Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, March 23, 2013

p2p is EITHER Pay-to-Peer OR it is Peers-to-Precarity

Also published at the World Future Society.

Paul Krugman is right to say that the cancellation of Google Reader provides yet another demonstration of the failure of private profitability to provide for the maintenance of public goods, even though I disagree that it seems hard in the least "to envision search and related functions as public utilities," which is indeed "where th[is] logic will eventually take us." Although such conclusions do take us far afield from the assumptions and aspirations that drive the common wisdom of the catastrophically failed generation of neoliberal digital-utopian irrational exuberance, it is just as true that they return us to terms that should be familiar from Econ 101.

I argue that the free creative content provision, collaborative problem-solving and editing, citizen journalism and criticism facilitated by peer-to-peer networks provides public goods the ongoing support of which more than justifies the provision of a universal basic income guarantee (BIG). I argue, further, that a long history of public subsidization of communications infrastructure (the post office, roads, telegraphy, telephony, WWW) and of public education to facilitate continental-scaled good governance among a well-informed citizenry since the founding era offers a congenial context for the comparable case for a public subsidization of "free time" for citizens in the expectation that enough of them would fill it with innovative problem solving and network maintenance that it would more than compensate the public investment. In the past I have called arguments of this kind an advocacy of pay to peer.

I still think this is true, but since a basic income guarantee would also happen to function, as Erik Olin Wright has pointed out, as the public subsidization of a permanent strike fund for all people who work for a living, this means that any such public recognition of the value of peer-to-peer collaboration is more or less tantamount to establishing socialism of a sort. Again, I personally think this consequence is perfectly acceptable, even welcome, but the experience of a lifetime of advocacy for single payer healthcare in the US makes me doubt that this logically inescapable optimally beneficial outcome is politically possible here and now.

It does seem to me that, taken together, a mandated living wage and retirement security and long-term unemployment and disability insurance and paid family leave would be hard to distinguish in substance from a basic income guarantee, which means that what might initially seem novel and radical about basic income proposals is a matter of facile oversimplification and clumsy re-invention of the wheel. Perhaps #BasicIncome is merely a technofix for the technofixated. Maybe the dis-aggregation of a single imagined one-size-fits-all "universal basic income" back into a more familiar democratic-left bundle of social supports and equal opportunities connects us back to a more historical sense of the complexity and dynamism of the problem of unemployment in personal, social and civic life.  

Beyond conventional social democracy or strong liberalism, however, I do think the contours of this kind of argument do provide new justifications for considerably expanded public grants for research in professional, academic, and amateur contexts with the proviso that all the results are placed in the public domain. This is a policy that might yield plenty of wholesome benefits without unleashing a Red Panic. Given the resulting invigoration of public education, funding for the arts, re-stocking of the creative commons, I think virtuous circles arising out of this more modest form of pay-to-peer are more than worth the effort of the fight for it and, hell, might even get us closer to BIG anyway after all (no doubt, as usual, Michele Bachmann will grasp this dire consequence before anybody else does).

I think this rhetoric provides an unexpected added rationale for lowering the retirement age, since publicly valuable p2p-mediated creativity is such a likely recourse for retirees seeking new forms of fulfillment. (By the way, lowering the retirement age and expanding Medicare eligibility by from two to six years is something I think should be done as a straightforward spur to employment in our present flabbergastingly urgent jobs crisis, precisely the opposite of the macroeconomically illiterate and pathologically cruel recommendations of a consensus of well-off experts whose misplaced concern with long-term deficits supplemented by phony futurological handwaving about techno-utopian eternal youth are demanding instead, of course, a raising of the retirement age for chronically underpaid underbenefited folks who actually have to work for a living.)

I would note that in the absence of public subsidization of p2p-mediated creativity and problem solving what has taken place instead is the perfectly predictable intensive corporate capture via crowdsourcing of unpaid disseminated labor. MOOCs, the latest idiotic fad of the ever more corporatized university represents, of course, an effort to apply this kind of wealth capture in the context of the hitherto stubbornly unprofitable ivory tower, transforming vital and unique face-to-face collaborations in classrooms into indefinite distributions of syndicated network television.

As a corollary to my advocacy of pay-to-peer -- that is to say, my advocacy of public investment and subsidization of peer-to-peer creative problem solving, expressivity, criticism, and network maintenance whether in the strong form of the provision of a universal basic income guarantee or in the modest form of massively expanded public grants for actual peer-to-peer efforts the results of which are entered into the public domain -- I have also proposed that all contemporary consumers might well be conceived of as de facto experimental animals in a vast and ongoing experiment concerning the long term health effects of complex combinations of pharmaceutical treatments coupled with exposure to innumerable artificial substances. It seems to me that since we experimental citizen-subjects provide (usually without adequate knowledge or, hence, consent) indispensable data supporting the profitability of pharmaceutical and other manufacturing concerns the reasonable demand for compensation provides yet another justification for a basic income or at any rate for a single-payer healthcare system.

What I would emphasize is just how closely the logic of this second, apparently unrelated, argument tracks the logic of the initial case I made for pay-to-peer, but also that the absence so far of any institutionalized compensation (apart from sporadic payouts from lawsuits when things go terribly wrong) for the indispensable data we are providing corporate-military interests at the literal risk of our lives has not protected our privacy from unprecedented levels of corporate-military surveillance and targeted marketing practices.

From all of these instances an urgent generalization emerges soon enough: In the absence of its public subsidization peer to peer collaboration is always accompanied by increasing precarity. Whenever and wherever peer-to-peer labor formations are celebrated (for their "open access," for their "flexibility," for their "resilience," for their "innovation"), but this celebration is not just as repeatedly and explicitly accompanied by the recognition that this provision of services and maintenance of public goods is almost certainly unpaid labor, then one must read such celebrations for what they are, as celebrations of exploitation.

p2p means EITHER Paid to Peer OR it means Peers to Precarity. The politics are as stark as that, and the evidence of their urgency mounts by the minute.

Also see A Neoliberalization of Basic Income Discourse?

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