Voluntary Collaborationism: The Emergent Economic Model?

Over the last couple of years, in various interviews and discussions, I’ve been dropping the notion that Voluntary Collaborationism is the model for productive and creative activity and exchange for the future. I like to say that this is the emergent property of a networked culture. I certainly hope so.

I was moved to contemplate this further a few days ago when David Cobb asked me to be among the respondents who would be quoted on his “The Future and You” radio show, asking for a prediction about the future… particularly a trend that has largely been ignored. I responded thusly:

Some time, we’ll either have a full-on global economic collapse, or we’ll have a long boom that’s substantial enough to paper over our debt-based economic difficulties.  Either way — whether through desperation, or through the privilege of being comfortable and being able to act on our desires — the main future economic activity of most people will be transparent, open source, voluntary collaboration. Profit-based and state-based activities will continue, but they will slowly recede.  This is the natural result of a technologically advanced, networked society, but it will require either a breakdown or a breakthrough to help us make the shift.

The evidence for Voluntary Collaborationism (VC) as an emergent property is largely intuitive, in the sense that I can’t point to VC/open source projects today that are making an incursion of any size into the massive economy of production and exchange dominated by capital and the state. VC today lies largely beneath the surface of the more prominent activities that involve the pursuit of monetary value, involuntary (albeit, often democratic) social cooperation and charity. It is, today, a soft power of manifest usefulness in projects like Linux and Wikipedia, two efforts that are small change in an economic sense, but – at least for me – a big deal, in terms of quality of life. Speaking personally, losing Firefox and Wikipedia would feel like an amputation — almost as harmful to my ability to carry on my life’s work as the permanent loss of the use of a decent cell phone.

Additionally, it seems pretty clear that VC is a powerful attractor for human activity and community. It’s manifest in hundreds of DIY/Open Source/Maker/Citizen Scientist projects; in the way groups of people will spend more creative energy on their yearly Burner projects than they do on their jobs; in the emergence of gamification as a way to turn work into group play. In an introduction to my 2006 book, True Mutations, I put it this way:

The way hackers and other computer enthusiasts, and ravers, and old school punkers, and Burners will work and play and put in their own time and money to do something not because there is a potential for profits or awards or honors but out of sheer enthusiasm indicates something about human beings that goes unrecognized in both capitalist and socialist societies that presume people have to be coerced into making efforts. Granted a certain amount of autonomy, a certain permission to put some creativity into their work, and certain shared sense of community, people will do all kinds of stuff simply because its engaging to do and can be shared.

So, damn it, why hasn’t my Voluntary Collaborationism memeplex gone viral!?

I’m being a big silly and playful about ego here, but allow me to take this seriously for the moment. VC is essentially a left libertarian ideological construct in many ways limned from Kropotkin’s left anarchist ideal of mutual aid as a model for organizing the production and distribution of wealth. But Kropotkin’s idea has the memetic advantage of being radical and absolute. Left anarchists would overthrow the state and capitalism and bring about societies based on mutual aid. In contrast, my concept is self-admittedly pretty soft core. After all, it proposes that VC or “mutual aid” or perhaps “mutual productive play” will arise as an emergent and ultimately dominant evolutionary property in a society that will still include the market and the state. So, in this era of anger and disenfranchisement, it perhaps lacks the appeal of a revolutionary manifesto.

But, while I do think there are all kinds of reasons to participate in political activism (see “Open Source Party“), I also believe that VC will largely emerge as a manifestation of technological and social trends buoyed either by a near future economic opportunity to escape the grind into a more playful world or by the necessity of collaborating when the dominant modes of production and exchange go too deep into crisis to provide for most of us.

Those of us who have been participating in Voluntary Collaborationist projects should perhaps start thinking about how to make this work as a way of life.


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  2. “[W]e’ll either have a full-on global economic collapse, or we’ll have a long boom that’s substantial enough to paper over our debt-based economic difficulties.”

    Or we could have more of the same. Of the three, that seems most compelling (even positing strong AI).

    By the way, the opensource movement has rather commercial underpinnings. Some people confuse “opensource” with “alternative to modern economic systems”. This isn’t really true. To quote from a Forbes article from two years ago:

    “‘[T]he reality is we were hardcore capitalists . . . We liked a lot of the attributes of that type of software and felt a rebranding effort was needed. That is when the term ‘open source’ was coined.'”


    Read the article. Entrepreneurs use opensource to take advantage of training and service contracts. Don’t let a little sleight of hand hide the capitalist reality.

    The basic point is that capitalism exists because we need a way to allocate limited resources (economics 101). Resources will always be limited, no matter how much we all have. Not everyone can have Buckingham Palace for their summer resort. Obviously, competition for such nice resorts will continue; as long as it does, some people will struggle to work harder, get ahead (whether in reputation markets or cash), and then use it to have more than others. Although this struggle may take a different form or have new names and models of competition, it will still be capitalism.

    • Competition is not necessarily capitalism.
      Not everyone can live in a palace, but it can be (meritocratically) the brightest people, not simply the wealthiest.

  3. Folks, free software liberates. Do you think we’d have much of internet if it weren’t for free software? Can you imagine it running on shitty Microsoft software written by incompetent programmers? 🙂

    I don’t suggest readily that everything should be based on the free software model. But what WILL be is that free sharing of information is necessary to accelerate technological progress arbitrarily beyond a certain point. We are not at that point yet, but I think this is really the way to open up the floodgates. There is even a proof of this 🙂 However, naturally, for this to work, we need to hack economy as well. The current model won’t fit that.

    The reason you’re (some of you) not seeing how this could work is, because you are assuming the current economic model. What I’m saying is we will make this model obsolete. Well, I suppose this demands another article, doesn’t it?







    LESS THAN 5% ? LESS THAN 1% ?

    Really stop thinking in a capitalist way


  5. if there was a really good reason to be on the moon or mars we would be there or nearly there. really, who wants to live like a mole in an underground radiactive lifeless planet when you have to leave a planet we coevolved with.

    if you go back to the begining of reactive biology it involved finding light or organic molecules to power itself. as space for consistent light became a commodity it begat competition. animals needed to react to find organic material by sensing “odors”. plants moved to asborb light and to do so must have reacted by developing light sensing ability(the begining of sight). as animals began to complete heavily and predate they must have been able to sense (see, hear, feel, smell) predators and prey.

    this is the begining and entire process of thought. the competition to react more effectively to predator prey relationships and environmental adaptability.

    the second step is predicting behavior such as what will the prey do and what will the predator do. this is the cutting edge. life or death

    the third step is socialization. what will make the mate chose me over the other. how to work together to find prey or avoid predators.

    machines have evolved to the level of very simple animals in some regards. and since that evolution is guided and assisted by those very machines it will happen at a fantastic rate in comparison with biological evolution.

    as machine vision begins to “see” as we see they must also assign behavior to objects and predict their behavior

    here we have consciousness emerging

    as the predicting ability progresses it will be able to build scenarios of greater complexity. it will test these scenarios in vr. it will store the successful and the failures for future reference. it will begin to be allowed to implement these scenarios based on motives dictated by the builders. they should have no more motivation than your toaster or calculator or pc. why would they?

    since a machine has no motive to eat, have sex, reproduce or dominate it will do as directed. its motives will be our motives.

    when you read of a machine that can see and recognize objects and produce a vr of the potential behavior of these objects you will know that sai is near. as a super computer is endowed with this capabiltiy it will be able to categorize more objects and their behavior and then to begin to observe and learn about biological behavior. and chemical behavior and genetic(nanomachine) behavior.

    please dont attribute too much to human consciousness. it is only because of the weakness of that consciousness that we have not understood it already.

    we percieve ourselves as the most devine but we might not be all that


    the singularity is near. what it will tell us is not clear. it certainly will master engineering, then coordinated robotics, labor and renewable energy collection. if the robotics are constructed of common atoms and robots build robots and those robots build robots the progress toward ending human labor would be exponential. if those robots then use their labor to collect renewable energy we have two parts of the holy triad.

    energy from the sun, labor from robots and the third would be the liberation of atoms.

    if people in general throw up their hands and say let it be then the council on motivation will decide what the machines will do and wont do.

    as mentioned by many there is a question on what humans will do. as many have i suspect vr

  6. Open source collaboration will probably continue to be on the rise, but I can’t really see it overtaking business and the state.

    As long as people’s life-expenses aren’t covered for free, open source will never outgrow the traditional market. On the other hand, there may very well be a time when people’s life-expenses actually will be covered for free.

    Once machines take over our current jobs, free living may become a serious possibility. Until then, open source will probably remain an underdog in everything that is not information technology.

  7. I don’t got no fancy learnin’ but uh…my two cats fight over food. They appear to “own” certain areas of the house.

    Progressivism has always involved the Progressive Cat taking food from the greedy Capitalist Cat and then using his higher IQ and infinite compassion in tandem to redistribute the cat food to various felines. Now, P-Cat does have this cool cousin Freddie who plays drums and gets him into the after hours club…so he’s definitely getting some choice Purina. Other than that…compassion and love and intellect inform P-Cat’s thinking. Well…there is Sammy over there. He did vote for P-Cat and gave him some tuna….he should get a bit more. But besides that, fairness!

    Darwin kinda explained this a while ago, I think. But I drove past Harvard, never walked the campus. I know. I’ll pitch VC to my cats.

  8. joke : we consider the birghtest not to be the son of the son of the son (genetics law) but the student of the student of the student (genetics teacher)

  9. If you think that VC is effective and in general sense more progressive form of society why to keep market and state? Where is logic? Let say people who think that slavery is wrong and it is possible to live in society where everybody is free are opposed to slavery by all means. It is surprising to see people with doublethinking in real.

  10. I doubt it is compatible models of economy. Free, open software had to struggle against patents. It often lacks sufficient funding even if it has significant userbase. Some projects even were shut down dew to legal issues. I guess that either one model or another will lead, like it is now.
    It is both good and warning sign: it looks like certain emerging technologies are incompatible with modern capitalism. I guess most famous writing about it is Our Posthuman Future, by F. Fukuyama. His proposal is to restrict technology. Another pessimistic variant is one described by de Garis. So Krapotkin was right, imho.

  11. VC = Virtual Competition = Voluntary Colaboration is different from : Democracy = conflictual problem soving technique, as opposed to the consensual one, where instead of “dictature du prolétariat” (communism) you got a kind of “dictature of the brightest” but were, in fact, the best (utilitarianly long term vision) solution is choosen..

    • While I don’t disagree with your point, I’d like to point out that democracy can be consensual. There are working examples (eg. Switzerland with its consensus-oriented Federal Council), though they are few, and probably for good reasons, historically speaking.

  12. Well the Free Software movement inspired the Free Culture and Creative Commons concepts, right? 🙂 I wouldn’t mention “Open Source” so much, it’s a commercialization of the Free Software movement.

  13. That’s kind of economic paradigm is being researched at p2p foundation wiki and blog.
    That’s what open source ecology is doing in material and what John Robb want to achieve with open ventures at globalguerrillas.

    Interesting to know that, transhuman sphere also points out to such economic paradigm.

  14. Two points that I’d argue.

    – I think the the VC memeplex has gone viral. For non-fiction, see Eric Raymond’s “Cathedral and the Bazar.” In fiction, see some of Cory Doctorow’s stuff. “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”.

    – You say you can’t point to open source that is currently making a significant economic incursion. Take a look at the McKinsey report “Internet matters: The Net’s sweeping impact on growth, jobs, and prosperity.” Linux is about 70% of the server side market and growing, so most of the growth being talked about in the McKinsey report directly pulls from VC.

    • Interesting, Jerome, but I don’t have to say that you’re missing the point.

      @R.U. We shall see. I don’t have enough information on the history of economic models to make an accurate prediction and, like you said, “the evidence for Voluntary Collaborationism (VC) as an emergent property is largely intuitive,” so at this point and predictions are premature.

    • While I don’t disagree with your point, I’d like to point out that democracy can be consensual. There are working examples (eg. Switzerland with its consensus-oriented Federal Council), though they are few, and probably for good reasons, historically speaking.

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