The Technium

Digital Socialism

I have a piece in the new issue of Wired that began last January as a post to the Technium, but kept getting longer. As it grew to 7,000 words, it seemed a good fit for Wired,so I never posted it. The essay, called the New Socialism, describes an emerging embrace of socialism-lite or digital socialism in the online realm. It was edited in half to run in Wired this month. An excerpt:


How close to a noncapitalistic, open source, peer-production society can this movement take us? Every time that question has been asked, the answer has been: closer than we thought. Consider craigslist. Just classified ads, right? But the site amplified the handy community swap board to reach a regional audience, enhanced it with pictures and real-time updates, and suddenly became a national treasure. Operating without state funding or control, connecting citizens directly to citizens, this mostly free marketplace achieves social good at an efficiency that would stagger any government or traditional corporation. Sure, it undermines the business model of newspapers, but at the same time it makes an indisputable case that the sharing model is a viable alternative to both profit-seeking corporations and tax-supported civic institutions.

Who would have believed that poor farmers could secure $100 loans from perfect strangers on the other side of the planet—and pay them back? That is what Kiva does with peer-to-peer lending. Every public health care expert declared confidently that sharing was fine for photos, but no one would share their medical records. But PatientsLikeMe, where patients pool results of treatments to better their own care, prove that collective action can trump both doctors and privacy scares. The increasingly common habit of sharing what you’re thinking (Twitter), what you’re reading (StumbleUpon), your finances (Wesabe), your everything (the Web) is becoming a foundation of our culture. Doing it while collaboratively building encyclopedias, news agencies, video archives, and software in groups that span continents, with people you don’t know and whose class is irrelevant—that makes political socialism seem like the logical next step.

A similar thing happened with free markets over the past century. Every day, someone asked: What can’t markets do? We took a long list of problems that seemed to require rational planning or paternal government and instead applied marketplace logic. In most cases, the market solution worked significantly better. Much of the prosperity in recent decades was gained by unleashing market forces on social problems.

Now we’re trying the same trick with collaborative social technology, applying digital socialism to a growing list of wishes—and occasionally to problems that the free market couldn’t solve—to see if it works. So far, the results have been startling. At nearly every turn, the power of sharing, cooperation, collaboration, openness, free pricing, and transparency has proven to be more practical than we capitalists thought possible. Each time we try it, we find that the power of the new socialism is bigger than we imagined.

We underestimate the power of our tools to reshape our minds. Did we really believe we could collaboratively build and inhabit virtual worlds all day, every day, and not have it affect our perspective? The force of online socialism is growing. Its dynamic is spreading beyond electrons—perhaps into elections.

  • Mark Carbone

    I read Wired on the plane coming back from the Indy 500 Monday.

    I think you over stepped by using the word “Socialism” the way you did.

    In your article you stated how most people doing things for free in the Open Source world are doing it for experience and other reasons other than for the collective which goes against your socialist comparison. Also stating that there has to be leadership and very few actually contribute to the final solution if something is going commercial and not just a fun project.

    Another non socialist truth that’s been around for centuries is witnessed at my church every day. Many people give many hours a week of their time. That is not socialism or you qualify all civic actions and servant heart mentalities as socialist and that’s a reach.

    I believe you went a little political on us here and you mixed your agenda into an article in an oh so subtle way many don’t catch your real “chess playing” objective. That’s how I see it. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  • @Mark said: “I believe you went a little political on us here and you mixed your agenda into an article in an oh so subtle way many don’t catch your real “chess playing” objective.”

    I must be dense. Can you reveal what my “real chess playing objective is” so everyone else can also see it?

  • gmoke

    My grandfather was a Socialist and worked with EV Debs, Norman Thomas, and many others. When I asked, he defined Socialism as the Golden Rule put into practice.

  • jonathan

    Open source applications can take us far, just as Linux has changed the landscape for operating systems. However, social sites such as Craigslist can only have an effect within the universe of Web users, and no application will extend that universe or help to close the digital divide between the haves and the have nots. Therefore, open source needs to be taken to the next level beyond the operating system, and into the network itself; with both open source network devices and open source network drivers. This will take corporations with blackboxed solutions out of the picture when extending ubiquitous Web access (except for the local carrier which is a public utility). The key to the open source network architecture in wide area applications is that we should only be relying on the carrier for power budget, not for signaling (since we can all get our dial tone online). At that point, and given the availability of low cost Web appliances, the digital divide will have been closed, and high speed access will be regarded as part of the commons like water and electrical service. After all, did you really want that DSL/Cable modem between your PC and the wall outlet? Or might you prefer that you just plug your device directly into the outlet with Gigabit speeds over copper? The choice will be a societal one: on one hand, we can shift the foundational architecture of networks and control them from the edge (this is what Ethernet was originally supposed to do when it was just a shared common bus before it became SWITCHED Ethernet), or we can keep throwing more bandwidth at the central bottlenecks and ever increasing end user demands. The latter is very expensive…dropping fiber to the premise, upgrading middle hardware from Cisco and the like, etc. Even if you get all of your services from one provider, like data from your cable tv company for example, you still need a cable modem to dumb down the network from the true capability of the copper (wire speed minus propagation delay). This method of superimposing a network on top of a network has got to go if we are ever going to end the horse and buggy phase of data networking; which most people, unfortunately, don’t know we’re in.

  • teachntexan

    Is this online socialism from the same source that provided us the explosion then collapse? Socialism and collaboration are not the same thing. Much like the truck driver who was supposed to deliver goods to Portland. After having arrived in Oregon realized he was supposed to be in Maine. Check the navigational tools and desired results BEFORE declaring you have arrived.

  • Sarah

    There is no question that the power of a collaborative group is something that many companies want to tap into. The key challenge to creating this culture at a company is that online collaboration supports a communal culture that keeps ownership in the hands of the users rather than giving IP to the company.

    What can companies do to encourage global network collaboration while protecting their IP? Are there model companies out there that have figured out how to spread this culture internally, but avoid spreading their IP externally?

  • Martin

    Two problems with this article, Kevin:

    1) All of your examples of “socialist” endeavours, from Linux to Wikipedia to YouTube, involve the creation and distribution of information. They exist in a post-scarcity environment, where the cost of the digital infrastructure approaches zero (or is a “sunk cost” already incurred for other purposes). The only ingredient to be added is individual creativity.

    Contrast this with pretty much any effort in the physical world — the world of atoms rather than bits. You won’t find a lot of people lining up to be unpaid, “socialist”, “open source” coal miners, auto manufacturers, cattle farmers, or construction workers.

    Maybe this will change once creating and replicating physical objects becomes as easy as copying files. But for now our physical world is still stuck with the economics of scarcity.

    2) Much more importantly, the article never once makes the key distinction that the people engaged in your “online socialism” are all _volunteers_. It completely ignores the critical moral issue of consent versus coercion.

    Consent is the concept which recognizes that we are individuals, that we own our own minds and bodies, and that we must be free to make our own decisions about how we will think and act. It is what makes the difference between gift-giving and theft, between boxing and assault, between sex and rape.

    Every real-world socialist system must be prepared to deal with those unruly individuals who don’t consent to having their fellow citizens (or their self-anointed rulers) decide how the collective will dispose of their lives and their property. Whether it takes the form of a warm and fuzzy (but highly taxed) European welfare state, or a nasty Stalinist throwback complete with labour camps, real socialism requires men with guns.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for voluntary, collective efforts such as Linux and Wikipedia. I’m using OSS to write this, and have contributed some small pieces of my own code to various OSS projects. But your attempt to reclaim the word “socialism” for this sort of endeavour is badly misguided. Choose another word, or make up a new one; one without such a long, ugly, and bloody history.

    To try to revive “socialism” is an insult to the memory of the hundred million or so people who died at the hands of various sorts of collectivists throughout the 20th century, from China and Russia, to Germany and Italy, to Cuba and North Korea, to countless African hellholes. The last thing the 21st century needs is to revive an evil and failed ideology.

  • @Martin said: ” Choose another word, or make up a new one; one without such a long, ugly, and bloody history.”

    Nope. Unless I find a better one, I am going to give this word a second chance. It’s trying to reform itself, repent of its past sins, and start lexiconic life anew.

  • evolutionaryagent

    Kevin, I’ve just picked the current issue of Wired, read it on the plane, and tweeted this from Brussels:

    new meme: “digital socialism” – Brilliant and courageous article about it by Kevin Kelly here:

    I’m not sure whether I like the “socialist” term, in spite my respect and appreciation of the women and men who gave their life to work for a humanist and deeply pragmatic core principle of social equity:
    “from everybody according to their abilities to everybody according to their need.” I still can’t see what is wrong with that as principle and design requirement for a truly equitable society.

    What is dead wrong in the practice, occurs when repressive states masquerading under the socialist ideology use it against autonomy, self-organization and (co-)creativity.

    My concern about the word “socialism” is that it is a bit divisive; it re-focuses the public discourse on the tired “left/right” dichotomy when the more essential choice that life is challenging us to make now, is between evolution and devolution.

    You wrote, “Unless I find a better one, I am going to give this word a second chance.” I particularly appreciate the “Unless…” part. It inspires me to weave the light coming from your analysis, with the one coming from:

    John Steward’s Evolutionary Manifesto
    Adam Arvidsson’s Ethical Economy
    Otto Scharmer’s Theory U
    Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry
    Bill McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle
    Hardt’s & Negri’s Empire

    Kevin, I feel your article is a precious contribution to the nascent, global “big picture” dialogue on where we go, *and* I also resonate with the libertarian pushback you’re getting. How is that possible? Because I am a fan of the self-organizing collective consciousness of the evolutionary movement and think that a large-scale conversation about the naming issue may contribute to understanding and expressing itself better.

    However, I’d not rush to settle on the name. At the end of the day, it is the practice of the multitudes, from which the new, and more powerful memes will emerge.

    Does any of the above make any sense to you, at all?


  • @ evolutionaryagent: Yes, thanks for the kind words and encouragement.

  • Matthew

    While this is socialism, small-s, it sounds like anarchism — which comes in many flavors, including a small-s socialism with a libertarian style antagonism towards top down authority.

  • George Por