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How to cook capitalism

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

Internet of Communities blog series part 4 of 8 (part 1)

In her magisterial 2019 analysis of the surveillance economy, academic and author Shoshana Zuboff frequently describes the dangers of "raw" capitalism and the need for what Karl Polanyi called the Double Movement. Market forces in themselves have little incentive to provide healthy, sustainable living conditions for people in society - it is pushback from influential social groups that forces these conditions into existence.

In my forthcoming book Supercommunities, I discuss the origins of the welfare state in Germany under Bismarck, who introduced pensions and various forms of insurance for workers partly to stop them emigrating to the United States where wages were higher. Similar reforms, along with free school meals and labour exchanges that helped people find work, were introduced in the United Kingdom by the Liberal government of the early twentieth century to quell popular unrest and diffuse the emerging electoral threat of socialism. A century later, neoliberalism, globalisation, and corporate influence over politics have removed any checks and balances over intrusion into our lives and modification of our behaviour by Big Tech. To make modern capitalism edible, and prevent it stripping away what makes us human and renders our choices meaningful. we must start cooking it.

Cooking is a transmutation of elements through combination and processing. In this blog series, I argue that the Internet of Communities has to combine capitalism with other ingredients that have social meaning. In particular, it should give us information about and agency in the life of communities, by means that are richer and more empowered than locating yourself on a Google Map or joining a Facebook group. In my last post, I discussed how we can empower communities to Observe by managing community assets to support local wellness and Act by helping fund improvements to community assets, but this is only the start.

Current internet functions such as search, messaging, publishing, and purchasing have no real social context. Yes, we can see Likes and reviews, but are coming to understand that much of this is automatically generated by software, and we have no way to assess the value of any of it. Awareness of fake news has led us to doubt even articles from respected media outlets and videos of well-known people. How can we know if a piece is really from Bloomberg or the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or just says it is? We need not only to know who wrote an article, posted a video, started a group, or made a product but also to have some guarantee that this knowledge is accurate. Without understanding the background, business practices, and purposes behind online content, it's hard to act ethically or even protect yourself.

This contextual information is a mirror image of the current state of play, in which only Big Tech holds what Zuboff calls the "second text". The first text is the information we put in emails, enter into websites, and write in documents, along with the vast amount of data harvested from devices you own (your phone, your TV, your increasingly smart appliances) or simply go near to (sensors in the street, shops, offices, and the sky). The second text is the insight into our habits, beliefs, emotions, and desires extracted from the first text via Artificial Intelligence. It is sold to advertisers, but cannot be seen by us. In December 2016, data protection activist Paul-Olivier Dehaye wrote to Facebook asking to see the second text they held on him. After escalating the matter to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, he finally received a response from Facebook's Privacy Operations Team in March 2018. He was told that the information he asked for is "used to maintain the effective functioning of the Facebook platform" but "not readily accessible ... on a per user basis".

This isn't acceptable, is it. Individuals need to own their own data and decide how it will be used. We must turn contextual information around, to be owned by communities rather than extracted from individuals in order to modify their purchasing and voting habits. The Internet of Communities needs to embed search, messaging, publishing, and purchasing into a community context, so that both provider and consumer can make informed judgements about their use of it. Community in this sense may be geographical, such as the country, city, town or village where you live and work. Community may also be of affiliation, interest, or profession. We can only deal effectively with a website, message, article, or potential purchase if we know where it came from and why.

At the moment, our interior life is the ingredient for raw capitalism. We need to turn this around, and prepare something edible from capitalism via an Internet of Communities founded on social trading at community level. By re-establishing ownership and trust, the Internet of Communities will help us all make choices that are better for us, better for those around us, and better for future generations.

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