The Revolution at Hand

This post, originally appeared on Domus and Meedabyte, on June 15, 2012.

La Liberté guidant le peuple is a painting by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830
La Liberté guidant le peuple is a painting by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830

“Economists and theorists of innovation such as Jeremy Rifkin, Yochai Benkler, Michel Bauwens, and several others have concluded that the Third Industrial Revolution is at hand”

are the opening words of a newly published survey by Statistical Studies of Peer Production.

It is indeed difficult not to note the success and increasing visibility of peer production — the decentralized alternative to large-scale industrial production first theorized in 2006 by Professor Yochai Benkler in his seminal book The Wealth of Networks — on the network scene and in factual reality.

The Economist has dedicated an entire report to the phenomenon. Experts like Michel Bauwens (founder of the P2P Foundation) have been invited to lecture on the topic even at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences . For the first time, I had first-hand experience of the strong interest in the subject when my recently published lecture on collaborative production and P2P received almost thirty thousand visits in just a couple of days.

However, aside from the sterile evaluation of how this paradigm is penetrating today’s reality, perhaps we should think more about what appear to be the inexorable facts that have led to such sudden and widespread success.

The culture of mass design, of fashion, of large-scale production has created a society structured by top-down decisions, composed of complex structures (production, education, work…) and predefined routes. Currently, our education prepares us to perform a job — at times any job — that pays us in terms of what we can possess and consume or, in other words, the goods that design and mass production consider to be to our satisfaction — at least partially.

We have produced artificial needs for years under this mantra, creating almost nonexistent necessities that are readily available and easy to narrate rather than investigating the problems and real needs of people and communities. Innovation and meaning have been restricted, trapped and suffocated by mechanisms of protection, monopolies, patents and copyrights.

Mediocrity is obsolete

The competitive society and industrial production have produced mediocrity. Today, the big news is that mediocrity is obsolete. The radical, systemic crisis regarding capital and, ultimately, money is today based on this cultural substratum. Money has become absurdly limited, unavailable and unable to model the exchanges that serve to give way to a new mode of radically inclusive and more equitable cooperative production.

The fundamental moment in which design becomes a political tool has arrived. We can call it P2P culture or a peer production movement, or open-P2P-design. Whatever we choose to call it, we must become aware that something fundamental is happening, and the much hoped-for third industrial revolution is also destined to be a social and cultural revolution.

Now that the need for large-scale production is disappearing due to the crystalline democratization of the means of production — now only linked to the time factor which is exponentially compressed every day — the cooperative revolution underway has placed people, as actors in their communities, at the centre of the act of production, humanizing it.

DIY and P2P are declarations of independence from capital, from national and international institutions, from the market. They are a call to a first-person role and an assumption of responsibility of the individual as an actor within his/her tribe.

Design itself is being “tribalized.” A few days ago I read a fantastic post that says it all, clearly, in a few simple words, “If you’re lucky you will have patrons, not customers. Customers barely exist in the creative world now.” In response to empathic design, manufacturing will become liquid and unfold in real time. Production will occur only when there is a demand — and not a moment before — simply because it is no longer necessary.

What infrastructure?

While we cannot avoid surrendering enthusiastically to this revolution that revolves around meaning — from different points of view — we can’t ignore to the enormous change that needs to happen in order to seize this opportunity.

We need a new cultural infrastructure, a wealth of shared knowledge, something that is beginning to come to the fore in projects like the Global Village Construction Set by Open Source Ecology or in processes like Extreme Manufacturing, an agile, sometimes voluntary and cooperative manufacturing process that Wikispeed is developing to serve the common good.

A new distributed network of places of cultural and tangible production must be affirmed. The network will stem from fablabs, makerspaces and hackerspaces — the new factories — around the world, or from ambitious projects like the Italian Bottega 21: initiatives that unite the existing cultural heritage of places and traditions with currently available technologies.

But that will not be enough. It will also be necessary to develop a new conception of the supply chain. Research will give us new materials — versatile, open materials, readily available and recycled locally — while design itself must be independent from specific materials, implying local production, based on local raw materials and resources.

Even more interesting in coming years will be to analyse the effects that the re-design of production in a distributed and P2P key will have on such spheres as education, training or work. In a situation where the availability of traditional industrial-based jobs is declining, we will have more time to devote to alternative economies — based on exchange and social trust — from which to receive and contribute our resources, our work and our commitment.

New skills will be needed to re-position new and independent production. We will need to teach a new way of designing that is modular and open to innovation and change. We will need people that can manage informal production spaces as facilitators. We will teach students to investigate, discover and create work, products and services that the community needs, rather than merely follow any old curriculum while waiting for a “phantom” labour market to claim them.

Douglas Rushkoff wrote almost a year ago,

“The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not ‘how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology’, but ‘how can we organize a society around something other than employment?’ Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with “career” be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?”

Perhaps then, the most important question to answer is this: now that we have the tools, will we be able to find new meaning cooperatively? Will we be able to participate with conviction in the revolution that is at hand?

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