Contesting Abundance: Shared for the Common Good or Monopolized for Private Profit?


 

 

It is hardly news by now that digital technologies have made available an abundance of information and knowledge on the Internet and the Web.

New technologies have created a global digital infrastructure, which, in turn, has become the basis for a new information economy, whose most obvious feature is the abundance of free or low-cost information and knowledge. With few exceptions, I have usually found a needed piece of information, skill or knowhow -- if it is public knowledge -- on Wikipedia, YouTube, a blog, a Web site, or a mailing list somewhere. The Internet search results below illustrate the extent of the abundance (search done on Feb. 28, 2011; Oct. 2010 hits are in parentheses). The first few hundred hits are usually more than enough for most purposes.

 

A number of disturbing issues persist, including problems of inappropriate content, unaffordability, exclusion, embedded value systems, toxic production and e-wastes.[1] But those who are looking for information abundance will definitely find it on the Internet. To turn this wealth of information into wisdom though, users have to carefully pick true from false, grain from chaff. But this also holds true even under information scarcity.

Because it has become a dominant feature of our time, information abundance is forcing a deeper look at the concept itself. One of the most fundamental assumptions in economics is scarcity.[2] This, in effect, assumes away abundance.  Thus, most mainstream economists have few concepts that explain it. They have no equations that describe it. Confronted with abundance, they fall back on inadequate theories based on scarcity.

With the growth of the information economy, however, it is now imperative to deal with the phenomenon of abundance.

 

Wellspring of information abundance: the human urge to communicate

Think of a bottle. You can bottle water, food, air and most other goods for sale. If you use up the bottle's content, it's gone. That's scarcity. But drinking from a bottle of ideas will never use up the contents of the bottle. That's abundance.

Think of a curious child. It will touch, smell, taste, look at and listen to almost anything. And once it learns to talk, anything and everything bottled up in its mind will come out, because the  child has an innate urge to absorb information and to communicate information. It is, in fact, a universal human urge. For the child in all of us, the Internet offers a huge collection of bottled ideas. And we can  all drink from each bottle without using up its contents. That is why we have information abundance.

Information goods become abundant because ideas grow -- not diminish -- with sharing. As Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Its peculiar character ... is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine...."[3] With a marginal cost of almost zero enabling the reproduction of exact copies over any number of  generations, the cost has become "too cheap to matter," as Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson puts it.[4]

Furthermore, it does seem that "information wants to be free".[5] Something is driving it to multiply. This driving force, I suggest, is the human urge to acquire and exchange knowledge. We did so when it cost much. We will certainly do so even more, now that sharing costs practically nothing.

On the Internet, we can fully express the primal human urge to communicate. This is why we have information abundance.

 

Wellspring of ecological abundance: the biological urge to reproduce

Think of DNA. They are also like bottled ideas. Nature bottled these ideas into genes, cells, organisms and species, and built in a reproductive urge in every living organism to spread one's DNA, to reproduce one's own kind.

That is why nature -- and if we do it right, agriculture too -- can also keep on giving us its bounty, without using itself up.

Nature's abundance is hard to miss: bacteria can double their numbers every half hour; some plants release a million pollen in a single day; a fish can release one to ten million eggs in one breeding season; one rice grain can produce a thousand grains within a planting season. In seas, lakes, swamps, grasslands, forests, and other ecosystems -- abundant life blooms. Where they do not anymore do so, something must have upset the natural abundance. Even such damaged ecosystems, if left alone, soon teem with life again.

While abundance in nature can last indefinitely, it does not grow without limit. As species multiply, they soon settle into balance with other species and the natural environment. The food chain of plants, herbivores, carnivores and other predators, and decomposers such as arthropods, fungi and bacteria becomes webs of material and energy cycles and exchanges, highly-productive ecosystems that provide us perpetual streams of natural income - new soil, clean air, food, materials for clothes and houses, medicine, fuel, industrial inputs, a thousand other goods and services and psychic rewards too.

Abundance comes from these inner logic of sharing in humans and reproduction in living organisms.

 

Other wellsprings of abundance

Abundance can also come  from the massive bulk of water, carbon, iron, silicon and other minerals on Earth as well as energy from the sun.

The Earth's non-renewable mineral abundance must be managed differently from renewable solar energy.

As oil production peaks, for instance, cheap abundant oil will soon come to an end.[6] Peak oil should teach us an unforgettable lesson in abundance management. Those who miss the lesson will go for more coal, nuclear power and agrofuels. Those who get it will shift to clean renewables, energy efficiency and energy conservation, that will result in planned energy "descent". Transition towns are already leading the way.[7]

Solar energy makes possible other abundant energy sources such as water, wind and wood. In 2009, renewables supplied 25% of total world energy capacity, thanks in part to China's surging interest in biogas, wind power and photovoltaics.[8] Germany, too. Hydrogen from water also promises another abundant energy source.

There is one more wellspring of abundance: the webs of positive human relationships - acquaintances, friendships, family, community - which generate feelings of peace, contentment, love, happiness and other psychic rewards which defy quantification.

Each of these wellsprings of abundance creates an archetype -- a distinct category -- of abundance: information, biological, bulk, psychic, and others.

 

Creating cascades of abundance

If we do not learn to recognize or to tap these archetypes when we come across them, we can become poor by default. People with access to land often stay poor simply because they have forgotten how to tap and build on the abundance that nature lays at their feet, or the wealth of knowledge humanity has accumulated over time.[9] All of us must learn again to recognize abundance when it happens, to tap existing abundance, and to make it last indefinitely.

Beyond tapping existing abundance and making it last indefinitely, we can learn to recognize the conditions that generate each archetype, so that we can subsequently create cascades of new abundance. To cite examples: the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) improves yields dramatically; permaculture creates through conscious design a self-regenerating "forest" of food and cash crops;[10] remineralization rejuvenates our soils; biodynamic farming taps distant forces to raise the quantity and quality of farm produce.[11]

Photovoltaics are made from semiconducting silicon, the elemental basis of the digital revolution. Six-thousand-dollar LCD projectors 10 year ago now cost less than a thousand. If photovoltaics follow similar plunging price trends as other digital goods, then we can create more cascades of new solar-based abundance and bring in a Solar Age.

On the Internet, the original protocols have spawned cascades of abundance. First came mailing lists, download sites and home pages; then the search engines; other innovations followed, such as blogs, wikis, video sharing sites, and social networking portals, with no end in sight.

Creating cascades of abundance is hardest in the industrial sector because its substantial material and energy needs (and wastes) tend to disrupt ecological systems. If industrial processes could be turned into closed material loops fuelled by renewables, this may yet provide the key to cascading industrial abundance.

As we get better at building balanced ecologies of agriculture, industrial and information abundance, our communities will enjoy even more continuing streams of goods, services, psychic rewards and other benefits.

 

Abundance creates commons

We have identified several archetypes of abundance. All these archetypes have created commons.

Human societies learned early on to deal with abundance - including temporary ones - from forests, rivers, and other hunting and gathering areas by managing them as commons. Taken for granted for a long time, the oceans, the atmosphere, and other global commons are just getting due attention. Likewise, the creative commons of information, knowledge and culture are now getting renewed attention with the rise of the Internet which, by the way, has become a great showcase of both the concepts of commons and abundance (and their problems, too).

Markets and governments are also public spaces. Therefore, rather than dismiss them outright as completely anathema to the commons, should we not try to reorient them, to be managed as commons? (After all, public markets and village meetings still show features characteristic of commons. Perhaps, we should see the failures of markets and governments - the financial bubbles in the West or the communist collapse in the East, for instance - as the real tragedies of the commons, from which valuable lessons can be drawn.)

Although abundance creates commons, the pooling of resources in common is not the only mindset that abundance spawns. Abundance in fact spawns two contrary mindsets: holding its source in common is great for the whole commuity and for future generations, but monopolizing it is great for private profit-making.

 

Two contrary mindsets: commons or monopoly.

These two mindsets are engaged in a contest for our minds. Which mindset will ultimately win this contest is by no means clear.

An example in agriculture is the contest between -- one -- farmers who share commonly-held seed varieties among themselves, versus -- two -- multinationals who extract monopoly rents from their hybridized or genetically-engineered proprietary seeds through plant variety protection, patents, and the "Terminator" technology.

In the industries of the West, very little is commonly-held now. One -- the corporate mindset holds sway. Curiously, however, the world's main source of industrial abundance today is China, which boasts of a huge but less dominant State sector -- two -- in precarious balance with a growing corporate sector, under the Communist party's schizophrenic ideology of "market socialism."

In the information economy, user movements -- one -- for copyright and patent exemptions, open access, free software and other forms of non-exclusivity have made big inroads in building commons of information techniques, tools and content for sharing.[12] However -- two -- corporations and governments are trying to stem the tide of sharing by tightening enforcement of intellectual property rights and through agreements like the GATT/WTO and the up-and-coming ACTA.[13]

So, two mindsets are contesting control over abundance: one is commons and two, monopoly. There are three mindsets, actually, whose dynamics are shaping the economies of the 21st century. The third mindset is competition.

The main carriers of the monopoly mindset are business firms organized as corporations. Corporations are also driven by an urge, but one that is different from the human urge to communicate, and the biological urge to reproduce.

The urge our legal systems put into these business automata was a single urge -- the urge to seek profits. This one-track mind has made them take over commonly-held sources of abundance -- from seeds, to land, to knowledge  -- and turn these into monopolies because it is profitable to do so. What they could not take over, they have undermined or sabotaged, to create artificial scarcity. Corporations have destroyed the fertility of our soils, substituting commercial synthetics in their place; they have stopped the natural flow of mothers' milk in favor of commercial formula; they have bought out independent seed companies, to force-feed us with genetically-modified toxic foods, all in pursuit of profit. They have become, in Hoeschele's words, "scarcity-generating institutions".[14]

 

Corporations have become the dominant life form on Earth

It is unfortunate that corporations came in before Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. In the 1950s, when robots were mostly figments of imagination of science fiction writers, Asimov wrote the novel, I Robot, where he laid down the three laws, to ensure that intelligent, man-made automata did not take over the world and enslave humankind.

The First Law was: "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." The Second Law: "A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law." The third law is about self-preservation, as long as it did not conflict with the First or Second Laws.[15]

We would be much better off today if all corporations -- which, like robots, are man-made automata -- were constrained by these laws. But when we granted legal personhood to corporations, turning them into a de facto man-made species of business automata, we built into them not the three laws for automata but the single urge to seek profits. Corporations have since confirmed the science fictionists' worst fears about runaway automata.

They have become super-aggressive players in our political, economic, and social worlds. Beating us in our own game, they have taken over governments, economies, and media. Having become masters in domesticating Homo sapiens, they now house, feed, train and employ tamed humans to serve as their workhorses, pack mules, milking cows, watchdogs, stool pigeons and smart asses.

Thus, corporations are now the dominant species on Earth. They routinely ignore human orders, injure human beings and foul up ecosystems in violation of laws for automata. These man-made mammoths now occupy the top of the food chain[16]. They have become the greatest threat to our well-being and the survival of many species on this planet, now in the throes of a great wave of extinctions.

 

Postscript

With our conscious mind, unique intelligence, and creative powers, Homo sapiens, says a new story of creation, is the Universe's own way of looking at itself, of appreciating its own beauty, origins, evolution and the grandeur of it all.[17] Thus we carry a huge burden of responsibility not only to the living world, but to the whole cosmos as well.

In facing up to this responsibility, three fundamental and interrelated challenges in the twenty-first century confront us:

First, we must reacquire a species consciousness as Homo sapiens. We need to think as a species and to reestablish our intimate connections with other species and the rest of the natural world.

Second, we must free ourselves from corporate control. We must learn to keep ourselves healthy through the right food and natural environment. We must learn to raise and educate our young under a new mindset. And we must learn to do all these without depending on corporations, relying instead on each other and on sources of abundance we ourselves can build, maintain and hold in common.

Third, we must reestablish control over corporations. This involves reprogramming them to obey Asimov's three laws for automata or their equivalent. It also involves - as we did against big prehistoric predators - hunting down disobedient corporations and disbanding, bankrupting or otherwise driving them to extinction.

Given the powers of corporations today, these are daunting tasks indeed. But we have no choice, if we want to reclaim our role as stewards of the natural world and masters of our own creations.


[1] In my book Towards a Political Economy of Information (Foundation for Nationalist Studies, Quezon City: 2004), I discuss in detail many of the critical issues raised about the Internet and the technologies that built it. For the full text of the book, go here.  

[2] One definition of economics says, "Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources (Mankiw, 2001, p.4)," as cited in Backhouse, Roger and Steven Medema. "On the Definition of Economics". Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 23 No. 1 (Winter 2009). pp. 221-233. The authors discuss in detail the place of scarcity in the definition of economics.

[3] The full quote (see here) is: "If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property."

[4] Anderson, Chris. Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Random House Business Books, London: 2009. pp. 75-93.

[5] Brand, Stewart. The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT. Viking, New York: 1987. p. 202. On the next line, Brand also wrote "information wants to be expensive", which shows that he saw the whole picture. See the assertion below about abundance spawning two opposite mindsets.

[6] See Leggett, Jeremy. The Empty Tank: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Coming Global Financial Catastrophe. Random House, New York: 2005.

[7] Hopkins, Rob. The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Green Books, Devon: 2008. p.50.

[8] Ho, Mae-wan. "World Reached 25% Renewable Energy Capacity", ISIS Report Oct. 25, 2010. 

[9] It is painful to see some rural folks sell their coconuts, sweet potatoes and leafy vegetables - all very healthy foods - in the market and then treat their children to junk foods such as French fries, burgers and Coca-Cola, or to raze edible or medicinal "weeds" to clean their backyards or maintain their monocrops.

[10] See Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designers' Manual. The Deccan Development Society & Permaculture - India, Hyderabad: October, 1990.

[11] For these and other solutions, see Tompkins, Peter and Christopher Bird. Secrets of the Soil: New Solutions for Restoring Our Planet. Rupa & Co., New Delhi: 1989.

[12] See CopySouth Research Group (ed.). The Copy/South Dossier: Issues in the Economics, Politics, and Ideology of Copyright in the Global South. April 2006. The full text is available here.

[13] Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. For critiques, see here

[14] See Hoeschele, Wolfgang. "Research agenda for a green economics of abundance". International Journal of Green Economics. Vol. 2 No. 1 (2008). pp. 29-44.

[15] A Zeroth Law was later added: "A robot may not injure humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm."  The First Law ("A robot may not injure a human being...") is in fact consistent with the economist's definition of efficiency, which is to make at least one person better off, without making anyone else worse off.

[16] Excellent readings on corporate power and anti-social behavior include Korten, David. When Corporations Rule the World. Kumarian Press Inc., Connecticut and Berrett-Kohler Publishers, San Francisco: 1995 and Bakan, Joel. The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Penguin, Toronto: 2004, including the latter's documentary film version. See also my piece "Prehistoric peoples could kill mammoths: how about corporations?"  

[17] Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era - A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. HarperCollins: 1994.

Image by takomabibelot, courtesy of Creative Commons license.