Collaborative commons – a new era dawns?

Are we about to enter a new post-capitalist era?

A few thoughts on the ‘zero marginal cost society’, after hearing Jeremy Rifkin speak at the RSA London, 29th April.

Jeremy Rifkin argues that the zero-marginal-cost era is almost upon us, where there will be no longer any significant extra cost in bringing a product or service to market. No marginal cost means no profit, and there are some big implications there!

It will be the era of ‘collaborative commons’ (a hefty term), with social media blazing the trail. The next stage will be an internet of things when we can create what we want online – create our own apps, develop our own private algorithms, and more. We’ll not only communicate online, we’ll make our journeys in driverless cars, depend on green energy. Beyond that we’ll 3D print our own products: the first printed car (do I believe it?) is already on the roads. All American schools are to have their own 3D printers. Our natural instinct to share will be reborn, already have been in social media. We’ll share cars, find rooms to stay through community websites, children will realise that toys are not to be possessed but to be played with for a while, and then passed on. (Have the children been told?) The millennial generation, under thirty, already have a different more collaborative mindset. And this is only the beginning.

Rifkin is not arguing a political case, not is he anti-capitalist. This he argues is a development even Karl Marx failed to foresee, though Keynes with his concept of technology replacement came close in 1930.

Rifkin was asked at the RCA talk why was that people in the UK still thought in terms of the old categories of private, state and charity. With the millennial generation Rifkin believes that that will change. But I’d argue that as of now there’s no new paradigm, collaborative commons isn’t remotely part of the language or understanding. And without a big idea which people connect to, sharing as an economic driver will be much harder to establish.

Rifkin senses the change is inevitable. It doesn’t need protagonists. It will happen. In a collaborative world future generations will naturally revert to a sharing paradigm. They may not know it. But… without protagonists change will be much easier to resist. The music industry was swamped by free downloads before it knew what was happening. We’re all much wiser now.

Everyday products and services will inevitably be cheaper. Businesses will make less money. Pay lower wages. If we can 3D print and costs come tumbling, industries will go under. Rifkin argues there will be a long transition period. But could the result still be economic collapse? Will we be able to afford mortgages? To argue that in a collaborative world we will be sharing property rather misses the point. We may all, without explicitly realising it, decide it’s better to stay with inequitable old world A rather than leap of a cliff hoping that we’ll parachute happily into a promised collaborative land. I predict a hard landing. Or maybe we won’t even jump.

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