torsdag 13 november 2014

Books I've read (August)

As I came back to Sweden and started to work (in August) I threw myself over the books below to prepare myself for my course on the Future of Media and this year's theme "The digital commons and the sharing economy". I started keeping my eyes open to this theme already at the end of last year by reading Botsman and Roo's (2010) "What is mine is yours" (see this blog post).

Here's the previous blog post about books I've read. The asterisks below refer to the number of quotes from the book (see further below).

Jay Walljasper's "All that we share: A field guide to the commons" (2010) has a long "slogan" or perhaps an "introduction" pretty much summing up the book printed directly on the cover: "How to save the economy, the environment, the Internet, democracy, our communities, and everything else that belongs to all of us". Walljasper is an American writer and activist and his book is a collection of many (dozens) short inspiring texts by himself, fellow activist David Bollier and many other activists writers and academics. From what I can piece together, it seems Bollier was the founding editor of On the Commons ( and Walljasper was (and is) one of the editors there:

"On the Commons is a citizens' network that highlights the importance of the commons in our lives and promotes innovative commons-based solutions to create a brighter future"

Their Commons Magazine (online) seems interesting and I would would guess that many of the other contributors to the book have written for or are connected to On the Commons in one way or another. The book has that kind of feeling to it. It might even be the case that some (or many?) of the texts in the books are processed texts from that website or elsewhere. That would at least explain the lack of tight coherence and the fact that the book sure feels like it is the result of many disparate texts put together. I would say that the book could work as an introduction, as a source of inspiration or as a smorgasbord of more action-oriented writers trying to answer questions such as: what is at stake? what are the issues? what has been tried? what has worked? The more general (very short) chapters are for example called: "What, really, is the commons?" ("The commons refer to a wealth of valuable assets that belong to everyone"), "Is the commons un-American?", "Where to find the commons", "Why I call myself a commoner", "Citizenship 2.0" and "How to become a commoner". Me being an academic, this book didn't make much for me except to showcase the creation (or revival) of "the new commoner" - the person who is willing to create, share and tend to common resources in (primarily) their local communities.

******** I've been peripherally aware of this Jeremy Rifkin guy for a long time (I have even had an unread book of his in my bookshelf for at least 10 years). This is the first time I read a book of his though and it's his latest, brand new (2014) but cumbersomely titled "The zero marginal cost society: The Internet of things, the collaborative commons, and the eclipse of capitalism". 

Rifkin has his heart in the right place, but certain characteristics of the book made it a book that was hard for me to like. Rifkin has a consultancy firm and a sizeable part of the book consists of self-promotion of him as a person, earlier insights of his, his previous book, his current consultancy and everything else Rifkin. Also, this is clearly a book on a "big idea" which might sound like a good idea but isn't. The book has one, or a small set of ideas that are not so much elaborated and explored as hammered into the forehead of the reader, one of them being Rifkin's concept (as well as the title of his previous book) "The Third Industrial Revolution" (TIR). I'm not sure the set of ideas really fit together as neatly as Rifkin claims, but there is no room for doubt when reading Rifkin's book. Rifkin's point is that in the future everyone will be happy because with digital technology (including big data and 3D printing) the marginal cost of, well, everything will come down so low that it will be indistinguishable from zero. Being interested in sustainability, I also found some of his basic operating assumptions ludicrous since they do not at all take any kind of scarcity into account - despite the fact that we obviously live on a finite planet where the low-hanging fruit is getting more and more scarce:

"when the marginal cost of producing ... goods and services approaches zero and the price becomes nearly free, the capitalist system loses its hold over scarcity and the ability to profit from another's dependency.
The notion of organizing economic life around abundance and use and share value rather then scarcity and exchange value is so alien to the way we conceive of economic theory and practice that we are unable to envision it. But that is what is just beginning to emerge in wide sectors of the economy as new technologies make possible efficiencies and productivity that all but eliminate the cost of producing additional units and services"

Despite these objections, I also found some interesting ideas in the book (see the quotes below) though on the whole, my first encounter with Rifkin unfortunately turned out to be a disappointment.

* Malcolm Harris and Neal Gorenflo's (2012) "Share or die: Voices of the gest lost generation in the age of crisis" is a book by activists and, I assume, for activist. It is reminiscent of Walljasper's book (above), with 20+ chapters (some really short) sprawling in many different directions (i.e. the book doesn't have a very strong focus). Just as with Walljasper's book, this book too came out of an online network/magazine, but it has a less civic and a more gritty, down-in-the-trenches feel to it. This is natural since many of the contributors are young people who have painful first-hand experiences of graduating right into a contracting, post-2008 economy, not being able to find a job etc.

The book is an easy read and gives insights into the lives, the conditions and the coping strategies of young Americans who, for the most part unexpectedly, meet hardship in their lives. It is interesting as testimony of their lives and the challenges they meet and sometimes overcome, but it is less interesting for me as an academic.

Lisa Gansky's "The mesh: Why the future of business is sharing" (2010) is competing in the exact same space as the above-mentioned "What is mine is yours" by Botsman and Roo. I'd say the Botsman and Roo's book hands-down is the winner in that space. This is yet another "big idea" book and as part of that strategy, Gansky of course has to invent a new term ("The mesh"), explain what it is and then consistently use it throughout the book. It's a given that the book in (large) part is an advertisement for Lisa Gansky and the services she has to offer companies.

"Fundamentally, the Mesh is based on network-enable sharing - on access rather than ownershiop. The central strategy is, in effect, to "sell" the same product multiple times."

As an alternative to reading this book, I would instead recommend Gansky's 15-minute Ted Talk.


----- On the triumph of capitalism as the reason for its demise -----

"Although economists and entrepreneurs never intended for the capitalist system to self-destruct ... a careful look at its operating logic reveals the inevitability of a future of near zero marginal cost. A near zero marginal cost society is the optimally efficient state for promoting the general welfare and represents the ultimate triumph of capitalism. Its moment of triumph, however, also marks its inescapable passage from the world stage."
Rifkin (2014). "The Zero Marginal Cost Society", p.8-9.

----- On the medieval sustainable renewable energy revolution -----

"By the late eleventh century ... France boasted 20,000 water mills ... for an average of one mill for every 250 people. The economic impact was dramatic. A typical water mill generated two to three horsepower for approximately half the time the mill was operating. A water mill could replace the labor of 10 to 20 people.
Where water was either lacking, too intermittent, or on the property of the lords, towns and cities turned to wind power.
In the 1790s ... there were more than half a million water mills operating in Europe with the equivalent of 2,250,000 horsepower. Although fewer in number, the thousands of windmills up and running at the time were generating even more power than the water mills. The average windmill could produce upward of 30 horsepower."
Rifkin (2014). "The Zero Marginal Cost Society", p.33-34.

----- On 3D printing as "sustainable manufacturing" -----

"Traditional factory manufacturing is a subtractive process. Raw materials are cut down and winnowed and then assembled to manufacture the final product. In the process, a significant amount of the material is wasted and never finds its say into the end product. Three-dimensional printing, by contrast, is additive infofacturing. ... Additive infofacturing uses one-tenth of the material of subtractive manufacturing, giving the 3D printer a substantial leg up in efficiency and productivity.
the 3D printing movement is deeply committed to sustainable production. Emphasis is on durability and recyclability and using nonpolluting materials.."
Rifkin (2014). "The Zero Marginal Cost Society", p.90-01.

----- On 3D printing as the technology that will save the world's poverty-stricken masses  -----

"It is in the developing world, however, that a Makers infrastructure is evolving in its purest form. In poor urban outskirts, isolated towns, and rural locales - where infrastructure is scant, access to capital spotty, at best, and technical expertise, tools, and machinery virtually nonexistent - 3D printing provides a desperately needed opportunity for building a TIR [Third Industrial Revolution] Makers infrastructure."
Rifkin (2014). "The Zero Marginal Cost Society", p.102.

----- Should government or private firms build (pay, charge for) our infrastructure? -----

"there are certain kinds of goods - public goods - that are nonrivalrous because everyone needs to have access to them - for example, roads and bridges, water and sewage systems, railroad lines, electricity grids, etc. These public goods are generally of the kind that establish infrastructure for conducting all other economic activity and require significant capital expenditures. ... All of which raises the question: How should infrastructure and public goods be paid for?."
Rifkin (2014). "The Zero Marginal Cost Society", p.136.

----- On US subsidies of big business (including dirty energy) -----

"In the United States, over half of all federal tax subsidies go to just four industries - finance, utilities, telecommunications, and oil, gas, and pipelines. With the exception of finance, they bear all the earmarks of pubic utilities. Between 2008 and 2010, gas and electric utilities received more than $31 billion in government subsidies, telecommunication got more than $30 billion, and oil, gas, and pipelines weighed in with $24 billion."
Rifkin (2014). "The Zero Marginal Cost Society", p.137-138.

----- On "algorithm neutrality" -----

"social media sites like Twitter might be tempted to manipulate rankings, one of the more popular features used to engage their members. For example, Twitter hosts a feature called Twitter Trends, which identifies hot topics and issues of current interest that are "trending". Questions have been raised about whether the algorithms companies use to spot and rank trends might be programmed to reflect the biases of the management that oversees them, consciously or otherwise. Julian Assange's supporters suspected that Twitter deliberately finagled the trending during the WikiLeaks scandal. Industry watchers are beginning to ask, how we can maintain "algorithm neutrality"?"
Rifkin (2014). "The Zero Marginal Cost Society", p.203.

----- On cooperatives employing more people than multinational companies -----

"much of humanity is already organizing at least some parts of its economic life in cooperative associations operating in Commons. It's just that we never hear about it. ... Perhaps it's because the global media are concentrated in the hands of a few giant for-profit media companies that decide what is news. ... More than 100 million people are employed by cooperatives, or 20 percent more employees than in multinational companies"
Rifkin (2014). "The Zero Marginal Cost Society", p.213.

----- On student debt in the US -----

"In August 2010, student loans surpassed credit cards as the [US] single largest source of debt, edging ever closer to $1 trillion. Yet for all the moralizing about American consumer debt by both political parties, no one dares call higher education a bad investment. The nearly axiomatic good of a university degree in American society has allowed a higher education bubble expand to the point of bursting.
Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt."
Harris & Gorenflo (Eds.) (2012). "Share Or Die", p.169.

1 kommentar:

  1. Thanks Daniel, a wonderful post as always (even though I'm reading it well after it was written!). Very good point about Rifkin's subject position as a consultant. He can't exactly point to scarcity and play the consulting-to-business- game at the same time. It is amazing though, that a smart person like he is allows himself such a lapse in logic. I'm sure he's aware and he probably feels like he's doing what he can within the bounds of reality. Great selection of quotes, too.