creativity, composition, and the internet socialist/socialist internet

Sure, I can wring hands, critique, and "problematize" with the best of 'em. That's what the diploma signifies, I think. I can perform any critical method as well as any bar band knocks out Skynard. It's just one of those things you have to be able to do; it's part of the trade.

So I found it amusing when Kevin Kelly suggests the internet represents a new socialism. It's amusing because it's the kind of idea that everyone is going to hate. The typical Wired-reading, open source propounding, internet supporter is essentially libertarian. To him/her, socialism represents centralizing authority, bureaucracy, collective values, creating sameness: in short, everything to abhorred. Maybe that's an unfair characterization of socialism, but we're talking about audience here.  On the other hand, the card-carrying, intellectual-academic rejects the veneer of internet collectivity as an ideological smoke screen for a new technological means to extend the exploitative capitalist extraction of value from human activity into every corner of our existence. Maybe that's unfair too, but again, audience. In short, the internet folks don't like socialism and the socialists don't like the internet (at least as it is currently constructed as private property). Then this whole thing went down on Lawrence Lessig's blog where Lessig criticized Kelly for his choice of words.

I'm not super-interested in the semantic-rhetorical issue of word choice or the argument over whether the internet is "really" socialist or not. For me, the interesting things lie beyond this kind of argument. Kelly observes:

Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective
worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected
to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels,
we share apps, scripts, and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we

have faceless meritocracies, where the only thing that matters is
getting things done. Instead of national production, we have peer
production. Instead of government rations and subsidies, we have a
bounty of free goods.

Again, we can argue over whether this is in fact true, and if it is true, to what extent it is true. For a socialist I'm sure a major concern here is that most of the networks, sites, and technologies we use are owned, maintained, and/or produced by private interests. However, I digress.

I just finished reading Lessig's Remix, which I'm teaching in the fall. There Lessig focuses on the idea of "hybrid economies." That is, he notes that there are "market economies" (the kind we usually think about) and "sharing economies" (e.g. exchanges between friends that explicitly don't involve money). So Wal-Mart never asks to borrow your lawn mower and your neighbor would be insulted if you offered him $10 b/c he came over and helped you shovel your driveway one morning.

Now let's think for a moment about universities before returning to the web. The students pay to go there and the faculty are paid to work there: a market economy. But the exchanges between students, faculty, and staff don't really fit into that dynamic. There are sharing economy dimensions here. Of course the same could be said even in the business world where one develops friendships. So it's never quite that simple as either/or (surprise, surprise).

It seems to me that the socialist argument really objects to the idea of hybrid economies with the sense that as soon as the market gets involved any sharing is just a rhetorical trick to turn you into a sucker, like the salesperson who acts friendly to make a sale. If you're an adjunct and put in all that extra time with your students, for whatever reason, then that's exploitation. Similarly, all those folks that put in effort on Facebook or Amazon or wherever, increasing the market value of those sites, are also being exploited.

For Lessig the hybrid economy works as long as the user feels she is getting something back, as long as the exchange feels fair to her. But the socialist critique is that that feeling is wrong and needs to be corrected. In short, we will all realize the truth of our exploitation once we see it through the correct (Marxist-socialist) lens. So the fact that I am happy with what I get for free from Google or Gmail or YouTube or Flickr is not really sufficient since all this value is being extracted from my activity.

Yeah, well. OK. See the first paragraph.

What is more interesting to me is the creative potential, which I think everyone sees in the network, regardless of political stripe. Even if one is an Andrew Keen type, I'd think you could at least see possibilities for networked creativity. And I think I agree with Lessig that one needs to think about these possibilities in the context of a hybrid economy.

In part that's why I think higher education is a great place to explore these possibilities. Money is spent to build and sustain the community, but the activities within the community are not solely money-driven. The university doesn't function if the faculty only think about what they are getting paid to do anymore than it works when the students only think about their education in terms of its market economy value. And, btw, I don't think that makes us suckers. We're suckers when we demand that every aspect of our work be valued in market economic terms, b/c that creates a community in which no one wants to live.

If you have a community with several thousand students and several hundred faculty who are contributing to a networked environment, then all you have to do is free them up to share with one another. Many campuses already have this; they just keep everyone locked away from everyone else in their own Bb classroom. Set the network free and I'm guessing that we can find ways to use it: to share and collaborate… Especially if we start teaching students to think critically, rhetorically, and productively about networks. Here we will share music, audio, video, text, image, software, information. We will strive to do so in ethical ways, which in part will mean figuring out what the ethics ought to be. Does that sound like socialism? Out of this network, we will produce copyrighted works and acquire networked literacies that will be desired in the corporate world. Does that sound like the market economy?


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