History has a funny way of getting the last laugh on us. The greatest ideological battle of the modern era, that between capitalism and Marxist socialism, ended pretty poorly for the Marxists, who never seemed to quite understand the idea that there weren’t supposed to be any big power structures involved. Capitalism, on the other hand, has quite a few flaws to deal with as well. The massive, top-down corporate structures that evolved out of the industrial revolution sometimes prove to be almost as cruel and detached as the massive Soviet bureaucracies that wielded all of the power on the other side of the divide.
The problem, at the time that Marx formulated his theories, was that the means of production were simply too unwieldy to operate without some form of centralized power. So it was a reasonable response to suspect that the technology of industry itself was to blame. But recently, the rise of the radical free market of goods and ideas that the internet and its accompanying technologies represent actually does the one thing that Marx never could do puts the means of production into the hands of individuals. The workers’ utopia, subsidized by free market capitalism. Capitalism has now definitively won the Cold War, right? In a sense, yes. But as the excesses of corporate capitalism are curbed by what professor Glenn Reynolds calls the “Army of Davids,”Â the line between the two Cold War ideologies will continue to blur into something that threatens the cultural dominance of both.
Workers of the World, Divide!
What we are witnessing recently is a rapidly accelerating pace in technological advances. Vast networks of lightning-fast information exchange, as well as the ever-diminishing size of powerful machines, have spawned a new entrepreneurial culture of independent citizens. Resources such as publishing tools, musical technology, and even mundane administrative functions used to require massive amounts of office space and capital investment. Now all of those things come packed in your flat screen computer. Today’s aspiring musicians have an entire world of technology at their fingertips and in their bedrooms for a fraction of the cost that renting massive studio space used to require. On-demand publishing, online advertising, and sophisticated networking/marketing sites are putting more of the power that traditionally goes to large companies and organizations into the hands of individuals.
This is having a deep impact on how we communicate knowledge to one another. Traditionally, a vertical approach to the dissemination of information was the only viable paradigm. Information flowed from one to many, often unchallenged by those who did not have the means to disseminate information of their own. Now there is a type of “horizontal knowledge”Â developing organically online that allows many individuals armed with little more than a computer and their own unique expertise to distribute themselves to a huge global audience.
The most striking example of this model is Wikipedia, an open source encyclopedia that is created by the millions of people who use it. Wikipedia takes the concept of documenting human knowledge to a whole new level, as it allows anyone who has some expertise access to the organic creation of what is turning into one of the largest warehouses of human knowledge ever conceived. Online phenomena like YouTube are creating user-generated content that receives instant feedback and criticism from the rest of the online world. The greatest tool that autocratic rulers have is information control, maintaining a close eye on what people see, hear, and read about the world. Horizontal knowledge tears the curtain away from the wizard and shows us that he really is just a little man pulling all of the levers.
The workers’ utopia subsidized by free market capitalism
All of this individual empowerment is changing the nature of the commercial marketplace as well. While the major entertainment conglomerates had exclusive access to the means of mass distribution, there was only room in the marketplace for a small number of extremely popular products, like a blockbuster movie or a multi-platinum album. Individuals or small groups of people can now distribute their products themselves due to the constantly advancing technologies that put more and more control into the hands of the creative individual.
Instead of a handful of mega-hits, what we are seeing develop is what Wired editor Chris Anderson calls the “Long Tail”Â effect in the marketplace. An infinite number of smaller, less popular niche products extend out to the point where there is just as much profit to be made by selling more things to less people. The difference is that the profits are distributed down the long tail along with the products, and not amassed in grotesque amounts in a corporate boardroom. This fragmentation of the marketplace scares the people who have a lot to lose now that everyone has the ability to create, market, and sell their own unique contribution to the culture.
One Singular Sensation
Futurist and author Ray Kurzweil has some pretty outlandish ideas about what the near future holds for us in terms of technological evolution. He believes that at the current rate of exponential growth in the technology sector, we will probably reach a point thirty to fifty years from now where computer processors function faster than the human mind. The classic test of what differentiates us from lower life forms and inanimate machines has always been that our brains simply process so much information so quickly. Kurzweil predicts we will reach a point in the next century where computers will be able to process information faster than all of the human minds combined.
At this point, we reach what he calls the “Singularity,” a tipping point that will radically transform the way we interact with the technology around us. Nanotechnology and advanced genetic medicine will most likely extend our lifespans into the hundreds of years, and we will integrate technology into our bodies to cure disease and enhance mental agility. Not everyone is as optimistic as Kurzweil, obviously, but imagine how advanced today’s world would have seemed to those living one hundred years ago.
The future, as usual, holds wild cards and disappointments, but the signs point to a time when responsible citizens wield unprecedented control over the course that their societies take. Far from being a macabre anarchistic nightmare, it’s likely that empowering individuals to shape their lives and their passions as they see fit will organically benefit society as a whole in ways that the blunt instruments of power currently in place aren’t nimble enough to effect. A kind of radical democracy will form, where individual citizens not only get to vote for the least offensive choice they are given, but will have the capacity to impact the system directly without waiting for ineffective representatives to do it for them.
The rise of voter-based reality television, where millions of viewers are now wielding the power of their vote to determine who reigns supreme in popular culture, is a testament to this democratic renaissance. Wielding personal distribution networks will allow people to showcase their opinions, their art, and their products in real time to influence the national conversation in ways that we have already seen glimpses of online. The rise of the blogosphere is another dramatic example of a viable network of engaged citizens who affect things like elections and news cycles in some startling and very real ways. If all goes well, we will come full circle, as radical individual power leads to strong community networks of cooperation and goodwill. Then the dream of societies truly led by their citizens will have a chance of succeeding where other utopian systems have failed so miserably.
D. Michael Taylor