One of Ireland’s thicker politicians recently made the rather bold claim that the country was in danger of becoming "a lawless utopia." The ditzy comment spurred much head-scratching among the Irish, who tried fruitlessly to square her obvious negative intent with the image of a paradise on earth so wonderful even laws would be obsolete.
After all, most of us, it’s fair to say, would agree that a lawless utopia sounds like a pretty good thing. It’s just that it also sounds… how shall I put this…utopian? Unrealizable? Ultra-idealistic?
Nonetheless, the recent paperback edition of Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future by British journalist Paul Mason got me thinking about lawless utopia again. The book itself was something of a disappointment, with the author offering up such morsels of wisdom as “understand the limits of human willpower” and “attack the problem from all angles,” apparently in ignorance of the fact that you can get this kind of sage advice for free on social media now, alongside perennial favorites like “follow your dreams” and “once you choose hope, anything is possible.” In fact, Postcapitalism reads like one long buzzy LinkedIn post, a collection of a hundred inspirational anecdotes, none of them leading anywhere much.
This created an atmosphere of such utter boredom while reading that the high points for me consisted in a mention of one economist named Slutsky and another named Cockshott (sadly, the constraints of time and space prevented them from ever producing a mutual paper).
But these failings notwithstanding, Mason’s main premise, that information technology will bring with it profound new ways of work and perhaps a new economy—a post-capitalist economy if you will—is an interesting one. Unlike so many others on the political left—and Mason is definitely and unapologetically on the left—he has grasped that a return to the glory days of widespread union membership and workplace solidarity is impossible. People simply do not live and work in the rooted communities of the past—they are more disaggregated, hopping from job to job and city to city, working on contract, freelance or as self-employed "entrepreneurs" of the digital age. At the same time, the scarcity model of economic understanding is at least partially unraveling, with social enterprise and the sharing economy blurring, as the author puts it, the distinction between work and play.
Unfortunately, the insights end there. While Mason views the "networked individual" plugged in to the online community as key to the future, recognizing that not only will we change technology, but that it will change us, he does not pursue this line of philosophy to any particular conclusion. Instead, he uses the final chapter of his book to offer up such simple recipes for change as “nationalize the central bank,” “switch off the neoliberal privatization machine” and “liberate the 1 percent” because “[t]hey become poorer and therefore happier. Because it’s tough being rich.” Naively hopeful doesn’t begin to describe this. Even Jesus went in for a bit more of the carrot and stick when he declared that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.
That being said, the idea of economic decentralization is a big one, something we’ve all been vaguely eyeballing for a while now, with a mix of tingling anticipation and anxious trepidation.
In his science-fiction books, Scottish author Iain M. Banks created one of the most spectacular utopias of all time, a society not far off the one Mason seems to be pointing to. This society, known simply as the Culture, was inhabited by what one could term "networked individuals" who live in a perpetual state of awe-inspiring abundance, without central government and free to live life on whatever terms they choose. More to the point, when Banks began writing his Culture novels (the first was published in 1987) few people had cellphones or home computers of any description. Yet Banks envisaged a culture (or Culture) in which all citizens had the potential to connect to each other and to the collective knowledge of their entire society at any given time. It is this connectivity to each other and to the communal knowledge base that Mason also sees as pivotal for the new post-capitalist economy.
At the time of Banks’ death in 2013, smartphones and Wikipedia had ensured that society had come a long way toward looking like the civilization he had foreseen, although it was still lacking a few things on the Culture, and not just the space travel and three-legged aliens. We may be pretty much networked like a utopia, but we do not enjoy either the equality or freedom of one.
So, how to get from the point of transition Mason senses to something more like the wonderland described by Banks?
The key, I believe, lies in creating mechanisms for decentralization while still maintaining quality control. We have seen a certain decentralization of knowledge, as Mason points out, but we need to follow this up with decentralization in other areas of life. Technology is key here, but unlike Mason, I have difficulty in believing that such change is inevitable or that it will occur spontaneously.
Another recent paperback, Digital Gold: The Untold Story of Bitcoin offers an instructive example. Prior to reading, I had been worried that Digital Gold would be a slog of technical details that would force into my mind the unholy knowledge of how Bitcoin actually works. However, it turned out to be a surprisingly easy, and genuinely interesting read.
Although—spoiler alert—the author does tell you how Bitcoin works, the emphasis of the book is on why a digital currency was dreamed up in the first place and the ups and downs of trying to make it a success.
Early Bitcoin collaborators foresaw the coming end of cold, hard cash, and went to some efforts to create a digital equivalent that would allow for anonymous transactions. However, Bitcoin’s political potential went much further than cash replacement. Its manner of production—by harnessing computing power—placed it beyond the control of central banks and governments. Taken to its logical conclusion, this allows money to become a shared resource, instead of something that can be manipulated by a small number of individuals deciding on monetary policy in the form of interest rates, quantitative easing (printing more money) and the like. Bitcoin, when used as creator Satoshi Nakamoto intended, has this decentralization embedded into the very technology—the collective, not the individual, is in charge. When one thinks of the way the LIBOR rate, that is the interest rate banks charge each other, was manipulated in the run up to the 2008 crash, or how credit rating agencies handed out triple-A ratings to what would later become junk bonds, it is all too obvious that our highly centralized financial system has some serious weak points that could potentially be addressed through decentralization, provided that such a system could be adequately secured. The prospects may look at bit dim with Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht sentenced to life without parole for running a drug trading forum that utilized Bitcoin and Mt. Gox Bitcoin exchange owner Mark Karpeles under investigation for embezzlement, but digital cash has taken its share of highs and lows before, and implementation is never a linear process.
Another mode of possible decentralization runs through the media, with products like Twitter allowing users to bypass the centralized output of CNN, Fox News, and the like. New forms of journalism like the Backfeed Magazineare working to use similar algorithms to Bitcoin to harness the hivemind in adjudging the value of journalism and rewarding risk-takers who make major contributions. The idea is to put it all out there, but curate top stories based not on shallow feedback like views or comments but perceptions of value added. In other words, say good-bye to clickbait. It’s freedom to the highest common denominator, not the lowest, for a change.
In similar fashion, decentralized decision-making has received a massive boost through online technology that allows large groups of people to debate and decide on political issues collectively in a way that logistics would make impossible in the "real" physical world. Let’s face it, no utopia can really be lawless—even Banks’ Culture had its methods of norm enforcement—but mass digital decision-making—something that is already entirely possible—lets those laws be in the interests of the majority instead of the so-called elites.
While those elites are hardly likely to disempower themselves, however often Paul Mason may try to sell them on the benefits of the simple life, it is still possible to harness technology in ways that work against them. The same breakthroughs that enable NSA spying also allow average people to work together like never before, bypassing traditional hierarchies. Mason and the Bitcoin collaborators—and even that dumb Irish lady—are right about one thing: however dark things may look, this is, at least, an interesting time to be alive. The hoverboard may have been a disappointment—notable, indeed, for its complete lack of hovering—but I still have hopes of driving a flying carsomeday. I’d just rather not be flying it over an endless slum.
And therein lies the thorny issue of knitting together technological and societal progress. I highly doubt that even marginal positive changes to our society will be induced purely via the wonderful ways of technology, which has the ability both to centralize and de-centralize, to empower and enslave, and is thus, unto itself, a double-edged sword. However, I remain hopeful that, given some of the emerging tools, we don’t need to be constrained by superficial ideas of what a decent future could look like. The Jetsons may have left us all with a lingering feeling that flying car stage represented the pinnacle of societal achievement, but life’s a bit more complicated. What we really need to focus on is how we can leverage some of these technological developments to shift traditional power balances. Concrete actions rather than wishful predictions are called for. That is a tall order, but there are some promising options for radical change out there, and it we play our cards right, the future needn’t be dismal; compared to our current situation, it may even feel a little bit like utopia.