Web 2.0: New Socialism?


CAUTION: Very Wonky Blog Post. . . .

I’ve been monitoring the postings on the White House’s Open Government Brainstorming initiative since it was launched this past Thursday.  I’ve marveled at the three-part process that’s been proposed to help draft President Obama’s promised directive to agencies on how they are to implement his principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration.  His staff says that the brainstorm effort is phase I, of three phases, to be followed by dialogue on key themes identified in the brainstorming as phase II, and that phase III will be a wiki effort to draft the outline of the directive itself.  This approach to policy development for a major White House initiative is unheard of, and will be a closely-watched experiment in democracy at work.

What do Web 2.0 efforts like this potentially portend for how government will work over the course of the Obama administration?  Well, a friend, Norm MacDonald, flagged a fascinating article by WIRED’s Kevin Kelly that might serve as a pointer.  Kelly, who always seems to have a good handle on the future, provocatively calles his article “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society is Coming Online.”  He acknowledges that the term “socialist” is oftentimes seen as inflammatory cultural baggage, but he quickly notes that he’s not referring to “socialism” as an ideology but rather:

“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.”

Socialist Web 2.0. Kelly also seems to describe the new “socialist” or “collective” Web 2.0 environment with some accuracy, noting that:

“. . . 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.”

Socialist Characteristics. Kelly’s article characterizes the new online phenomena as having four “socialist” characteristics:

  • Sharing, such as the 6 billion YouTube videos posted and viewed each month in the US alone!
  • Casual Cooperation, such as the 3 billion photos on Flickr.
  • Organized Collaboration, such as Wikipedia and other similar efforts that produce a communal style of production and keeps ownership in the hands of the workers.
  • And Collectivism, which Kelly quickly notes, differs from cooperation:

“While cooperation can write an encyclopedia, no one is held responsible if the community fails to reach consensus, and lack of agreement doesn’t endanger the enterprise as a whole. The aim of a collective, however, is to engineer a system where self-directed peers take responsibility for critical processes and where difficult decisions, such as sorting out priorities, are decided by all participants.”

He says this has strong implications for how you develop governance structures.  This governance structure challenges lies at the heart of how the Obama Administration seems to be experimenting with different approaches toward its Open Government initiative.

Kelly talks about how these “socialist” characteristics are evolving in the West, via the Third Way movement.  He talks about the characteristics as the new Operating System that Yochai Benkler (author of The Wealth of Networks) sees as “the emergence of social production and peer production as an alternative to both state-based and market-based closed, proprietary systems.”

Kelly compares the emergence of this new Web 2.0 version of socialism with a:

“similar thing [that] happened with free markets 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. “

The article is an eye-opener in understand the broader context of how politicians and citizens seem to be approaching both society and government these days.  You can read it here.


2 Responses to “Web 2.0: New Socialism?”

  1. Norman M. Macdonald Says:

    John, my last name is spelled Macdonald not McDonald. Your write up is 4.0 -on the mark. The spelling of my last name was settled in the family by going to my great grandfather’s tombstone – he oversaw except for the final date. The man could preach for hours in English or Gaelic.

  2. John Kamensky Says:

    Sorry, Norm. I fixed it!

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