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Archive for 'Cognitive Capitalism'

The Real Question of the Referendum: The Enclosure of the Greek Commons

photo of Vasilis Kostakis

Vasilis Kostakis
4th July 2015


Hand

Being a typical academic, allow me to begin with a definition: the commons is a term used to describe shared resources (such as land, water, air, culture, science, infrastructures) in which each stakeholder has an equal interest.

The devastating enclosures of the English commons, between 16th and 19th centuries, has been labeled as the “revolution of the rich against the poor” by the eminent political economist Karl Polanyi. They forced peasants into the labor market and the factories of the industrial revolution and “marked the beginning of a worldwide process of commodifying the land, ocean, and atmosphere of the earth”.

So, what is the relevance of the loss of the English commons with the imminent Greek referendum?

Much discussion has been taking place around the meaning of a question posed in a relatively technical language. To put the matter bluntly, I would like to argue that the real question of the referendum is whether Greek citizens approve or disprove the enclosure of their commons. The proposed changes in the pension, taxing, labour and insurance systems are supposedly aimed at ensuring that Greece can service its foreign debt. However, these are not the biggest perils although they fill most of the pages of the notorious document the Greeks are called to approve or disprove.

In short, on page 17, the creditors suggest that Greece irreversibly privatizes its airports, harbors, railways, water supply and sewerage companies, energy infrastructures and public power corporations, motorways, post offices, thermal springs, cultural treasures and other properties (seaside land, marinas etc). These are assets which we have inherited or jointly created and, instead of delivering them intact or even enhanced to the next generations, we are called, under the pressure of an economic collapse, to sell them off to the rich. In addition, no hybrid forms of public-private partnership are explicitly mentioned (for instance, OTE, a profitable telecommunication public-private corporation, is to be entirely privatized).

Conditions in Greece today are not only reminiscent of those in Germany in 1933, as Prof. Sachs writes, but also of those in 16th-19th century England and Wales. Another revolution of the ultra-rich is taking place and the endgame playing out between Greece and its creditors might be only the beginning of a new global wave of enclosures.

Crisis


Vasilis Kostakis is Senior Research Fellow at the Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance (TUT), longtime collaborator of the P2P Foundation, and member of the CommonsTransition Team.

Images: (Top) (Bottom) by OpenSource.com

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Posted in Activism, Anti-P2P, Cognitive Capitalism, Commons, Commons Transition, Economy and Business, Empire, Original Content, P2P Rights, Politics | No Comments »

OuiShare Fest Finds Itself While Lost in Transition

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
14th June 2015


Ouife_n

Originally published in Shareable, Neal Gorenflo shares his impressions of OuiShare Fest 2015


The third annual OuiShare Fest, hosted with the theme “Lost in Transition” in Paris’ charming Cabaret Sauvage, concluded last Friday. This unique gathering of sharing economy leaders from around the world found itself in at least two ways with their latest edition.

First, the theme brought the elephant in everybody’s room to the fore – the gaping contradiction between the utopian possibilities and the hyper-capitalist realities of the sharing economy. The key dilemma that OuiShare Fest underscored is that while leading platforms like Airbnb and Uber help users create value on an unprecedented scale, they do not share ownership and governance with users and could in fact exacerbate already severe inequalities. OuiShare Fest’s programming, which is largely crowdsourced, reflected a widely held belief that platforms should share ownership and governance with those most responsible for their success — users.

Instead of withering from this heat of this contradiction, the organizers held it. A remarkable number of sessions focused or touched on this contradiction (Ann Marie of Goteo blogged this contradiction in detail). While there were sessions that featured sharp criticism of the sharing economy, most sessions explored solutions to the contradiction, like using the blockchain to share ownership and governance with millions of users.

In fact, Nick Grossman’s keynote, “Venture Capital vs. Community Capital,” was OuiShare Fest in a nutshell. He elegantly articulated the contradiction and put forward the blockchain as a key solution. As Nathan Schneider pointed out last December in his Shareable feature story, “Owning is the New Sharing,” criticism of the sharing economy has catalyzed a counter-movement to create democratic sharing economy platforms. With Nick’s help, the blockchain had its coming out party at OuiShare Fest as the people-power solution to the sharing economy’s contradictions. Everybody was talking about the blockchain from keynotes to side conversations.

Whether or not the blockchain will live up to these expectations is another question. I have my doubts as it doesn’t build durable social relations necessary for communities to go on a new, long-term commons-based developmental path. Blockchain platforms are thin, and so are the social ties. There are no shortcuts, technological or otherwise, to social change. Social change is social, and social takes time. But there’s hope, as Swarm shared its recently released Distributed Collaborative Organization at the fest, a format that combines blockchain and human management of enterprises.

The second way OuiShare Fest found itself is that it seems all grown up in its third year. Things ran more smoothly, it was amply staffed with volunteers, it had all the trimmings of a professionally run conference, yet its organization reflected OuiShare’s values. With OuiShare Fest, OuiShare the organization talks the collaboration talk and walks the collaboration walk, a rare accomplishment. The fest is run in a largely decentralized fashion.

That said, I did come away with the impression that OuiShare Fest’s format and audience may be mismatched. As CrowdCompanies’ founder Jeremiah Owyang commented on Facebook, OuiShare Fest is a community of insiders, meaning it convenes the actors within the sharing economy, not the general public. To mature further, OuiShare Fest may need to create a better balance between keynotes and collaboration. FAB10, the gathering of FabLab leaders, might be a model to emulate. It’s really two events — a symposium for insiders and a festival for the public.

This model would make more sense for us at Shareable. As someone who reads about the sharing economy nearly every day, I didn’t learn much from the formal programming. It would have been great for newbies, however. OuiShare Fest would be more useful to us as an opportunity to convene stakeholders in the Sharing Cities Network. While I was delighted to give an update to a packed house on sharing cities with Nils Roemen of Sharing City Nijmegen and Harmen van Sprung of Sharing City Amersterdam, the three of us would have preferred to use this rare time together to push our work forward. I heard similar things from other attendees.

Thankfully, none of this diluted the best part of OuiShare Fest, the community spirit that brings out the best in attendees. Simone Cicero of Sharitories described the OuiShare Fest as “TED hugs Burning Man.” Like Burning Man, the fest gives attendees the opportunity to try on a new way to be in the world and relate to others.

As such, I had many encounters that exemplified the spirit of sharing, generosity, and love at OuiShare Fest. For example, on day one, Julie Da Vara and Valentine Philipponneau of JeLoueMonCampingCar, a camper van sharing platform, gave me a box of canales, Bordeaux-style cupcakes that are sinfully delicious. Johanna Steuth of Wirfel gave me a compliment card with the inscription, “For your passion for commons, communities and creating places for sharing. I like to see you there!” Ronald van den Hoff, Marielle Sijgers, and Vincent Ariens of Seats2Meet treated a bunch of us including Jen Billock of Couchsurfing and Christian Iaione of LabGov to dinner at a classic Parisian café across from the opera house. My friends Laurel and Quitterie of BioHacking Safari invited me to a lovely dinner of modern Sicilian food at DJoon. Chelsea Rustrum of It’s a Shareable Life and I livened up things at Mangopay’s party by dragging everyone onto the dance floor. Entrepreneur Daniel Goldman treated me, Tom Llewellyn, Chelsea, Benita Matofska, and her team at People Who Share to late night karaoke. And at the conference-ending OuiShare Love party, David We and I went below the surface in a conversation that revealed a similar need to connect authentically with others. It was the perfect way to end the fest – feeling totally accepted for who I am and we are, warts and all, ready to take OuiShare love out into the world.

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Posted in Activism, Cognitive Capitalism, Commons, Conferences, Culture & Ideas, Ethical Economy, Events, Guest Post, P2P Development, Sharing | No Comments »

Hacking Financial Markets For the Common Good…?

photo of Guy James

Guy James
11th June 2015


Being involved with FairCoop has piqued my interest in the direct use of finance for activist means, and reading Brett Scott’s excellent “The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money”I have become aware of various attempts to do just that. Whereas FairCoop (and the related cryptocurrency Faircoin) seek to establish a parallel financial ecosystem based around social justice and fair trade, there are other projects attempting to ‘hack’ the mainstream financial system in order to use it as a means to increase equality in the world rather than, as generally seems to be the case on looking around me, to substantially decrease it.

I recently had a sort of vision of what could be possible when I recalled seeing a timelapse video of Dubai growing out of the desert nothingness into a large city within just over a decade. This is evidently due to two things: oil and capital investment and speculation in oil. Whatever one thinks of Dubai, when looked at on the macro level this kind of growth has a miraculous quality to it, showing that there is nothing humanity cannot accomplish when we really put our minds (and our money) to it. Imagine the same kind of breakneck growth being applied to putting solar panels on roofs, switching cars to renewable energy, converting the armies of the world to disaster relief outfits, building solar desalination plants and hydroponic vertical farms, regenerating cities like Detroit which have been abandoned by traditional capitalism… yes all of this at present is ‘pie in the sky’ idealism, yet all of this is becoming more and more of a necessity.

Can it be that the power to really transform our planet lies right in the ‘belly of the beast’, in the financial system? For too long activists have turned away and self-righteously chosen to demonise this power. Any Jungian knows that when one turns away from a great dark power, it has the distinct tendency to devour one – and this is of course what is happening. We need to shine a light on the system, and as Brett Scott suggests, infiltrate it – here’s an excerpt from his book:

DAS KAPITAL LLP: GOING LONG THE REVOLUTION WITH MARX’S HEDGE FUND

In 2011 the Guardian blogger Joris Luyendijk quoted me as saying ‘Karl Marx would have made a fantastic hedge fund manager.’ It predictably caused howls of outrage in the comments section, but I never meant it in a literal sense. I was suggesting that the best hedge fund managers are characterised by a certain disruptive tendency, an ability to cut through herds of conventional investors. This is not to romanticise hedge funds, but deploying money into a situation is similar to making a statement of belief- if your money goes against the herd, it’s a bit like saying ‘up yours’ to them. There are even hedge funds that set themselves up as ‘corporate raiders’ or ‘activist funds’ that deliberately challenge company management.
[…]

Activating the Financial Drag Queens

[…]Why isn’t there an Amnesty International LLP, gradually buying up stakes in companies with poor human rights records, demanding accountability while using the dividends to fund the dissent? For many NGOs, part of the answer is lack of funds, and the rest is ideological opposition to the idea. The financial system though, like the internet, is a networked technology of power which can be used in unusual ways. If you feel authorities and large corporates are dominating the internet with patents, firewalls and intellectual property lawsuits, you don’t turn off the wireless, you get creative. Who’s to say that we can’t wear the garb of a notorious financial institution in a heretical fashion.

A friend of mine who worked for 12 years in an investment bank had an idea of starting a hedge fund that would attempt to extract money from the oil sector and redirect it to the renewable energy sector. It’s interesting in principle, but incredibly hard to execute in reality. It’s important to take these ideas with a pinch of salt. Perhaps the point of an activist hedge fund is not actually to work in a conventional sense, but rather to create publicity, to learn, and to act as a subversive ‘drag queen’ joker bending the rules. On the other hand, so few people have experimented with the idea of creating subversive hedge funds that it’s hard to know what the potential might be. The only way of finding out if the dynamics of trading can be harnessed in a positive way is to experiment boldly. There is nothing to lose … except money.

He gives some examples of existing hedge funds which go against the grain:

Well-known examples include:

  • The Children’s Investment Fund: A fund started by Chris Hohn. In 2012 it launched a campaign against Coal India’s directors, suing them for breaching fiduciary duty (aka ignoring shareholders). They have an attached charity which receives a portion of the firm’s profits.
  • Greenlight Capital: A fund run by a poker-playing manager called David Einhorn which publicly bets against firms, much to their annoyance.
  • Carl Icahn: A corporate raider famed for terrorising corporate management teams. He views himself as a predator on a mission to destroy complacent CEOs: On his website,icahnreport.com, he quotes himself as saying ‘A lot of people die fighting tyranny. The least I can do is vote against it.’
  • Dan Loeb: A hedge fund manager infamous for buying stakes in companies and then writing incendiary letters of withering scorn to the company management teams.
  • Others, such as Pirate Capital, have been less successful, but are based on similar principles. Could it be that the mindset of a hedge fund manager can be strikingly similar to that of a campaigner? Certainly, the belief systems of hedge fund managers are expressed in financial direct action, albeit mostly for their own gain. Could campaigners battle it out in this realm too, by setting up truly activist hedge funds?

Looking into these funds gives a sense of what might be possible, although as Scott notes, the main raison d’etre of most of them does seem to be to enrich themselves, albeit by going about it in an unconventional way. However it does show that the financial world is not necessarily the ‘black box’ or ‘old boys’ club’ that many activists seem to believe it to be (of course many parts of it do indeed answer to those descriptions).

The Robin Hood Minor Asset Fund has already been featured on this blog and it might be this fund which is the pioneer for a new way of interacting with financial markets for social justice. The fund is set up as a cooperative which anyone, for the modest layout of €30 to become a member plus €30 for their first share in the coop, can join. All members have voting rights and can choose to share with commons-oriented projects any dividend they receive from the activities of the cooperative on the stock markets. This is a way of directly using the power of financial markets to empower the commons.

Other more overtly activist groups have been developing interactions with the financial world, such as Platform London and their Take The Money And Run event, designed to showcase how big fossil fuel and financial corporations attempt to ‘artwash’ themselves by sponsoring galleries and other artistic events.

Can we imagine a ‘Stock Market of the Commons’ in a decade’s time? Free trade hedge funds? Scores of activist shareholders insisting that companies do the right thing by the planet and ALL its people, not just privileged elites?

“The possible has been tried, we need to try the impossible”, as the great Sun Ra used to say…

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Posted in Activism, Cognitive Capitalism, Commons, Commons Transition, Ethical Economy, P2P Money | No Comments »

Richard Stallman on “Intellectual Property”

photo of Guy James

Guy James
30th May 2015


I know Stallman is not everyone’s cup of tea but he does have a way of breaking down apparently complex issues so that they can be easily understood. And once you have read his opinions about so-called ‘Intellectual Property’, you may start to wonder how we ever came to lump together three disparate concepts under one heading (hint: it benefits large corporations):

It has become fashionable to toss copyright, patents, and trademarks—three separate and different entities involving three separate and different sets of laws—plus a dozen other laws into one pot and call it “intellectual property”. The distorting and confusing term did not become common by accident. Companies that gain from the confusion promoted it. The clearest way out of the confusion is to reject the term entirely.

Read more here: ‘Did You Say “Intellectual Property”? It’s a Seductive Mirage’

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Posted in Activism, Cognitive Capitalism, Copyright/IP, Open Access | No Comments »

How to Rein in Monopoly-like Network Platforms?

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
27th May 2015


fatcat_1-web

The latest issue of Boston Review has a lively forum on the growing power of network-based businesses such as Amazon, Uber and Airbnb.  These companies may not be monopolies in the strict conventional sense of the law, but they nonetheless use their market dominance and network platforms to extract all sorts of advantages from competitors, suppliers and consumers.

K. Sabeel Rahman, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, presented his assessment of the situation, and then nine people of various persuasions (including me) responded.  Rahman stated the problem succinctly:

The kinds of power that Amazon, Comcast and companies such as Airbnb and Uber possess can’t be seen or tackled via conventional antitrust regulations.  These companies are not, strictly speaking, monopolies; Urban and Airbnb, in particular, do not engage in the kind of price-fixing or market dominance that is the usual target of antitrust regulation today.  These companies are better understood as platforms or utilities:  they provide a core, infrastructural service upon which other firms, individuals and social groups depend.

The problem is that conventional antitrust regulation isn’t really equipped to deal with information economy platforms, which tend to connect buyer and sellers in more efficient ways while offering very low prices. What’s the problem with that? Well, the problem is open networks paradoxically result in “power law” outcomes in which a minority of players tend to dominate the universe of users. Some companies have used this network-based advantage to limit competitors’ access to the market, impose unfair conditions on consumers or producers, and evade consumer and labor-rights laws. 

Rahman calls for a re-purposing of Progressive era policies from a century ago that tamed large monopolies like railroads by subjecting them to public utility regulation. Is this the way to go? Juliet Schor of Boston College agrees that there is a problem, but considers the regulatory approach nostalgic and unimaginative. She argued:

“Peer-to-peer structure and peer ownership of capital undermine the argument for private ownership of platforms and, by extension, for the public utility model.  This is not to say there isn’t a strong public interest in this sector – there is.  But the compelling feature of these entities is that most of the value in the market is produced by the peers, not the platforms.  This suggests that platforms can and should be owned and governed by users.  If they are, we can worry less about rent extraction, concentrations of political power, and the other concerns Rahman raises.”

Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research is similarly skeptical of a return to conventional utility regulation. He argues that companies like Amazon and Uber should simply be forced to observe the same laws that their smaller, conventional competitors do – such as paying the same sales tax, paying observing the same minimum wage and hour rules for drivers, and adhering to safety and health standards.

Here are some excerpts from my response (link to full statement is here), in which I suggest that “innovative schemes for cooperative self-provisioning and decentralized local control, also known as the commons,” can act as an antidote to market power:  “All sorts of quasi-autonomous, user-managed systems can provide shared rights of access outside the dominant market system and conventional government, [and] can mitigate the problem of network-based monopolies while mobilizing a diverse and politically consequential constituency.”

My brief note response continues:

….the rapidly diversifying world of open design and manufacturing holds promise for “out-cooperating” such companies in electronics, furniture, farm equipment, and other industries. Arduino is a vast global community of open source computer boards at the heart of wearable technologies, 3D printers, drones, and consumer electronics. The open design Wikispeed car gets a hundred miles per gallon of fuel, and the volunteers building it are pioneering new manufacturing techniques. The Farm Hack community has produced dozens of models of affordable farm equipment. The Open Prosthetics Project is designing innovative body limbs that major medical suppliers lack the creativity or profit incentive to develop. The recurrent theme: globally shared modular design that can be manufactured locally and inexpensively.

I do not wish to suggest that technology can solve all the problems of dysfunctional politics and policy. We still need government to use the antitrust and regulatory tools in its arsenal, and we would benefit from a resurgence of Progressive reform. But in the commons, individuals and groups collaborate in ways that, over time, can help remake our politics and policy. We saw a glimpse of this in the campaign for net neutrality, as a motley swarm of digital communities committed to an open Internet improbably prevailed (for now) over the cable and telecom giants, including Comcast.

As part of the forum there are also comments by Adam Thierer, a libertarian-minded tech policy expert at the Mercatus Center (“public utility regulation has discouraged competition and innovation”); Robin Chase, the cofounder of Zipcar (peer producers should share power and the value they create); and Arun Sundararajan of the Social Cities Initiative at NYU (rethink government’s role in the market); Sofia Ranchordas of Yale Law School (platform benefits are overstated); Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute (try worker cooperatives); and Richard White, an author about railroads (historical perspectives on Gilded Age reforms).

It’s great that there is a new dialogue in a prominent magazine about how regulatory approaches for abusive market power need to be reinvented for the digital age. The comments are insightful, but the outlines of a new regulatory structure that could be effective, politically achieveable and mindful of network dynamics, remain elusive.


Originally published at bollier.org
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Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Commons, Commons Transition, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Featured Essay, Original Content, P2P Collaboration, P2P Labor, Politics | No Comments »

How friendship became a tool of the powerful

photo of Kevin Flanagan

Kevin Flanagan
9th May 2015


An extract from an article by at the Guardian – http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/may/07/how-friendship-became-tool-of-powerful

“In reducing the social world to a set of mechanisms and resources, the question repeatedly arises as to whether social networks might be redesigned in ways to suit the already privileged. Networks have a tendency towards what are called power laws, whereby those with influence are able to harness that power to win even greater influence.

One example of this is known as “emotional contagion”. Psychologists working with social analytics can now track the spread of positive and negative emotions, as they travel through social networks. This was the topic of Facebook’s controversial experiment using newsfeed manipulation, the results of which were published last summer. Different moods, including anger and depression, are now recognised to be more socially contagious than others. But what will we do with this knowledge? The anxiety, as social life becomes swept up by quantitative analysis, is that happy, healthy individuals might tailor their social relationships in ways that protect them against the “risk” of unhappiness. Guy Winch, an American psychologist who has studied this phenomenon, advises happy people to be on their guard. “If you find yourself living with or around people with negative outlooks,” he wrote on the website Psychology Today, “consider balancing out your friend roster.” The impact of this rebalancing on those unfortunate friends with the “negative outlooks” is all too easy to imagine.

The fabric of social life is now a problem that is addressed within the rubric of health policy, and there is something a little sad about that. Loneliness now appears as an objective problem, but only because it shows up in the physical brain and body, with calculable costs for governments and health insurers. Generosity and gratitude are urged upon people by positive psychologists, but mainly to alleviate their own mental health problems and private misery. And friendship ties within poor inner-city neighbourhoods have become a topic of government concern, but only to the extent that they mediate epidemics of bad nutrition and costly inactivity.

The irony is that, for all the talk of giving and sharing, this is potentially an even more egocentric worldview than that associated with the market. The cornerstone of orthodox economics, dating back to Adam Smith, is that self-interest in the marketplace is ultimately beneficial for society. The era of social optimisation looks set to stand this claim upside down: being social in your everyday life is worth it, because it will ultimately deliver benefits back to you. The trouble is that our appetites for this new commodity can spiral out of control.”

Continue to the Full Article – http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/may/07/how-friendship-became-tool-of-powerful

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Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Economy and Business, P2P Healthcare, P2P Public Policy, Sharing | No Comments »

Reclaiming the ‘real’ sharing economy

photo of Rajesh Makwana

Rajesh Makwana
25th April 2015


Romantic Heart from Love Seeds
What does it actually mean ‘to share’? This might seem like an obvious question, but the concept of sharing is increasingly being debated, discussed and redefined in our modern age of rapid technological change and planetary crises.


The rise of the sharing economy in recent years has given particular impetus to this debate, in which many academics are now analysing how sharing is a conflated economical concept that has been co-opted by corporate interests. It’s interesting to observe how savvy young progressives are resisting against this trend, while many social activists and environmentalists are beginning to chart a new direction for (and entirely new understanding of) the sharing economy – not as a profit-oriented business model, but as a potentially transformative mode of social exchange and economic activity.

For example, a community-building innovator based in New York, Lee-Sean Huang, has coined the term #WeWashing to help identify and critique the abuse of terms like “sharing”, “community” and “we”, which are often debased through online technology platforms or manipulated by corporate marketing techniques. Yet these words are meaningful, writes Huang, and “reminders that we are part of something greater than ourselves. As community members and citizens, we share common bonds and common interests. We are more than consumers.” Huang therefore argues that we need to “preserve the meaning of altruistic sharing and the bonds of community beyond narrowly-defined economic transactions”.

In a similar vein, the environmental news and commentary site Grist recently published a new series on “the real sharing economy”, asserting that sharing “has been appropriated and stripped of all meaning by people trying to sell you things, much like sustainability was.” In contrast, ‘real’ sharing goes far beyond “profit-seeking smartphone apps for unregulated taxi services (Uber) and vacation rentals (Airbnb)”, and could allow “humanity as a whole to consume less, hopefully shrinking our economy’s voracious appetite for materials and energy.”

An article by Sam Bliss at Grist gives a neat overview of how sharing can help us achieve economic degrowth in consumption and production, while “maintaining quality of life, or even improving it with more social interactions and stronger community relationships”. A real sharing enterprise, he argues, is not driven by profits for shareholders but wider concerns of equity, fairness and worker participation. He also acknowledges the potential of sharing wealth and power on a bigger scale, which is the only way to decrease global inequality, achieve true social justice, or fix a broken political system dominated by vested interests.

He even goes on to cite STWR’s report that explains how, in his words, “sharing can be the idea that brings together social, economic, and ecological movements in a grand alliance. Imagine Black Lives Matter, the fossil fuel divestment crusade, and the smoldering embers of Occupy joining forces to fight for a real sharing economy.”

No doubt the divergent perspectives on economic sharing will be openly debated at the upcoming Ouishare Fest 2015 in Paris, which has a wide variety of speakers from Charles Eisenstein, Michel Bauwens and Rob Hopkins to Lisa Gansky, Arun Sundararajan and Jeremiah Owyang (as well as a panel discussion with STWR on the environmental impacts of collaborative consumption – not to be missed for anyone attending!).

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Posted in Anti-P2P, Cognitive Capitalism, Commons, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Original Content, P2P Business Models, P2P Collaboration, Politics, Sharing | No Comments »

Benkler on the Uber-ification of Services

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
24th April 2015


Yochai Benkler

Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler gave attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos a dire warning about future instability if the “Uber-ification of all services” continues.  In his intense six-minute talk, “Challenges of the Sharing Economy,” Benkler notes how open networks and collaborative production models have led to the “destabilization of the firm,” and ultimately threaten to bring about “the potential reorganization of the entire services sector.”

In light of this epochal shift, he declares, the critical question is: “Will [this shift] allow embedding economic production in the same kind of social solidarity trust models that we saw with the emergence of Wikipedia? Or will the externalization of risk onto the people formerly known as employees create severe disruption?”

The big challenge today, he argued, is that the social and the political have diverged, as demonstrated by the Occupy movement. And this leads to worrisome social pressures that the political system is disinclined to address.

I realize that Benkler must have been under a strict time limit — he was talking quite rapidly for this talk — but it sure would be nice to hear his proposed solutions for re-integrating the social and the political in functional ways, and how he proposes moving that agenda forward.  But at least the Davos crowd was alerted to this fundamental political challenge. Whether they will deign to recognize the issue and move beyond their adulation for the Uber, Airbnb and other lucrative forms of network monopoly is another matter.

While most people think that answers can only come from Washington, D.C. — FCC regs, antitrust law, etc. — rots of ruck on that, for all the obvious reasons.  I think the only effective solutions will come from P2P architectures and legal innovations that technically and legally stymie the consolidation of services by a single, dominant network player. Neither Congress, regulatory agencies or the courts are capable — politically or intellectually — of delivering satisfactory answers, I fear. The natural “power law” outcome of networks will ineluctably prevail unless some sort of intervention is made.  And if the answer is not going to involve social disruption, as Benkler warns, it’s high time that we begin to address challenges of legitimate, responsive, accountable governance in the network age.


Originally published in bollier.org

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Posted in Anti-P2P, Cognitive Capitalism, Crowdsourcing, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Networks, Original Content, P2P Development, Peer Production, Politics | No Comments »

A New Commodity Is Born: Breast Milk

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
6th April 2015


It’s not everyday that we get to see great masses of people alter their attitudes as a cherished act of motherhood is converted into a lucrative market. That’s what is happening these days with breast milk, as recently reported by the New York Times. Biotech firms want to capitalize on the rich therapeutic potential of breast milk by turning it into high-tech medical products that can fight infections, improve blood clotting and deal with intestinal and infectious diseases.

This keen commercial interest in acquiring breast milk – an intimate part of the human body associated with maternal love and nourishment – raises all sorts of troubling new questions.  Who will have privileged access to breast milk in the future – biotech firms backed by the deep pockets of venture capitalists, or premature babies who need the milk, especially from their own mothers?  Will the emerging big business of breast milk lead to the closing of “milk banks” that provide donated breast milk to hospitals and nursing mothers at cost (i.e., the costs of donor-screening and pasteurization)?

The rise of a new market for breast milk brings to the fore the fundamental issue of inalienability – the idea that certain things are so valued that it is not ethically appropriate to exchange them for money in the marketplace. This is a topic that is near and dear to commoners, of course, who are constantly trying to prevent and reverse market enclosures that commodify everything from water and the atmosphere to the human genome and childhood.

Years ago, I learned a lot about inalienability from Margaret Jane Radin’s book Contested Commodities:  The Trouble with Trade in Sex, Children, Body Parts and Other Things (Harvard University Press, 1996).  She argues that liberal societies have a recurrent problem caused by a philosophical conundrum:  It values freedom and individual choice, but it also values the dignity of personhood.  So what happens when our “freedom of choice” in the marketplace runs over our integrity and dignity as human beings – such as having intimate aspects of our bodies converted into market commodities?

“Conceiving of all human exchange in terms of the market metaphor,” said Radin, “creates the risk that we will become incapable of transcending that rhetoric’s presuppositions about human nature, and thus unable to inspire deeper, more humane visions of the good.”

Commodification is a worldview that implies all sorts of attitudes, behaviors and relationships toward other human beings.  If money, efficiency and individual freedom trump all else, and if all values are to be reduced to a price, launching the fiction that everything is commensurable on that single scale of value, then we start down a path toward social disintegration.  A libertarian ethos trumps ethical and social norms, which “interfere” with our “market freedoms.”

If and when the market worldview comes to redefine the value of breast milk, we will enter a new regime in which companies will be entirely free to interpose themselves between nursing mothers and needy babies, much as Nestle’s once did with its milk formula. The Times reports that one company, Prolacta, has produced a “fortifier” compound for premature babies using breast milk.  It costs about $180 an ounce, or about $10,000 for several weeks of milk for one baby.

All of this will inarguably contribute to GDP, and it may provide medical benefits for the special-needs babies who need the fortified milk.  But can neonatal hospital units really afford such a product – and will commercial demand for breast milk dry up milk banks and convert desperate or poor nursing mothers into milk machines?

And what of the inevitable social inequalities that will arise?  Mothers who can afford not to sell their milk will become socially privileged, while desperate mothers who need the money will be induced into selling their breast milk — much as jobless people with a car often turn to Uber to try to scrape by.  Free-marketeers invariably dismiss the ethical issues by retorting, “It’s their choice!”

And some liberal feminists as well.  One of the most depressing responses to the Times’ story came from Jessica Valenti, a columnist for The Guardian. The headline of her recent column:  “For-profit breast milk?  It’s her body, and it must be her choice.”  Valenti conjectures that “business involvement [could] lead to some positive changes for families who do want to use breast milk but don’t have access to it” – noting that government regulation of breast milk could help weed out tainted, unsafe milk.

She concludes, “No matter what the future holds for breast milk, though, we can’t be surprised when a market is created for something we continue to tout as near-magical. And if we value women’s bodily autonomy we’re going to have to get comfortable with the choices she makes – whether it’s breastfeeding, formula feeding, or pumping for cash.”

Valenti perfectly expresses the standard liberal view that markets are more or less benign, that regulation will work as designed, and that any individual choice must be respected. The social inequities and changing norms that will result from the marketization of a once-inalienable resource don’t even get a mention from her. “Individual autonomy” (within a corporate-dictated context) is all that matters.

But there is no obvious reason why therapeutic innovations using breast milk must be market-driven. One could imagine a large-scale commons-based trust or regional co-operatives to collect and allocate milk without all the ethical problems raised by investor-driven enterprises. Of course, the shark-filled venture capital world is usually the first to arrive on the scene of new profit opportunities, dictating its own vision of proper relationships toward “resources” (i.e., private, monetized, tradeable, profitable).  Meanwhile, the opportunities for co-operative finance, nonprofit and government leadership on this issue – though feasible – are utterly missing.

And so the profit-minded biotech world is beginning to escort mother’s breast milk onto the auction block. A new commodity is being inducted into the market dream machine of progress and innovation. The real questions ought to be what this new market will do to us as human beings and to the culture of parenting – and why there has been so little attention paid to building more humane, commons-based alternatives.

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Posted in Anti-P2P, Cognitive Capitalism, Commons, Empire, Original Content, Politics | No Comments »

“Sharing lies”: five lies about the Sharing Economy

photo of Mayra Rodriguez Singh

Mayra Rodriguez Singh
3rd April 2015


topicos-sharing-1200x470Putting things in context is not to let just anything happen. It is also being clear that the “hype” that’s being built with a number of lies that will inevitably lead to disappointment. These are, in my judgement, the five big ones.


Talking about the collaborative world these days is as dangerous as walking on shifting sands. Under the “sharing” and the “co-whatever,” there hides a wide minefield of concepts and phenomena mixed together. To be immersed in the world of the collaborative economy today is, often times, contradictory and surprising.

Of course, there are classifications and dictionaries that give it all order and help us explore, and neither should we forget that all this forms part of a much broader process, of which “sharing” consumption and access to resources is only one very small and superficial part, within very powerful changes and perspectives.

But putting things in context is not to let just anything happen. It is also being clear that the “hype” that’s being built with a number of lies that will inevitably lead to disappointment. These are, in my judgement, the five big ones:

  1. airbnb comunidadPlatforms are communities. That’s a lie. Whatever definition of community we use, Airbnb, Uber, Zipcar, Blablacar, and the many clones of all of them are not communities. Adhering to conditions of use doesn’t even point towards “community standards.” Let’s be honest, the large majority of collaborative consumption platforms are markets. Barter markets in some cases, non-profit markets in others, traditional labor markets in still others, and even markets of restoration… but, markets: places where transactions are made, even if some are relatively cheap and others even at zero price. They’re still markets. And a market is something completely different from a community, and the two provide experiences that are nothing alike. Or do we really think the start-up world could be expected anything other than bid us “Welcome to the Jungle?”
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  3. The “sharing economy” creates conscious consumption. That’s a lie. We’re told that it’s better to reuse than to be compulsive buyers, and that it’s time to be conscious of our consumption. And that’s true. But if the boom in the sharing economy coincides with the longest economic crisis in the history of capitalism, it’s not by chance. With the middle class seeing its buying power reduced, sharing has grown because it offers to maintain something like the standard of living of the “good years.” Travel, but stay in a stranger’s room or in a little tourist hotel outside of State regulation. Go out to eat, but to the apartment of a chef who organizes the meal, rather than to a restaurant. Go by taxi, but pay less, because the taxi driver works under the table and the car is private. Now everything’s OK again! But the argument is a fallacy. I don’t believe that consumption is more conscious if it takes advantage of people’s precariousness and the shortcuts that so many people have had to take to survive the crisis.Sure, they’ve painted it with a little amnesia, and they’ve put new labels on it to make sure it’s still cool. One of the many examples is vintage fashion, because sharing clothes with your brothers/sisters is not the same as buying it second-hand. If your jacket was once your cousin’s, you weren’t in fashion. But now, second-hand clothes and accessories have gone from being looked down on to being cool, and you can bet someone will ask you for the address or website of the store you shop at, so they can go get stuff like yours. It’s not that the obsession with buying, the famous consumerism, has disappeared. It’s simply been adapted and started valuing things that used to be seen as being “for the poor.” The longstanding flea market that people used to want to relocate now becomes an obligatory Sunday stroll. Stores that were once on hidden streets now reappear in maps of exclusive sites and are the creme de la creme.
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  5. fabcafeThe “sharing economy” is a new mode of production. That’s a lie. To present the P2P production as part of the “sharing economy” is to confuse things by equating ways of creating wealth that are very different and erasing what P2P really represents.P2P production is centered on the creation of the commons. That’s what transforms the nature of capital and the market. But is that the way it really is in the thousands of “Ubers” that enter the risk-capital market? Does Airbnb create anything resembling a commons? Obviously not. And to confuse things only leads to the things that matter most losing meaning. Quoting Natalia:

    Collaborative consumption is not part of the transition towards a P2P mode of production if isn’t in the framework of the development of the commons and P2P production, in the same way that consumer cooperativism does not create democracy in an economy if it is not in the framework of a cooperative industrial community.

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  7. airbnb barcelonaThe businesses of the “sharing economy” promote economic activity that displaces capitalism and promotes a new use of the city. That’s a lie. If we study the “Airbnb effect” in a city like Barcelona, we’ll see that it moves us farther away — a lot farther — from the “sharing city.” The difference between Airbnb and Hilton is not not even the difference between a business of the direct economy and a large, inefficient corporation with the strength of over-scaling. Airbnb, Uber, Blablacar and others are not behind the substitution of independent SMEs for the industrial fabric of big businesses whose decomposition is gutting the productivity of cities. In fact, as Bruce Sterling pointed out, by promoting highly centralized models, these business fit into and promote the worst of “smart cities,” deepening precariousness and taking sovereignty from people and the city as a whole. As Sterling asked, “do you think San Francisco or any big American city would let its new taxi system be run by a business located in Barcelona?”
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  9. The activity of the businesses of the “sharing economy” strengthens community bonds and helps resist the social effects of the crisis. That’s a lie. The type of human relations built by the best-known “sharing” platforms are far from creating community or establishing links that strengthen social cohesion. On the demand side, they support the economy of precariousness, shortcuts, and “anything goes,” while on the demand side, they eliminate the need for collaboration and real human relationships, replacing it with interaction through a platform. That is why, as Caro said not long ago in a chat:

    [It’s not even] enough to develop independence from centralized platforms. The simple solution to our problems of access to goods or services through sharing does not create the type of interrelationships and responsibilities that characterize the commons. Just the opposite, generally — the use of platforms in exchange exempts us from the responsibility for building relationships, for observing community needs and organizing to respond to them.

So, is the “sharing economy” bad?

car sharingNo. Absolutely not. It’s just that we must distinguish, and not accept the lies of the “hype” uncritically or in all cases. There are models of couch-surfing that really are communal, and do not create the disasters of Airbnb. There are models of car sharing that don’t try to sell themselves as an alternative mode of production and that were able to evolve from the commons to a business, and from there, be integrated into public services, helping to reduce traffic. Because in reality, the main contribution of the “sharing economy” is to transmit a culture of efficient use of durable consumer goods.

So, I think it is necessary to put the “sharing economy” in context, not to lose the critical view of the talk about their businesses, and above all, not forget that if they contribute to changes of real importance, it won’t be because they tried to be more than they really are, but by taking on a deeper perspective.

Translation by Steve Herrick from the original (in Spanish)

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Posted in Anti-P2P, Cognitive Capitalism, Crowdsourcing, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Networks, Original Content, P2P Development | No Comments »