The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism by Jeremy Rifkin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
First, I agree with other reviews that suggest author Rifkin often has a “Gatling” approach to supplying facts and theories, and a tendency to offer the same theory over and over in his writing which can be tiresome after a bit-all true.
Even so, his contribution here that pure capitalism is in a transition to a hybrid economy made up of part capitalism and part collaborative commons is valid and worthwhile enough to pick this up.
He reminds us that the feudal system transitioned to the market economy starting in the ninth century and then with The Great Enclosure Movement of the 16th-19th centuries, built a legal system that protected private property just as the Industrial Revolution began in earnest. Now, he predicts that another shift is happening: capitalism has begun to share the global stage with one that uses collaborative data, has free or almost free goods and services available (because the cost of producing more goods is zero online) and allows for more efficient (or sufficient) use of natural systems.
How businesses will make profit in this future economy is certainly undecided and just as economists from Keynes to Marx wondered about it too. In other words, there are some scary unplanned moments ahead.
It’s also important to discuss how the collection of data (which is almost always used as a negative in popular media) has allowed the emergence of shared information for distribution systems, food production, human health, social revolutions and of course communication and is allowing for more interdisciplinary scholarship and maybe most importantly a reduction in ecological impact.
All of this should be interesting to anyone who hears the argument against the collaborative commons almost daily. My experience is that people’s concern is based on the legal implications of (in Rifkin’s words) how we are “moving from exclusive ownership to conditional rights.” His statement that “markets are giving way to networks and ownership is less important than access” is beguiling language for any community activist and as a farmers market partisan, I already believe in the power of the commons and see every week how informal relationships can build a new economy. I also regularly see fear and mistrust of this type of collaborative production or virtual distribution as many believe it impairs adding or improving necessary infrastructure. I might argue that we need to reduce our dependence on that as our main economic driver in municipal or civic systems anyway.
Do I worry about loss of privacy from all of this new activity? Some, but less so from my neighbors and fellow citizens who are bound by networks of social capital or because of the lack of shared networks with me, I am warned against sharing information or goods. Anyway, these virtual networks are less important than my existing (more important) physical networks and maybe that is one of the lessons of community food systems too.
Rifkin’s theory is that this will not be a total eclipse, but only a partial one and will allow for more diverse relationships and systems in other sectors while still retaining some capitalist characteristics when valid, like maybe in local food production. It may also reduce the possibility of monopolies or at least reduce their length, since technological innovation is harder to stifle in collaborative systems.
As for Rifkin himself, I like his quirky way on these subjects, but he should never be your only theorist on economic systems. If you are interested in reading someone who expands his thinking and has long embraced the need to address the ecological impacts of modern life, you need to read this.