Abundance is the end of divisions in production

A society of abundance is a society in which productivity is not separate from research, conversation and knowledge, as if they were different worlds, and knowledge itself is not divided into professional and mercantile knowledge. It is a society where community is directly productive, without divisions.

The culture in which we were brought up is the product of millenia of scarcity. That is why it’s easier for us imagine a society of abundance as the negation of a good part of what we know and take for granted than as the affirmation of a project whose elements are within arm’s reach. However, the unprecedented development of productivity during the last two hundred years, the emergence of distributed networks, and the first social experiences of abundance on the Internet have begun to clearly show outlines of the possible world in the present. Today, to imagine the society of abundance is, in more and more fields, to take the present–a present that is radically different from that of the origins of industrialism–to its limits.

The division of labor

Fabrica-FordAn especially interesting example is the division of labor. In classical economics, starting with Adam Smith and his famous example of the production of pins, specialization is understood as part of the social effort for the improvement of productivity. That is, it was part of the road towards abundance. Dividing work into precise tasks and substitute people with machines, to the extent technological development made it possible, was the heart of the Industrial Revolution that transformed the world between the 18th and 20th centuries.

From the manufacturing to the robotic factory, the specialization of tasks not only revolutionized productivity, but also encouraged the specialization of knowledge, and just as it had never been possible to produce so much, neither had so much knowledge been developed ever before.

But with the development of services and the massive incorporation of information technology, knowledge becomes a direct tool of production on a new scale. Production processes are confused with marketing and communication. Businesses begin to demand people with more than one specialty. What had, until then, been reserved for engineers and a few technicians, was multiplied by all of the knowledge that the new industries understand link their more and more sophisticated tools and products. Initially, this tendency, which Juan Urrutia called multipecialization, appears above all in the new technology sector that becomes consolidated in the ’70s.

But the innovation industry linked to personal computing first and the Internet later, is a very particular industry: in the US, its pioneers are openly influenced by hippy understandings of abundance, and in Europe, by a new work ethic centered on knowledge that soon will be expressed in free software. As far back as 1984, the writer Bruce Sterling describes in his novel Islands in the Net the following dialogue full of reminiscences of the classic tales of the society of abundance:

“… a sort of hotel manager?”

“In Rhizome we don’t have jobs, doctor Razak. Only things to do and people who do them.”

“My esteemed colleagues of the Party of Innovation Popular might call this inefficient.”

“Well, our idea of efficiency has more to do with personal realization that with, um, material possessions.”

“I understand that a broad number of employees of Rhizome do not work at all.”

“Well, we keep ourselves busy doing our own thing. Of course, much of this activity is outside the money economy. An invisible economy that is not quantifiable in dollars.”

“In ecus, you mean.”

“Yes, I’m sorry. It’s like housework: you don’t pay anyone money to do it, but that’s how the family survives, isn’t it? Just because it’s not a bank doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. As an aside, we’re not employees, but members.

“In other words, your baseline is playful joy before benefit. You have replaced work, the humiliating spectrum of forced production, with a series of varied hobbies like games. And replaced the motivation of greed with a network of social ties, reinforced by an elected structure of power.”

“Yes, I think so…, if I understand their definitions.”

“How long until you entirely eliminate work?”

What makes this scene especially interesting is that the character being interrogated is member of a transnational egalitarian community. Sterling’s intuition connects technologies that had hardly even been sketched out then–in fact, in the novel, the Internet is not used, but a sort of hybrid of fax and e-mail–with the cooperative inheritance and community values held by hippies in the US.

Twenty-first century trends

mariadbThe prophecy will begin to come true scarcely a decade later with the nascent reality of the first industry linked to abundance: free software. Connected to it is the appearance of the first businesses that break with the obsessive hierarchies of the industrial enterprise. As Pekka Himanen argued in 2000 in his famous essay about the hacker ethic, in knowledge industries, work in self-managed teams is simply more productive. Also, by that time, the Internet was already restructuring the forms of relationship. Hackers, used to equality in conversation and to working in networks like equals, practiced “flat” forms of organization based on conversation between “multi-specialized” individuals. Also, networks of relationships between peers that occur in a conversational space will tend to be transnational, limited perhaps by linguistic borders.

This incipient movement will not stay in the world of software: consulting, digital publishing, graphic design, and generally all the services that were first commercialized directly via the Internet are the natural point of departure for these first experiments of transnational communities of multispecialists, but not their destination. The development of productivity and new forms will reach the industrial world in their most radical way as the “direct economy“: small groups of friends design products, finance them with pre-sales and crowdsourcing within communities of affinity, send them to be built by the old industry (now converted to 3D printers), and distribute them through the network.

As a result, traces of abundance appear in more and more places in our lives. The tendency can be summed up today as: multispecialization, transnationality, and non-heirarchical organization of business.

If we take them to their limits, we can glimpse the main features of work in a society of abundance: obsessive specialization disappears, and with it, professional identities as we know them. Thus, the ideal of knowledge as a whole is recovered. In correspondence, group projects, formed and motivated by the pleasure of creating and discovering, not by the need to earn a salary, small, non-hierarchical, identarian communities form, which don’t respect borders other than the ones of the affinity for objectives and media.

A society of abundance is a society in which productivity is not separate from research, conversation and knowledge, as if they were different worlds, and knowledge itself is not divided into professional and mercantile knowledge. It is a society where community is directly productive, without divisions.

Translated by Steve Herrick from the original (in Spanish).

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