We need a new paradigm, informed by the past, which can address most of the problems that capitalism has been creating, for the benefit of the many and of the environment.
Four years ago, Thomas Piketty published his best-seller that tried to provide a working model for capital in the twenty-first century. The reasons why Piketty failed to accomplish some of his goals have been well explained by David Harvey.
I’d like to shed light on a new process that has been neglected by both Piketty and Harvey. For those who wish to understand “capital in the twenty-first century”, studying a rising form of production is of paramount importance. Following the format of ‘capital’, I call this emerging phenomenon ‘phygital’.
What is capital?
Capital is a process, not a thing, which results in social relations. Put simply, it is a process in which money is used to make more money. This process is situated in a specific context where the capital owners develop multifaceted relations with the rest of the people and their habitat.
The owners of a company profit by developing relations with their employees, partners, suppliers, customers, natural environment etc. How value is created and wealth is accumulated in the hands of the very few is a complex process. However, to quote the Encyclopedia of Marxism, “the issue is to understand what kind of social relation is capital and where it leads”.
I shall argue the same for another process, named ‘phygital’.
What is phygital?
‘Phygital’ is a process whereby ‘physical’ (material production) meets the ‘digital’ (production of knowledge, software, design, culture). It encapsulates digitally enhanced physical reality and production, to show how the influx of shared knowledge changes and improves production.
First it was Wikipedia and the myriads of free and open-source software projects. They demonstrated how people, driven by diverse motives, can produce complex ‘digital artefacts’ if they are given access to the means of production. Now we are also observing a rich tapestry of initiatives in the field of manufacturing.
For example, see the Wikihouse project that produces open source designs for houses; the OpenBionics project that produces open source designs for robotic and bionic devices; or the FarmHack and L’Atelier Paysan communities that produce open source designs for agricultural machines. Digital technologies enable people to cooperate in a remote and asynchronous way, and produce designs that are shared as digital commons (open source). Then the actual manufacturing takes place locally, often through shared infrastructures (from 3d printing and CNC machines to low-tech tools and crafts) and with local biophysical conditions in mind.
Similar to capital, phygital is a process that results in social relations. However, it is a process in which shared resources (commons) are used to produce more shared resources (commons). The kind of social relations can thus be very different to capitalism. And it may lead to a post-capitalist economy and society.
Do we really need another new term?
No, not necessarily. But we need a new paradigm, informed by the past, which can address most of the problems that capitalism has been creating, for the benefit of the many and of the environment. Towards that end, discussions around and experimentation with post-capitalist alternatives are necessary.
I believe that new ideas should ideally be described by using already widely understood terms so that the message is effectively communicated. However, I cannot come up with a better term that would describe this conjunction of the digital with the physical. If someone can, may this brief essay serve as inspiration.
Originally published in Open Democracy.