Re-public: Towards a critique of the social web

Re-public, that most interesting online journal that consistently examines the political implications of the web age, is at it again, with a series of contributions on the Social Web.

The starting article is a vigorous interview/debate by Paul Hartzog and Trebor Scholz, who attempt to outline a critique of the social web organised along five axes: production, expoitation, individuality/collectivity, cultural difference, activism.

It is followed by two contributions of friends of the P2P Foundation. My own mini-essay reviews three distinct social contracts, and the accompanying lines of tension between community and corporation, i.e. the sharing model, the commons model, and the crowdsourcing model.

Our Greek friend Vasilis Kostakis contributes a manifesto on the new amateurs.

Finally, Ned Rossiter, long-standing network theorist who was also present at the Nottingham Peer Production Workshop, presents an examination of intersubjectivity in the new social web, particularly the tension between online and offline life.

Here is my conclusion as to the new social tensions in the social web:

What then is the true social configuration of antagonistic interests, and the lines of tension that are worth concentrating one’s energy on?

Not just the knowledge workers, but in fact all producers, are reconfiguring at least part of their lives to the direct social production of use value through sharing or a commons approach. Peer production is not limited to highly educated knowledge workers but its principle of equipotentality and the self-selection of granular tasks mean that it is accessible to all producers. Because knowledge is at the core of the networked information economy, such practices are at the very core of our society, as Yochai Benkler has convincingly explained. Because peer production is economically more productive, politically more participative, and more distributive as a form of ownership, it is also a post-capitalist mode of value creation that will inevitably move to center stage.

But peer production also reconfigures the ownership class. The twin pillars of cognitive capitalism, namely the extraction of surplus rent through intellectual property monopolies, and the monopoly of the means of distribution, are being systematically undermined by the distributed networks. Marginal costs of reproducing informational artifacts, the copy-ability of the informational core of high value physical products, and the social web as a universal distribution platform for informational artifacts and for open design of physical products, are displacing such monopolies.

It is therefore logical that, out of self-interest, sections of the ownership class convert themselves to the position of netarchical capitalists, those who enable and empower the sharing communities and entertain benefit-sharing agreements with the commons-oriented production communities.

What is the relative position of producing communities and netarchical platform owners? The short answer is that they have both convergent and divergent interests.

To the degree that these platform owners enable sharing, they are allies of the peer producers and sharers. To the degree that such platform owners need enclosures and scarcities to enter a competitive market, the interests diverge. What is needed therefore is a literacy of participation, not geared towards the opposition against an abstract ‘exploitation of free labour’, but rather on the invisible architectures of sharing (which need to be truly open, participative and commons-oriented), and against the restrictions to freedom that proprietary capture requires.

On the macro-level, again the netarchical capitalists can be allies to the degree that they join the agenda for social policies geared to the promotion of sharing and commons production (see the stance of Google on the open spectrum as a positive example of policy convergence); but to the degree they may want to enclose openness the interests are divergent.”

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