Old Philosophies, New Technology

In a recent article in Wired, Kevin Kelly remarked that “the frantic global rush to connect everyone to everyone, all the time, is quietly giving rise to a revised version of socialism.” He’s got a point. Wikis, peer-to-peer file sharing, and creative commons licensing do seem to follow the “for each according to his ability, to each according to his need” creed. And it’s rather ironic that the fruits of entrepreneurial dot-com capitalism would spawn such collectivist eco-systems.

Or have they? I think the digital eco-systems to which Kevin Kelly speaks isn’t socialism at all but more like a hallmark of American democratic capitalism. Back in 1831, Alexis De Tocqueville observed that Americans displayed a peculiar fondness for civic associations,

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools…I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object to the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.

(Democracy in America Volume 2, Chapter 5)

Sounds a bit like the meetups and tweetups we have today only the invitation comes electronically. So what motivates us to organize? In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky defined three ingredients to a successful self-organized group. A plausible promise, something big enough to mean somthing, but not too big that we can’t picture ourselves achieving it; the tools to connect us (i.e. social media); and and finally, an acceptable bargain for all participants that settles the tension between personal desires and group goals. For De Tocqueville the terms of that bargain is dictated by something he dubbed “self-interest rightly understood”. See, because we live in societies with other people, we all have to get along with one another, so it’s in our slef-interest for everyone else to also have their self-interests fulfilled.  “[Americans show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.”


What we’re seeing isn’t a “new socialism”. What we’re seeing is old school, made in the USA, enlightened capitalism where we help ourselves by helping others. Social media has simply heightened our awareness of this principle.

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