A New S- Word

One of the topics I talk about here is the open-source model of software development; and, more generally, about the kinds of collaborative actions that are made possible by communications technology, most notably by the Internet.  So I was very interested to see, in the recent issue of Wired magazine, an article by Kevin Kelly called “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online”.

Now, the first thing I want to say about the article is that I think the title is unfortunate.  As Mr. Kelly himself says, the word “socialism” carries with it an awful lot of baggage:

I recognize that the word socialism is bound to make many readers twitch. It carries tremendous cultural baggage, as do the related terms communal, communitarian, and collective. I use socialism because technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions. Broadly, collective action is what Web sites and Net-connected apps generate when they harness input from the global audience. Of course, there’s rhetorical danger in lumping so many types of organization under such an inflammatory heading. But there are no unsoiled terms available, so we might as well redeem this one.

What he is talking about is not a political ideology, and in fact doesn’t have much to do with politics at all, at least at present.  Rather, he’s looking at a range of collaborative activities that are enabled by Internet tedchnology, including:

  • Sharing In some sense the first and most basic form, sharing is represented by sites like Facebook or YouTube.  There has, of course, been some controversy over people sharing content that is not theirs to share, but I’d guess that most of what’s there is personal and completely above-board.
  • Cooperation This is the next step, in which a (usually) ad hoc group works together toward some common purpose.  Many of the original text-based newsgroups on USENET fit this pattern, as do user-focused support forums.  To cite one example in which I’ve participated, the group comp.lang.c has existed for many years to discuss and help resolve programming problem with the C language.
  • Collaboration Represents a more organized group working with a more focused purpose. Many open-source projects, like the Apache Web server, fit this pattern.   Here it is commonly the case that the direct reward to an individual participant is small compared to his or her investment of skilled labor.  Rather, the rewards tend to be intangible: reputation for skill, for example.
  • Collectivism This is the pattern exhibited by the largest group endeavors, like Wikipedia, or the development of the Linux operating system.  Typically, the total number of contributors is large, but there is a smaller core group that coordinates the effort.  In the case of Linux itself, there is also its originator, Linus Torvalds, who serves as a “benevolent dictator”.

One of the interesting aspects of all this is that it seems to alleviate some of the tension that always existed between allowing individual freedom and initiative on one  hand, and organizing for efficiency on the other.

In the past, constructing an organization that exploited hierarchy yet maximized collectivism was nearly impossible. Now digital networking provides the necessary infrastructure. The Net empowers product-focused organizations to function collectively while keeping the hierarchy from fully taking over. The organization behind MySQL, an open source database, is not romantically nonhierarchical, but it is far more collectivist than Oracle.

(This ties in, too, with some of the writing that Eric Raymond has done on the open-source phenomenon, notably his extended essay, “Homesteading the Noosphere”.)

Kelly’s hypothesis is that the success of collective ventures enabled by the Internet is making people more receptive to the idea of collective action on other fronts.  The Internet phenomena are different from traditional political socialism, in that they are based much more on pragmatism than ideology.

The coercive, soul-smashing system of North Korea is dead; the future is a hybrid that takes cues from both Wikipedia and the moderate socialism of Sweden.

I am not at all sure that I agree with all his conclusions about the political import of these “collectivist” activities, but I think it is clear that we are seeing the evolution of an interesting new social and cultural phenomenon.   It’s been an interesting journey so far.

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