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May 5, 2015
With Responses From
May 5, 2015
3 Min read time
Bottom-up innovators may well out-cooperate powerful companies.
Sabeel Rahman offers a compelling analysis of how private economic power abuses network platforms—and why the government must step in to assure fair markets and protect the public interest. But it is a mistake to think that public policy is the only feasible or effective response. Law and policy face many limits. Enacting and enforcing Progressive-style reforms necessarily devolves to electoral politics, a grotesquely corrupted process. We have also seen how long it takes to pursue such remedies, and how vulnerable they are to political interventions, legal glitches, and technocratic imperatives. So we cannot deny the formidable challenges of moving ahead on this front, important as it is to try.
In the meantime, we should also pursue an approach that may prove more durable: innovative schemes for cooperative self-provisioning and decentralized local control, also known as the commons. The commons is a form of self-organized production and value creation. All sorts of quasi-autonomous, user-managed systems can provide shared rights of access outside the dominant market system and conventional government. These alternatives can mitigate the problem of network-based monopolies while mobilizing a diverse and politically consequential constituency.
Bottom-up innovators may well 'out-cooperate' powerful companies.
A robust commons has been maturing on the Internet for years. Besides open source software, it consists of collaborative wikis (including, of course, Wikipedia); more than ten thousand open-access scholarly journals with freely shareable content; a burgeoning citizen-science movement; a constellation of serious blogs and amateur journalism; and an estimated 882 million “shareable” creative works and materials under Creative Commons licenses. These are not just American but transnational tribes of considerable expertise, creativity, and social impact. (The commons does not include sharing on open platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, because users there are bound by corporate terms-of-service agreements that deny them the capacity to govern themselves and control their information.)
It is tempting to dismiss the commons—an eclectic realm of amateurs, projects, small businesses, etc.—as a kooky fringe. But recall the powerful civilizing influence that free and open source software has had against the abuses of proprietary software vendors. In the late 1990s, GNU/Linux and other open source software were dismissed as a faintly ridiculous cult movement. Yet open source has since gone mainstream and achieved much against actual and potential software monopolies: Microsoft once dominated server software, but today an estimated 36 percent of servers are Linux-based. Users have gained considerable autonomy in the marketplace and are able to avoid the dependencies large companies engineer.
The open source dynamic is spreading to hardware, services, and data. To be sure, many powerful firms use proprietary technologies, and they often hold the upper hand. But the rapidly diversifying world of open design and manufacturing holds promise for “out-cooperating” such companies in electronics, furniture, farm equipment, and other industries. Arduino is a vast global community of open source computer boards at the heart of wearable technologies, 3D printers, drones, and consumer electronics. The open design Wikispeed car gets a hundred miles per gallon of fuel, and the volunteers building it are pioneering new manufacturing techniques. The Farm Hack community has produced dozens of models of affordable farm equipment. The Open Prosthetics Project is designing innovative body limbs that major medical suppliers lack the creativity or profit incentive to develop. The recurrent theme: globally shared modular design that can be manufactured locally and inexpensively.
I do not wish to suggest that technology can solve all the problems of dysfunctional politics and policy. We still need government to use the antitrust and regulatory tools in its arsenal, and we would benefit from a resurgence of Progressive reform. But in the commons, individuals and groups collaborate in ways that, over time, can help remake our politics and policy. We saw a glimpse of this in the campaign for net neutrality, as a motley swarm of digital communities committed to an open Internet improbably prevailed (for now) over the cable and telecom giants, including Comcast.
Let us curb the power of network platform bullies. We can do that in part by supporting the many commoners, open source communities, cooperatives, municipal initiatives, makers, hackers, collaborators, and other bottom-up innovators who are the grassroots champions and guarantors of a fair economy.
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