Earlier this year Kevin Carson penned the article 2017 and “Killer Apps” for the Transition. In it he argues that the political and economic disruptions that are currently engulfing American and the rest of the world have resulted in further uncertainty and precarity for most of the population. This disruption he claims will help speed up a transition towards to an economy that revolved around localized peer production, mutual aid and open source technologies. Carson theorizes that the carrot of material abundance and the stick of a failing system necessitating change would necessitate this economic revolution as a way to survive. In his words:
The cyclical crises which provided the material incentive for previous waves of adopting alternative technologies, are eclipsed by the scale of necessity entailed in the new era of systemic crises we’re entering. But at the same time as the material necessity for adoption surpasses anything in our collective memory, the sheer potential for abundance and freedom in the new technologies is also beyond our previous experience.
This material approach to the current crisis and what could come of it is understandable. The base drive to survive is an incredibly powerful motivator. It is understandable that Carson would use it to argue for the changes that our society will most likely undergo within the next 10 years or so. It makes sense that Carson would believe large swaths of people would embrace alternative economic practices – practices that require some understanding and would not appeal to comfortable middle-to-working class people living under a regime of Keynesian full employment and political stability.
However there are other motivating factors for such a transition. One that Carson does not stress (but definitely recognizes) is the desire for pleasure, fun and self-expression. These drives can be just as caustic to the legitimacy of power structures as innovations that enable information sharing and material abundance. For example the self-sacrificial culture required by the USSR was undermined among the youth by Western cultural innovations like Jazz and Rock and Roll. In his landmark book, A Renegade History of the United States historian Thaddeus Russell writes:
In East Germany...so-called Hot-Clubs for jazz sprang up in several cities after 1945 and 1946… The popularity of jazz – especially the styles conducive to dancing – were seen by the East German authorities as nothing less than the leading edge of American imperialism.
In 1957 East German authorities responded to the youth rebellion with justified despair for the future of Communism. Alfred Kurella, head of the new Communism for Culture in the Central Committee of the Social Unity Party warned of the danger of “growing decadent influences” that were spurring in the “animalistic element” in East German youth.
By the 1970s, desire for music frequently turned to hatred for the Communist regime. Riots broke out at several rock concerts, where the targets were usually the authorities who attempted to stop the performances.
Polls of Soviet youth showed they had far greater knowledge of rock stars than of Marx, Lenin or Stalin. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, East German youth flooded West Berlin record shops.
However this decay in institutions is not just limited to totalitarian governments overseas. An example of this sort of decay in the West can be seen in the filesharing movement. Despite pouring millions into trying to shutdown filesharing legally, the entertainment industry was unable to stop the shift in public consciousness that occurred thanks to filesharing. A 2011 survey by the Southern California Law Review showed that despite fines of $150,000 USD an illegally downloaded song, the majority of respondents (students at a local university) considered the behavior to be either in a moral grey area or outright morally acceptable. Despite coordinated efforts by both the entertainment industry and the government (by 2010, the RIAA had issued 18,000 lawsuits against individuals guilty of filesharing), the perception of filesharing among those using it remained morally neutral or morally acceptable. The simple desire for free music had inadvertently challenged one of the cornerstones of modern capitalism – intellectual property and had given teenagers all over the world a way to deal a significant blow to the entertainment industry.
The filesharing movement was not just destructive however – it also gave rise new technologies and platforms that have enhanced our freedom and possibilities. Many software companies now use peer to peer approaches to downloading software so as to relieve pressure on their servers (Blizzard Entertainment does this). Information platforms like Wikipedia and Wikileaks have both released torrents of their site that can be downloaded and shared between individuals.
A disruption of a similar scale is possible for physical toys, games and even types of self-expression. A study by Emily Petersen, Romain Kidd and Joshua Pearce looked at the potential for 3d-printers to impact the toy and game industry and found that access to a 3d-printer could result in dramatic price reductions for the consumer. Toys for children, props for board games and figurines can all be produced by local 3d-printers for dramatically reduced costs. According to the authors:
The cost of the filament was the largest variable controlling savings per product; however, each of the three filament types analyzed here on average saved the user over 75% of the cost of commercially available true alternative toys and over 90% for pellet-extruded filament and recyclebot-made filament.
While 3d-printing came with reduced material quality, the authors theorized that this could be offset by the reduced costs and the control offered to the end user. The authors use the example of Lego blocks to illustrate this point:
These cost savings came with ability to make never before seen toys. For example, although the cost of Lego blocks could be cut from 6 cents/block to about 0.5 cents per block using recycled filament, the real strength of 3D printing blocks is to make exactly what the consumer wants Lego compatible.
The underlying economics of this new paradigm means that hobbyists and enthusiasts may embrace this new approach to manufacturing for simple cost purposes. One possible use for distributed manufacturing touched on lightly in the study is cosplaying. Since distributed manufacturing naturally lends itself to customization, it should have obvious synergies with cosplaying, a practice that encourages self-expression, creativity and complex design. While the 3d-printers required to print full costumes are currently prohibitively expensive to most enthusiasts, many recognize that it can be used for smaller props with complex details. In an article detailing the pros and cons of 3d-printers for cosplaying Hayley Williams highly recommended the technology for the following reason:
I've always been a fan of resin casting, but some things are just way too fiddly to cast. The longer I spent with my printer, the more I realised that 3D printing fills those gaps perfectly. Jewelry pieces, intricate brooches or pendant, tiaras — when you put your mind to it, you'd be surprised how many cosplay pieces can fit on even the smallest build plate.
This flexibility is amplified by accessibility. According to the aforementioned study 3d-printing resulted in dramatic price cuts for expensive cosplay props. Consider the Frostmourne sword of the Lich King from the Warcraft universe – buying it from Blizzard entertainment costs $133 USD, but making it with a 3d-printer costs between $29.92 to $4.23 USD depending on the material used. This collapse in price is largely thanks to intellectual property constraints that restrict competitors from creating duplicate props. However maintaining control over intellectual property has become all but impossible in an age of torrenting and open source projects. The aforementioned Frostmourne sword can be found on myminifactory.com and is effectively licensed under a non-commerical creative commons licence.
The price accessibility is amplified further with a more economical and environmental approach to production. The authors stress the efficacy of recycling waste plastic at home by turning it into filament. Household scale recycling equipment like the Recyclebot can recycle plastic waste into usable filament effectively cutting the cost of filament to the cost of electricity required to run the recycling device. If you approach obtaining filament in this manner you can reduce costs from $23/kg USD (using the most popular filament on Amazon.com as comparison) to $2.16/kg USD. This further collapse in price effectively makes 3d-printer filament almost a non-scarce resource – one can imagine a not to distant future in which the plastic you own changes form as you see fit becoming jewelry, then a costume, then cutlery as you break it down in to filament and reconstitute it using your 3d-printer.
This vision of a world in which production is flexible and distributed is not entirely Carson's vision of a world in which mutual aid, localized production, voluntary assocation and freedom from intellectual property are the main forces driving society. It is however a step towards such a world. The inherently social nature of the pursuits described require people to come together, which will hopefully spread knowledge of distributed manufacturing by word-of-mouth. The popularity of sites dedicated to sharing designs means that we seem to be in a similar place with regards to intellectual property covering props as we were with music in the 00s – a murky grey space in which traditional norms are no longer enforceable. While there is no guarantee that cosplay and boardgame enthusiasts will begin forming cooperatives and mutual aid societies, distributed manufacturing will nevertheless undermine the traditional logic of 20th century capitalism, both in terms of how things are made and how information is sequestered. The driving forces behind the phase transition from a capitalist society to a peer to peer society (as described by Michel Bauwens) that are mostly talked about are negative and destructive - resource crises, breakdown of traditional political mechanisms and rising inequality because these are the most pressing and most obvious. However there are of course other, more pleasant driving forces to change. The Soviet Union may have had fundamental economic contradictions that made its collapse inevitable - but it was the seductive Western culture that disillusioned it among the youth that sped the process up. Distributed manufacturing can have a similar effect on attitudes towards traditional manufacturing / distribution models as people realize just how effective it is production-wise. Going forward we should remember that while material factors may be the primary motivator for shifts at a grassroots level, we should not discount the importance of cultural shifts in changing how people approach basic material reality. The transition to a post-capitalist society may be led just as much by people pursuing fun as people pursuing material security.
Cover image sourced from Jacob Ehnmark from flickr. Licenced under creative commons
In the Homebrew Industrial Revolution Carson roughly estimates that in his new economic mode the work could be reduced to 20 hours (with 2010 technology) and then goes on to comment how this would greatly improve the lives of most people. ↩︎