Thursday, July 2, 2009

How to Redesign our Communities for the Internet Age

Edward Miller is guest blogging this month.

There is a long list of crises that we need to face and I wont waste time boring you by listing them. As our brightest minds admit they were wrong, I hope that I can say, without qualification, that big changes in our thinking are required. Unfortunately, we haven't made that "Change" even though we now have some new faces in power, and a bunch of old faces out of business or in prison.

There is still an unquestioned belief in the need for major public transportation projects, global supply chains, large scale social programs, and economies of scale. These have become so integral to our way of life, that they are hardly ever questioned. Granted, Wal-Mart is often used as a public target for venting our frustrations at these things, but virtually all business nowadays is conducted using global supply chains, economies of scale, and so forth. Thus, our political discourse usually revolves around ways to prop up these very systems, since these are the only ones we know. We believe we require trillions in "infrastructure" funding. We believe that we must "create jobs." We believe we must become "competitive" in the international marketplace. All of these assumptions are echoed in academia, merely using fancy jargon as a substitute for insight.

Let me first say that I accept the logic of comparative advantage and economies of scale as it applies to the capitalist mode of production, and it can truly be the most "efficient" allocation of resources in a quantitative sense, though not always. Yet, as Peter Drucker once said, there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. I do not accept that the inevitable centralization of power from this sort of production is a good thing. Centralized powers are able to create artificial scarcities, in order to inflate profits at the expense of everyone else. This invariably requires things like corporatism, regulatory capture, secrecy, and rent seeking.

None of these things are very amenable to true progress, which requires openness, peer review, constructive criticism, and creativity. The types of innovations that occur under these centralized systems, even if they take on a bourgeois bohemian quality and aren't bland and soul-crushing, are incredibly stifling of progress. Open standards are shucked in favor of closed proprietary ones whenever a corporation can get away with it. Parts are never interchangeable. The production processes are so far removed from our daily lives that we have no idea about the processes involved in the creation of the product, and indeed breaking open the gizmo more likely than not voids the warranty.... though I'm not sure you'd even want to open it up considering the high density of toxic crap trapped inside.

All of this has had corrosive effects on our culture, as well as our environment. Our hyper-consumerist culture encourages us to get the latest and greatest stuff. We follow a sequence of fads specialized to our exact niche market (hipster, redneck, emo, rock, punk, goth, anime, whatever). We indulge in enormous quantities of unsustainable, non-renewable, and disposable products. Even more discouragingly, many companies use engineered obsolescence to artificially increase output at the expense of the environment.

We are now lamenting the fact that none of us have a clue about what it actually takes to produce tangible, concrete things which improve our lives. We are too busy answering phones, producing ad campaigns, and writing paperwork. Thus, instead of becoming active participants in the production of our culture and economy, or even informed consumers, we have become totally and completely dependent upon forces far beyond our control. As the market swings out of control, so do our jobs, our homes, and our very lives.

Yet, a revolution has occurred right under our noses whose effects have yet to be fully explored, and most of us are completely unaware. Digital communications technologies, especially the Internet, have enabled new modes of production and organization, such as Open Source and P2P, which have never before been possible. If we can learn to harness the power of these systems, we can escape the path our current world is on where each labor-saving device seems only to cause us to work longer hours. Where social programs seem only to foster dependence. Instead of innovating in accordance with the logic of centralized power and artificial scarcity, we can innovate in accordance with human needs and wants.

We can collaboratively build all the necessary life support systems needed, but have it be on a self-contained and local scale. It cannot be known whether the shape this takes will favor truly scale invariant systems, like the hyper-local RepRap project which is allowing production right in your living room, or whether it ends up fostering a new urbanism where production takes place in vertical farms, factories, and community hackerspaces. Talk about vertical integration! It also cannot be known how it will reshape our communities, since each community would be redesigned in a participatory fashion by the members of the community itself. Some may opt for small scale pedestrian-friendly towns in harmony with nature, while others may opt for sustainable urban metropolises, and others may ditch both for self-sufficient mobile homes and yachts.

In each of these cases, the means of production will likely have been placed in the hands of individuals, and drudgery will be automated away much like how open source software projects collaboratively eliminate bugs and expose flaws in wiki articles. Considering all of this, it may be useful to begin talking again about incentivizing local production. "Import substitution," has long been a naughty word among economists. It is the process of breaking free of foreign dependence by incentivizing local production. Usually via tariffs and other measures. However, this would be a misguided way of going about this.

We don't need to incentivize local production of just any type. We need to incentivize open and collaborative production. For example, creating prizes for contributing to the Commons. In 2007 there was a proposed bill called the Medical Innovation Prize Act which sought to incentivize patent-less medical inventions. If only it was this sort of mentality that guided us for the past few decades, then we wouldn't have ever had such a monstrosity of a healthcare system. The same mentality could guide any industry. A useful exercise would be to think how it could guide the industry you are currently involved in.

Finally, the creation of new local credit systems could also incentivize collaborative local production. There are lots of new concepts along these lines. I also suggest you check out some of my previous work on this topic. It is this sort of thinking which is required for a peaceful transition to a new era for our civilization. It will allow us to become resilient to the converging threats which face us from ecological destruction to market failure to terrorism. Global supply chains have shown themselves to be exceedingly vulnerable to these shocks. I hope we can overcome these by localizing production by utilizing global knowledge sharing so we can all enjoy the type of future some of the previous guest bloggers have been talking about.

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