denizens of Silicon Valley, I found out that if I was going to get work as a technical writer, then a new profession, the first thing I needed to do was learn Unix. Whatever that was.


Hello, Adam… The Matrix has you

I enrolled in an “Intro to Unix” course offered through UC Extension and taught by a couple of genial Berkeley hacker types. I found out, first of all, that Unix is an operating system: the software that manages all the other software as well as the RAM, the magnetic disk memory and the files it stores, and the peripherals like keyboard and monitor. Unix has two main components: the kernel, the code that (once compiled into binary-based assembly language) actually tells the machine what to do; and the shell, the outer interface, allowing users to activate chunks of the kernel with simple code terms close to what programmers somewhat disdainfully call “natural language”  (American English version, release 1970). Writing system shell code didn’t come easily, but once I started to get the hang of it, I had those experiences early-adopter cyberians always talk about: the thrilling sense of vast and mysterious virtual space behind the black screen with its blinking green command prompt (anachronistically used for just this effect in the first Neo scene of The Matrix); the excitement of exploring the file tree and the huge array of shell commands more deeply; the triumphant rush as a script I had written did its thing and characters cascaded down the screen in response; the sense of time-warp as I surfaced from what had felt like maybe twenty minutes of coding or debugging to find that many hours had gone by. I even literally began dreaming in shell code. So I know first-hand what keeps programmers and hackers addicted, even though I never wrote a shell script that wasn’t pretty much a total kluge.

The Secret Collectivism at the Origin of Cyberspace

unix file.tree More important for present purposes, I learned more about what Unix was: the first really portable (machine-independent) operating system, designed to run on minicomputers rather than on the big specialized mainframes of yore. The system you use on your desktop or laptop machine, whatever it may be, is a direct descendant of Unix (or, in the case of Mac OS, an actual brand of Unix), because it uses all the same basic principles. Bill Gates began building his ginormous fortune by leasing and then buying from a Seattle startup an operating system for the microcomputer (as the nascent PC was then known). The system was (more or less) portable and file-based like Unix, but shrunk down to the barest minimum. Gates called this dwarf system—sort of a Mini-Me version of Unix—MS-DOS, Microsoft Disk Operating System. The smartest thing he did, though, was keeping the rights to the source code he then leased to IBM. Apple, whose single-box Mac was the geek sensation of 1984, decided to keep their OS source code to themselves and retain control of the hardware, a move that almost put them out of business by the early 1990s as “clone” PCs were produced cheaply and sold loaded with DOS and then Windows, plus the Office suite, to countless businesses.


IBM-PC: We said that stood for “Intensely Boring Machine–Press Cancel”

So here comes Brand’s free/expensive tension again, right at the start of the personal computer age. Unix was first designed by engineers at AT&T’s Bell Labs in the 1970s as a more efficient way to keep a computer running smoothly without the jams caused by processes from several users conflicting with each other. Once it was rewritten in C, a high-level programming language, it could be installed on any machine with the capacity to run it. Unix was designed from the git-go to be  multi-tasking and multi-user, with users and the processes they’re running sharing the CPU’s time in an intricate nanosecond-by-nanosecond dance managed by the kernel. According to Wikipedia, perhaps the most visible symbol of the kind of digital cooperation Kevin Kelly talks about in his essay:

“Unix systems are characterized by various concepts: the use of plain text for storing data; a hierarchical file system; treating devices and certain types of inter-process communication (IPC) as files; and the use of a large number of software tools, small programs that can be strung together through a command line interpreter using pipes, as opposed to using a single monolithic program that includes all of the same functionality. These concepts are known as the Unix philosophy.”

To paraphrase: in classic Unix everything is treated as a file, software apps and utilities are small modules that can be easily moved around and connected so that the output of one becomes the input of another, and the files are arranged in a tree structure that allows data to move in all directions between them. The shell is easy to learn (even I could do it!) and almost as easy to modify. As a result, files can be traded easily between users and, if they’re software, just added to the tool-belt on that machine or in that version of the system. Every multi-user Unix system, like the ones at UC Berkeley I learned on, functioned as a local network that its users could in principle modify at will. When I built my klugey little class projects, I could borrow chunks of useful code from other people in the system or from other tools that were already stored there, in the same way as I might borrow some flour from a neighbor or a socket set from a tool library.

Because of the way files were organized, Unix was made to order also for the then-baby internet. That further meant Unix was made to order for open communication, individual creativity, and collaborative work, whether in real time or serially. For this reason it became hugely popular in academic and scientific-technical environments, where these qualities were highly valued. So right at the start of modern computing, there was a lot of implicit “socialism” built into the core concepts and structures.


The Birth of the Internet: An ARPANET Network Map, 1977

Enter the PC and Bill Gates. (Steve Jobs was already there with the Apple II, used mainly in elementary school classrooms.) All of a sudden the computer, for most users, went individual and private. To communicate locally, PCs had to be strung together in often miserably complicated and ornery hardwired networks requiring intermediary devices  to manage the traffic. But because of Microsoft’s admittedly brilliant decision to license MS-DOS to software developers and hardware manufacturers, combined with the cutthroat business maneuvers for which they became infamous, the company was able to dominate this exploding market.

Through the 1990s, computing power and the complexity of data files (like photos or large formatted docs) outpaced internet bandwidth and file-compression techniques. (Email itself, in the form of vanilla text messages, stayed pretty fast, and its use spread fast too.) This lag was partly because Microsoft, despite their virtual lock on home and business computing, couldn’t at first see a way to make money from the brand-new World Wide Web, and nor could the rapidly merging and mutating telecom companies who managed the phone lines. (Those of my readers online then will recall the endless yawn times as downloading images formed pixel by laborious pixel on the screen.) But as the Web grew along with the internet, as modems got faster, as DSL and finally cable broadband were developed—and, of course, as the computers themselves became more and more powerful—the new collaborative possibilities Kelly talks about finally emerged. The question is, though: on what sort of foundation does this virtual people’s democracy rest?

3D Map of WWW

A 3-D map of the World Wide Web

Dirt Behind the Digital Daydream: The Hardware Problem


Back when I was first working as a writer and editor for tech companies, I used to hear a joke: “Q: How many programmers does it take to change a light-bulb? A: None—that’s a hardware problem.” It strikes me that there is a huge “hardware problem” for Kevin Kelly’s software socialism, to which he rather startlingly never alludes. It’s this. All the infrastructure that supports the sharing and cooperation and collaboration and collectivism he’s so thrilled by is controlled and manufactured and maintained by very nonsocialist, very profit-oriented capitalist corporations. A large percentage of chip manufacture had already migrated to Malaysia, Mexico, and other low-wage areas by the mid-1980s. Most computer hardware is now also built in such places. As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts it:

“Globalization has become a major factor in the electronics manufacturing industry, often making it difficult to distinguish between American and foreign companies. Many American companies are opening plants and development centers overseas and overseas companies are doing the same in the U.S. Many products are being designed in one country, manufactured in another, and assembled in a third. The U.S. electronics industry tends to be focused on high-end products, such as computers and microchips. Even so, many components of final products manufactured in the U.S. are produced elsewhere and shipped to an American plant for final assembly.”

chip factory 3

A computer components  factory,Taiwan

A further disturbing trend is the outsourcing of actual production to “contract manufacturers” on the model of the clothing and footwear giants like Nike and the Gap. As described by Naomi Klein in her seminal 1999 study No Logo, these manufacturers typically operate in so-called free-trade zones where even the weak (and weakly enforced) local environmental and worker safety laws are completely suspended, and where workers are terrorized and sometimes murdered if they attempt to organize for basic rights. (The Philippines is particularly egregious in this regard.) The U.S.-based parent company, faced with charges of this kind, can then do as Nike CEO Phil Knight did in 1998—admit that it’s “not perfect” but claim that whatever abuses have occurred in the factories of the vicious cockroach capitalists it contracts with are being looked into and that it will work to improve conditions. In other words, the old Pontius Pilate antibacterial hand-wash.

cip factory taiwan

But it’s all so clean! Masks and gloves protect the chips from the people…

Case in point: Dell, until recently the colossus of Microsoft-platform PC manufacturing, plans to sell all its factories to contract manufacturers so as to cut costs. Dell management understands perfectly well that the way those costs will be cut is out of the health, wealth, and physical and emotional lives of the workers who will build its machines in these silicon sweatshops. Hewlett Packard, which twenty years ago prided itself in its paternalistic care for its workers, has now outsourced almost everything but design and branding to offshore contractors, mostly in India. Even coding itself is being moved offshore. The outsourcing movement in IT has actually (and rather notoriously) become a kind of irrational compulsion, apparently because the American corporate class has developed a reflexive loathing for American workers. Recently I wrote some user guides a company that makes educational software—that is, software that is mostly English-language text. They had outsourced their quality assurance to a subcontractor in Mumbai—that is, to non-native speakers of English. Go figure.


The Key Question: The Cover of Processed World #1

It gets much worse. Ever wonder what happens to your old PC or laptop when you leave it out for the bulky waste pickup or trade it in for a newer one? E-waste, as it’s called, is now the fastest growing component of municipal trash streams. In the United States, Dell among other companies is using prisoners to “recycle” (dismantle and/or crush to extract minerals) old PCs and related hardware under extremely unsafe conditions, in which they inhale toxics like lead and chlorine compounds and are subject to injuries from flying glass. Similar operations are being run by subcontractors in Asia and the Caribbean with if anything even fewer health and safety protections for workers.


Women prisoners in Texas used as slave labor to break down computers

And worse still. Many of the minerals needed for chip and component production are being quietly obtained from war zones in Africa. Forget “blood diamonds” from the Congo—how about mass-rape tantalum for your PC or cell phone from the very same pit of hell? Activists are now pressuring hardware manufacturers to stop using tantalum, gold, tin, and tungsten from such places. But the more computer hardware firms outsource production to subcontractors in unaccountable places, the harder it is to control the supply chain and assure that “conflict minerals” are not being used. The point is, open-source creators have no control over the physical apparatus that underlies their collaboration. And that has further implications.

Collaboration for What?

The great nineteenth-century radical German poet Heinrich Heine once wrote a poem about workers in a cannon factory. Highly organized and highly skilled, the workers pride themselves on the superb quality of the weapons they manufacture. But crisis comes, and popular revolt follows. The cannon-makers, their families close to starvation, join their brothers and sisters in a strike and uprising. They are mowed down by the very same excellent cannons they built for the army of the State.

barricades 1848

Barricades erected by rebel workers, Berlin, 1848

This strikes me as a fine allegory for the situation of the open-source movement. Agile corporations are co-opting and privatizing much of the new commons as quickly as it emerges. For instance, open-source Apache servers and Eclipse development software are being used to power proprietary “business enterprise solutions” used by predatory medical insurance and financial service conglomerates of the kind now bitterly resisting any reform with a howling white-out of lobbyist dollars and manipulated astroturf protests. Capitalism is subverting the open-sourcers, and with very little effective organizing by the latter. This subversion and cooptation, together with the upward redistribution of income via the tax structure and downward pressure on the pay of almost entirely unorganized employees, has another devastating consequence: the “time famine” that has affected Americans so severely and is spreading throughout the First World as the historic gains of the old working-class movement are rolled back.

Corporate capital has organized the technology cycle into a messy but highly profitable swirl of rapid obsolescence, backward incompatibility, competing protocols and operating systems and data warehousing—as well as the premature releases of buggy software that require a huge and unnecessary IT service-support infrastructure. Like the private for-profit heath-care sector and the industrial food sector it serves, the tech sector is increasingly parasitic, selling band-aid solutions (expensive meds and procedures, dietary supplements and “healthy” junk foods) to the very problems it creates.

Indian Tech Support

A little comment on the outsourcing of tech support

The result is that white-collar and in particular tech work expands mercilessly, compelling two-plus-income households where one income served before, putting workers on a hypertrack with less time for everything, including making real-world social change—or creating open-source software. The Great Recession has crucially, if at great financial and human cost,  paused the hypertrack for many. But the hypertrack is still in place, with open-sourcers in the short term posing at best a symbolic challenge to corporate domination because they’re not organized as a conscious “class”—either for themselves or for the rest of us.

That said, I understand Kelly’s argument about the implicit socialism of the digital commons. Ironically, it’s the same argument Marx made 150 years ago about the classical industrial proletariat—that socialism would come naturally and intuitively to them because of the way they were “organized, disciplined, and united by the process of production itself.” Marx was not altogether wrong on this, by any means. But he failed to allow for the way that workers’ experience outside work could counteract the cooperative impulse generated by the experience of collective labor and the need for solidarity on the job. Despite the fact that hundreds of millions of workers became socialist in just the ways he said they would, the experience of pseudo-middle-class consumption of the very products they manufactured, combined with the systematic breakup of industrial communities before and after World War II, undermined the “proletarian experience” and the resulting sense of solidarity and a shared communal future.

To what extent will the open-source collaboration experience and the other forms of digital sharing and cooperation Kelly cites be able to counteract the relentless privatizing pressures of both the economic system and the ruling ideology? And how will these nascent communities grow beyond the relatively small and limited sectors they currently occupy?


Workers’ playtime: Sit-down strike and occupation, Flint, MI, 1937

E-Socialism and the Real “Third Way”: The Movement from Below

Kelly’s nascent e-socialism is a bit like fifth-century BCE Athens, the “birthplace of democracy.” Only male citizens could participate in the democracy—not the women and slaves on whose unpaid labor the city-state depended. And where did their democracy lead them, in the end, without a conscious mission of enlarging the demos—beginning with the freeing of the slaves and the inclusion of women as full citizens? To tyranny, and then to oblivion. Skilled First-World programmers and engineers stand in a similar relation to the millions of low-paid, ill-treated workers in the mines and chip factories and assembly plants and e-cycling centers as did the propertied male citizens of Athens to the women and slaves. These workers mostly don’t have access to broadband internet and have not been invited to the digital socialist party. Nor have the offshore engineers, coders, and call-center customer service workers, even though they are on the net in rapidly increasing numbers. They’re less concerned with file sharing, let alone tagging and Digging and Tweeting, than with making sure they keep a roof over their heads and food on the table for another week, another day, maybe scrambling a rung or two up the social ladder and gaining a little security even as their traditional communal ties and lifeways are obliterated by the corporate juggernaut. All in all, as the planetary population approaches 7 billion, of whom about 27% are 15 and under, current estimates show that only 1 billion are connected to the internet—about 14%. So where’s socialism, digital or otherwise, for the other 6/7 of humanity?


This brings me to Kelly’s straw-man version of “old socialism.”  Throughout, Kelly defines “socialism” basically as Stalinism:

“The type of communism with which Gates hoped to tar the creators of Linux was born in an era of enforced borders, centralized communications, and top-heavy industrial processes. Those constraints gave rise to a type of collective ownership that replaced the brilliant chaos of a free market with scientific five-year plans devised by an all-powerful politburo. This political operating system failed, to put it mildly. However, unlike those older strains of red-flag socialism, the new socialism runs over a borderless Internet, through a tightly integrated global economy. It is designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization. It is decentralization extreme.

“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.”

Oooh, how cool! No dirty factories, picks or shovels. No dirt, period! Only if you forget about the inconvenient issue of infrastructure, though… (And does one sense here that traditional and unquestioned white-collar disdain for blue-collar sweat and grime?) Kelly even sets it up as paired oppositions in a neat little table: KK socialisms table But this binary opposition misses an entire history, from the Paris Commune of 1871, by way the original workers’ councils and factory committees of Russia. Italy, and Germany 1918-21, of the Seattle General Strike of 1919, of the industrial and farm collectives of the Spanish Revolution 1936-7, of the unemployed councils and workplace occupations in the U.S. Midwest 1934-7, of the cordones industriales in Chile 1972-3, to the “horizontalist” cooperative workplace takeovers and distribution networks in Argentina following the collapse of the peso in 2004… and of countless other smaller-scale phenomena of the same kind throughout the history of capitalism.

miltia_lorry 1937

Armed anarchist workers, Spain, 1937

In short, Kelly leaves out the history of self-organized, directly democratic socialism “from below”—the only real kind. This movement, not the dictatorial state-capitalism of the former USSR and its satellites or of China pre-“liberalization,” is the power that, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, is the “specter” that “all the powers of the Old World” have united to hunt down and destroy. And not coincidentally, this real, free-cooperative socialism, begun again and again only to be crushed or co-opted, bears a far closer resemblance to Kelly’s digital commons than it does to the totalitarian monstrosities of a now almost defunct Stalinism. Intuitively, crude historical comparisons notwithstanding, Kelly seems to have a strong intuitive sense of what the deep “operating system” (as he would call it) of socialism is: the realized understanding that sharing and cooperation enlarge individual possibility rather than limit it.


Still, as Kelly acknowledges, most of the participants in his nascent e-socialism are not—yet, anyway—very socialistically minded. Twitterers, YouTubers, and other content sharers are (on the evidence) mostly thinking about the coolness of whatever they’re posting or tagging. A lot of open-source coders are hoping to sharpen their skills enough through the unpaid work to be able to design the “killer app” that will propel them via startup to sellout and wealthy retirement. Yet as I noted, in an oddly Marxian way, Kelly’s final paragraph holds out hope that digital-socialist existence is starting to determine user consciousness and further a cooperative, socially concerned mindset.

Is this possible? It’s true that digital socialism à la Kelly manifests, at least to a point, Marx’s description of the economic basis of a socialist society: the “free association of producers.” It’s also true that left-liberal, cooperativist, environmentalist, feminist, and even ecosocialist groups and networks have formed on the web and to some extent have, as Kelly suggests, helped push “the public conversation” in a more progressive (or at any rate less market-uber-alles) direction. And some of them, like MoveOn, are now very large. But they’re nowhere near as large as the hordes of people posting jokes, curiosities, pretty images, or entertainment to YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook among other “sharing” sites.


On the up side it’s worth remembering that most of these tools and communities have been around for less than five years, and that they have by any reasonable estimate already had a huge impact on cultural, social, and political life in the U.S., the EU, and the more developed nations in Asia and Latin America. How much more impact can they have until internet access becomes considerably more widespread in the “developing” world than it is now?

We have an example to look at. The role of social networks and file-sharing in the recent post-election uprising in Iran has been widely noted, along with the use of cell-phone cams to record and instantly upload images and footage of the protests and government repression in real time. But as the repressive apparatus of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) got a handle on this process and shut down much of the internet and cell phone system, it proceeded with its now familiar savagery to brutalize, arrest, torture, rape, imprison, and murder the rebels. The original educated middle-class urban core of the revolt is largely silenced for the time being. The active opposition to the regime, still growing and flexing its collective muscles, is now from the increasingly infuriated and desperate Iranian industrial working class, as strikes and solidarity actions proliferate in defiance of the IRI’s state-controlled unions.


Tehran, 2009: Each red circle indicates a cell phone or digital camera

These actions are for the most part invisible on the Web, because the people carrying them out can barely afford enough food for their children, let alone an internet connection. Yet it is they who, by virtue of their position in the economy, have the power to bring the IRI to its knees—just as they did in 1979 with the Shah. This time, though, they are likely to reject any leadership that does not emanate from their own ranks and does not address concretely their actual conditions and the question of who controls production and distribution. I look forward to hearing a Farsi version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” sung by workers as they occupy their workplaces and as a new round of mass demonstrations causes the collapse of the Army and the police.

New Socialism IRL: For an Open-Source Global Society

Chatroom users, as one of the textspeak subcultures, have evolved a bunch of acronyms. One frequently encountered is “irl”—short for “in real life.” As in, Vampire_Princess confesses to Shadowcat that irl she is a Christian marketing consultant, and Shadowcat reciprocates by admitting that irl he is an engineering student living with his parents. In real life we are facing an ongoing ecological and economic crisis of epic proportions. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that to use Kelly’s term, our global “operating system”—which he would no doubt label democratic capitalism and I would call quasi-democratic corporate oligarchy—is failing.


Iranian tire workers on strike, 2009

We could argue for a long time about the reasons for this, but it does seem clear that the market as the main feedback mechanism for the allocation of resources keeps crashing more and more violently, and that it has failed to measure the real environmental and human costs of economic activity. One can point to contingent causes, like the accelerating deregulation and globalization of finance capital since the “Big Bang” of 1989. The result of this deregulation was that far bigger profit margins were available in financial speculation than in material production. This caused two rapidly increasing migrations: of capital into the financial markets, and of industry of all kinds into low-wage, low-regulation zones around the world. For the human and natural environments alike, the consequences have been catastrophic. The current OS for global human cooperation in producing and distributing the means of life in a sustainable and equitable way is now inadequate to the “networks” it is trying to run.

Circa 1974, well before computerization had begun to take hold, I was shown a portable modem for the first time. It filled one third of a medium-sized aluminum suitcase, the other two thirds of which contained a keyboard and a dot-matrix tractor printer. The nerd prince who brought it to my commie-collective house then plugged it in, placed the handset of my phone into the built-in cradle, dialed up, and once he got through to the computer on which he had an account, proceeded to access, download, and print out for me and my friends a whole lot of data about the census tract we were living in.


A very early modem: note the phone handset in the cradle

Wow! Cue the Richard Strauss “Zarathustra theme” from 2001. But this wasn’t just the techno-rapture of a flung bone morphing into a spaceship. All of a sudden we young libertarian socialists saw the possibility of replacing markets as a feedback mechanism for democratic economic management. We already understood (sorry, Kevin) that centralized state planning not only led to tyranny but was a failure on its own terms, because the planners could never collect, sort, and evaluate all the data needed fast or comprehensively enough to respond to consumer demand or cope with bottlenecks in production and supply chains. This was because the product mix (output from one production process becoming the input for others, in what’s called a Leontief matrix) was already too complex even in the sparse economies of the USSR or China—let alone a really complex, fully developed one like that of the U.S. At the same time, faced with the “Energy Crisis” caused by the need to vacuum up a huge new pool of capital via raised oil prices and the petrodollar, we understood that markets, inherently unjust, were also becoming inadequate, despotic, and destructive.

Leontief matrixA Leontief Matrix

Our response was the notion of “omnicentral” planning, whereby producer cooperatives would get real-time, continual feedback and evaluation on both the quantity and quality of products, and in which flexible distribution and supply networks would “packet” goods around bottlenecks in a way analogous to the functioning of the internet itself. Not only that, but networked computers everywhere would make possible a horizontal global democracy based on local face-to-face assemblies in workplaces and neighborhoods, of exactly the kind that develop spontaneously when the capitalist OS crashes, as recently in Argentina in 2004. We could dispense with money and markets altogether—not to mention national frontiers, which today only halt the movement of ordinary people, while capital flows blithely over them as if they didn’t exist. National borders are as obsolete as the Great Wall of China, and so, really, are national governments. And, with the grow-or-die imperative that’s in capitalism’s DNA gone along with the need to protect existing investment, the global commons could shift out of unsustainable technologies and consumption patterns much more rapidly and fully while assuring that everyone got a decent life with a lot less work. Here’s my expanded and revised version of Kelly’s cute little table of socialisms:

AC socialisms table

But how to get there from here? I said above that the workers who mine, manufacture, and maintain the physical infrastructure of the wired world—as well as, increasingly, the low-level coders and customer service reps who keep the data and the revenue flowing—have not been invited to Kelly’s digital socialist party. That doesn’t mean they won’t crash it, though. As more low- and medium-level software and services functions are offshored, these digital infrastructure workers in developing countries gain more access to the net. The example of Iran is dramatic but far from unique. Already, in China for example, the environmental movement is all over it—reporting, sharing ideas, criticizing, albeit in that “apolitical” and supremely nuanced yet effective way that the “Communist” bureaucracy makes necessary with the deliberate vagueness of its restrictions on speech. The “popular sectors” in Latin America are also e-networking transnationally in the context of left-leaning governments that are resisting the continuing neoliberal pressures from the United States. And so on.

You can be sure that as this movement gets bolder in Iran and elsewhere, the Western media will suddenly find reasons to side with the IRI or whatever other previously much-criticized regime is being challenged by a widespread refusal to perform the activities that reproduce capitalism, aka a mass strike. Unlike Kevin Kelly, the transnational corporate elite understands very well who its real enemies are, and as always, apparently opposed factions—including the Chinese “Communist” Party—will unite to hunt down the specter of real communism yet again, if they can. But as such movements spread and circulate ideas, tactics, and entire forms of struggle via the internet, they will become harder and harder to stop. The aforementioned Chinese apparatus is doing its best, with the tacit support of global-reach ISPs like Google and Yahoo, to develop sophisticated means of automated information control in response to the growing and real threat of real digital democracy. I anticipate an intensifying information arms race between democratic and new-socialist forces and the corporate class, which today can no more do without a largely open internet than it can do without telephones, highways, railroads, or air and sea freight.


West Coast longshore workers demonstrate against the Bush regime, 2002

As no less a defender of the status quo than Rahm Emanuel has remarked: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” The opportunities for nudging the creativity and collective effort of the decentralized electronic sharing and collaboration Kelly rhapsodizes about toward real transformation and shared purpose have never been greater, and the crisis to which we need to respond has never been more serious. It’s time to bring the digital commons down to earth and create a planetwide open-source society.


August 2009

Oakland, California

2 Responses to “How Many Digital Socialists Does It Take to Change A Light-Bulb? A Response to Kevin Kelly’s “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society is Coming Online””

  1. 1 rick
    May 28, 2011 at 5:08 am

    The words used in this article are articulate and show the author to highly educated. I often wonder after reading articles such as yours; how is it after spending so much time in the class room, so little time paying attention to history. Havent there been enough attempts at socialism/communism communities and governments to show that it simply does not work. The true spirit of freedom is expressed through our indivdual abilities and acheivments. So you can write a hate article. good for you little boy without a job. trying to prove to everyone the reason I can’t find a job is because of the capitolist burden. NO its because you are lazy and uncreative. you are an irresponsible little twit probably still lives at home with your socialist parent relationship. go get a job get married and haves some kids then talk to me about real world stuff. The world has not and will not work the way you envision because no matter what your cute little pictures and charts depict, you will always have your non logrythmic approach to man interacting with man…captitolism thogh not perfect is the best it will ever be.

    • 2 adamfcornford
      July 11, 2012 at 8:17 am

      If you actually read my posts, you’ll see I pay a great deal of attention to history–and I know it better than you, I dare say. You also paid no attention to my bio, because if you had, you’ll know I have been and am again married, have raised a son (and put him through college) and have had several careers.

      I have no idea how old you are, but in the economy since 2007, finding in-house “w-4″ jobs when you’re over sixty is virtually impossible, at least in my field, college teaching. I’m now successfully self-employed, but building a business takes time.

      “You will always have your non logrythmic approach to man interacting with man…captitolism thogh not perfect is the best it will ever be.”

      Besides the fact that you can’t spell “capitalism” or “logarithmic,” there are so many things wrong with this statement I hardly know where to begin. You need only look at what capitalism is doing to the planet to see that your position is an affirmation of despair.

      None so blind as he who will not see, none so bound as he who thinks he’s free.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: