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.