Monday, July 21, 2014

The Zero Marginal Cost Society-Review

The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of CapitalismThe Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism by Jeremy Rifkin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I agree with other reviews that I've read that suggest author Rifkin often has a "Gatling" approach to supplying facts and theories, and a tendency to offer the same theory over and over (as if he was paid by the word someone suggested!)-all true.
Even so, his contribution here that pure capitalism is in a transition to a hybrid economy made up of part capitalism and part collaborative commons is valid and worthwhile. He reminds us that the feudal system transitioned to the market economy starting in the ninth century and then with The Great Enclosure Movement of the 16th-19th centuries built a legal system that protected private property just as the Industrial Revolution began in earnest. Now, another shift is happening: capitalism has begun to share the global stage with one that uses collaborative data, has free or almost free goods and services available (because the cost of producing more goods is zero for online goods) and allows for more efficient (or sufficient) use of natural systems.
How all businesses will make profit in this future economy is undecided and he reminds us that economists from Keynes to Marx wondered about it too. In other words, there are some potentially scary unplanned moments ahead.
It's also important to discuss how the collection of Big Data which is almost always used as a negative in popular media has allowed the emergence of shared information for distribution systems, food production, human health, social revolutions and of course communication among others and is allowing for more interdisciplinary scholarship and maybe most importantly a reduction in ecological impact.

All of this is interesting as someone who hears the argument against the collaborative commons almost daily based on the legal implications of (in Rifkin's words) "moving from exclusive ownership to conditional rights". His statement that "markets are giving way to networks and ownership is less important than access" is beguiling language for any community activist. As a farmers market partisan, I already believe in the power of the commons and see every week how informal relationships can build a new economy. I regularly see mistrust of how this type of collaborative production or virtual distribution impairs adding or improving infrastructure, and yet I would argue that we need to reduce our dependence on that anyway as our main economic driver in municipal or civic systems.
Do I worry about loss of privacy? Some, but less so from my neighbors and fellow citizens who are bound by networks of social capital or because of the lack of shared networks with me, I am warned against sharing information or goods. In any case, these virtual networks only add to my existing (and more important) physical networks and allow me to bridge to more people and ideas.

We need to remember that it is not a total eclipse, but only a partial one and will allow for more diverse relationships and systems in other sectors while still retaining some capitalist characteristics when valid, like in local food production. It may also reduce the possibility of monopolies or at least reduce their length, since technological innovation be harder to stifle in collaborative systems.

As for Rifkin, I like his quirky way on these subjects, but he should never be your only theorist on economic systems. If you are interested in reading someone who expands his thinking and has long embraced the need to address the ecological impacts of modern life, you need to read this, or at least, read the first few chapters.

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