The California Ideology (again)

August 7th, 2012 | No comments yet

Isn’t it odd to still see The California Ideology espoused with such faith?

For the first time in history, the age of networks and mobile devices has created the efficiency and the social glue to… [enable] the sharing and exchange of assets from cars, to bikes to skills to share space.
— Rachel Botsman, What’s mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption

For the first time in history, we’ll be able to share things like bikes! What’s next, carpooling? Who woulda’ thought!? THANKS INTERNET. I would have never thought of sharing my bike if it wasn’t for you.

This raises some disturbing questions concerning the state of education in the land.

Since the dawn of history (to match hyperbole with rhetorical flourish on fact) the world’s communities didn’t need the internet to organise complex ways of sharing. In fact, it went way beyond the idea of sharing things you owned. There was simply “the shared” that in practice nobody owned. The greatest example perhaps go by way of the First Nations; nobody owned the land per se. Or the fish, or the sky, or any such things. Sure, not all was rosy, and tribes fought over territory, but ownership — not quite. The people shared the land with the animals, the spirits, the weather, and other people, and so on. You couldn’t own the land, or anything from it, really.

In Britain, strangely this was also the case: the land all but belonged to no one. On paper, the aristocracy did own the deeds, but it was the same aristocracy that formalized the Commons with anti-enclosure acts of the 15th & 16th centuries. It is ironic (from today’s perspective) that the aristocracy saw the benefit of halting the enclosure of common land, so as not to turn the entire peasantry into vagabonds (the criminalized homeless). Over a period of 150 years, the English aristocracy saw it fit to ensure the peasantry had access to shared land as a common good.

In fact the involvement of 20th century communication technologies has not boded well for sharing. At least not on the whole. Thanks to industrial technologies and this little thing called the industrial revolution the Western world all but abolished “shared space.” The bourgeoise revolutions did out with the aristocracy, establishing, at the same time, private domain over what were previously “Crown lands.” This was known as the enclosure of the commons during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the enclosure acts condemned self-sustaining communities into generations of homelessness and impoverishment. Enclosing the commons conveniently provided the much-needed workforce for the new industrial regime. Wage slavery had been born — as well as urban homelessness, vagabonds, child workers, sweatshop labour and all the ills the aristocracy attempted to guard against. In fact, the whole thing was so abhorrent it prompted a number of interesting books by Charles Dickens and this other one by a guy called Engels.

Anyway, Botsman’s quote was used recently by angel investor Ron Conway in The Economist.

At the same time, entrepreneurs are using technology and social insights to create trusted communities for these new peer-to-peer marketplaces. The flagship example of this movement is AirBnB, which builds a market around renting one’s living space.
— Ron Conway, special adviser to SV Angel (The Economist: The World in 2012, 127)

Of course, this is from someone who sees peer-to-peer markets as a novelty in 2012. Perhaps I am confused, but I thought the very definition of the market meant peer-to-peer. I think we’ve hit upon another ideology here, as in, another point where an assumed truth reveals its artifice: that today, “markets” are for corporations only. When we have small-scale people sharing things, whether for gain or for exchange, we suddenly have peer-to-peer markets. Not the market as-such.

I get that P2P also means distributed software and/or decentralized networks for such things. Great. So now we can do all that online. I get that; it works. And if anything I do see that Conway is sneaking the very concept of “sharing” into the bastion of neoliberal ideology, The Economist, which is no mean feat. It’s just unfortunate he can only do so by turning sharing into a revenue-generating concept, i.e., by enclosing sharing yet again. He is, after all, an angel investor. Sharing needs to be monetized before it has value. The idea of sharing as a common good — precisely because it is a major force against poverty — is all but lost here.

But to get back to general ideas, it seems to me that even in terms of the history of the internet, utilising networks for sharing is not particularly novel. Just a new form of distribution on mobile hardware. It might certainly render it all more effective and integrated, but on a mass scale, but hardly new. I can recall all the levels of the internet being used for sharing, from BBS to iRC. I mean, this is all post-P2P networks anyway, right? I mean, the Net is based upon file-sharing.

As for the concept of sharing, it’s not only ancient, it’s really an eternal concept, as the philosophers put it. It’s so ancient I would even hazard that it says something about one of humanity’s more positive traits: the ability to share things. It bears close resemblance to altruism. It’s kind of altruism in-action.

What does Conway look forward to in 2012? “Collaborative consumption.” The great hope of dot-com neoliberalism today is that we’ll all share our consumptioning together. Or that we’ll consume together. Or perhaps consume each other. Or something. Fair enough, though, I would like to hear more about what this means, because I could sense something subversive about it, insofar as it undermines the sandbox ideal of individual purchases that are not supposed to be shared (i.e., music DRM).

I guess it be a good thing that hey, the internet might facilitate some forms of sharing that humanity has known and loved for thousands of years. Perhaps we’ll even manage to grab back a few shares lost to the ever encroaching Moloch as of late. But to think this is novel only reveals the impoverishment of the capitalist imagination in the 21st century. The world needs to share a whole lot more.

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