There was a moment, sometime near the end of the last century, when it rather suddenly became clear that Apache's web server was going to cement its position as the dominant webserver — what the Web ran on. This meant that a loose nonprofit affiliation of moonlighting, largely unpaid volunteers had just massacred the giants of Silicon Valley — Sun, Netscape, Microsoft — on their own turf, on their central battleground, a space on which those corporate giants (I knew from reading their annual reports) had focussed their full attention and hundreds of millions of dollars.

If you're considerably younger than I am, perhaps nothing about this seems out of the ordinary. But in the discourse of the twentieth century — in the late-Cold-War world where I grew up — there were only two possible economic agents of any importance: private industry, and the state. Sure, hippies could certainly decide to reject both. Sure, former hippies, like the ones at Apple, could become effective capitalists while throwing in a stylish dash of hippie rhetoric. Sure, people like Stallman could be hippies about software, in some small academic corner of that industry.

But for a hippie effort like free software to win — to trounce capitalism at its own game — seemed to defy known natural law. Particularly since web software was my little vocational area of the world, the event loomed large for me. It was as if, in a collision between a 16-wheeler and a baby crawling across the road, the truck was totaled and the baby fine. It was as if the local church bake sale counted up their receipts and discovered they had enough in the till to buy Citibank, and promptly did so. I started thinking about what would happen if this was the first sign of an incipient future, and I wasn't the only one. (Linux came to dominate Unix installations, I think, shortly thereafter, proving that it hadn't been a one-off fluke.)

Eric Raymond's essay (or manifesto, or insider ethnography) "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" was posted about that time. Its take on Open Source heavily influenced the thinking of geeks like me. My friend Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom maybe best exemplified this first wave of open-source-influenced SF(1). When I wrote "Falling" — which was originally published in Nature in 2005, and which is about to run as part of Shareable Futures, followed by the sequel I am desperately trying to finish (and which is currently way over its allotted word count) — I was thinking, more or less, along the same lines.

Raymond, see, argued that Apache's triumph, and the exciting new form of social organization which, he claimed, it presaged, was based on a lack of scarcity online. Since it's easy to replicate bits, everyone is incentivized to share them; thus you get a Potlach culture, like those of hunter-gatherer societies with abundant resources.

In an environment like web server software, hoarding is dumb. Hoarders isolate the maintenance costs of what they hoard onto their own shoulders, and render it incompatible with the ballooning free value beyond their borders. Sharing means that you can use, and adapt, the stuff that works, without marooning yourself in a cul-de-sac. Beyond that, sharing wins you status and influence: it means you have a say in what happens next. The more you've given to the community, the more willing it is to follow your lead. Linus Torvalds, Larry Wall, and Jimmy Wales don't lead by virtue of owning patents or majority shares, or even by being the smartest coders; they lead by having contributed the most, first. In such an environment, being an owner is nothing; being a contributor is everything.

What — I wondered — if everything worked like that? What if Open Source took over the world… the offline world?

Ten or twelve years after these thrilling events, results are mixed. As is so often the case, the disruptive innovation was neither the irrelevant fluke its detractors claimed… nor the end of history. Open Source, today, is a very effective way of making certain kinds of software; and much of the production of information and entertainment, in 2010, functions on the same principle: Wikipedia, the blogosphere, YouTube, Amazon book reviews, even webcomics. Ten years ago, almost all of the information/entertainment I consumed was produced by professionals gainfully employed to do so; today, at least half, and probably the more reliable and interesting half, is created by people who post first, and worry about how they'll be paid for it later, if at all — a dynamic which owes a lot to Open Source's "just go ahead and share, and you will flourish" mentality.

At the same time, the perimeter of the strategy's effectiveness has also become clearer. Open Source thrives best when creators and users are the same people, when cost of replication is zero, and when the ultimate goal is easily agreed upon and measured. Apache web server swiftly trounced its competitors; but Firefox and Open Office, though they are slowly growing in market share, are having a harder time of it. This is because they are end-user products, so most of their users cannot also be co-creators. Windows still dominates the desktop; the phone — arguably more important now than the desktop — is still up for grabs. "Ordinary people working for passion and glory" has become a huge creator of value — but, in a way that would have been hard to predict in 1999, "ordinary people working for passion and glory" has also been effectively decoupled from "shared forever and no one owns it" by clever companies, so that the same behaviors that drive Open Source have massively enriched — and ensured quasi-monopolisitc dominance (though it may of course turn out to be brief quasi-monopolisitc dominance) of their respective areas by — Google, Amazon, eBay, and Facebook. If anything, the non-zero-sum network effects that drive Open Source have made it far easier for these companies to exert monopoly power(2)!

And, of course, this phenomenon has mostly been about bits, not things: Caterpillar and McDonald's so far have nothing to fear from nonprofit consortia giving away open-sourced tractors and hamburgers.

But we SF writers who, back at the dawn of the new century, wanted to write about this new form of social organization, wanted it to be more than that. We wanted a near-term future in which the whole world worked like the world of web server software. We were excited by the drama of volunteer communal Davids trouncing filthy rich corporate Goliaths, and by the frisson-inducing weirdness of hippies outproducing capitalists by giving stuff away. We wanted it to apply to everything.

The easiest way to get there was, following Raymond's thesis, to make atoms work like bits. That way, we could apply the same economic logic of "abundance" to the world beyond the screen. So we added "post-scarcity" handwavium — super-nanotech and some source of super-cheap energy — to make everything free. Magic boxes that let you manufacture anything you wanted in your house, including more such boxes! (A riff I, at least, had lifted from Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age)

Ten years later, I now find this move kind of boring. Pushed beyond a brief thought experiment, it has two problems: first, it doesn't reflect the real technological trend (not without vast amounts of wishful thinking). Second, it doesn't get to the philosophical heart of the matter.

Real-world high tech production is not actually getting more distributed at its core. Sure, assembly of end-user gadgets is cheaper and cheaper and more and more garage-friendly; yes, you could build robots in your basement out of downloads and salvage. But that's superficial, because assembly is not creation. The amateurization of everything from hardware-hacking to media creation is predicated on Moore's law, and Moore's law is effected — and can only be effected — in vast clean-room factories using vast amounts of energy and water and ever more exotic materials, like the niobium pillaged from the Central African killing fields. The factories get bigger as the chips get smaller. Since the Neolithic Revolution we've been specializing and specializing; in every age it requires more and more people, working in sophisticated concert, to produce our latest stuff. You can make a bow yourself with wood and sinew; to make a cast-iron pan, from mine to forge to smithy, requires hundreds of people with specialized skills; to make a Prius requires, probably, millions(3). In the real world, the labor that the bored sysadmin contributes to Apache is surplus created by the hyperefficient operations of state-mediated market capitalism; it does not exist without container ships and their oil spills, without tons of cyanide poured into open pit mines, strikebreaking goons (or, yet more efficient, rogue paramilitaries) running those mines and factories, without stock quotes and hedge funds, without middle-managers and tech support people and sales reps worried about saving for their kids' college tuition. By a world driven by exchange, not gifting. Maybe it, or something like it, could — but how we get from here to there is nontrivial, and not answered by a magic box that produces everything and fits on the balcony. That's a lazy dodge.

The second problem with technologically hand-waving an end to scarcity and a world of abundance, is that scarcity and abundance are not properties of the physical world. They are psychological effects. Beebe, in Cory's and my story "True Names", is an insatiable super-high-tech computronium entity conquering the universe: immortal and extropian, it is pure want — it will never, by definition, achieve "post-scarcity". But the Buddha, you know, was already post-scarcity. The Pacific Northwest Indians who invented the Potlach did not live in a world of abundance because they could home-fab TVs — nor because they were too morally pure to ever want TVs! — but because they had not developed the addictions to hoarding, artificial stimulation, and pseudo-permanence from which we suffer(4).

The problem with the handwavium solution is that making more stuff faster will not cure our addiction to stuff. The maths in Neal Stephenson's Anathem are the most effective vision of a "post-scarcity" world in recent science fiction — simply by virtue of being a direct copy of the lifestyles of Roman Catholic monasteries — because we, the readers, believe those characters have learned not to want more. They seem, in other words, like adults — in a way that few actual adults do, in our current society. (And I, typing this on my newish, niobium-consuming MacBook Air, am no exception.)

After all, by the standards of earlier ages we already live in a post-scarcity world; yet our appetite for consumption and competition is undimmed. We produce a great abundance of stuff. But the best way we've figured out, so far, to get ourselves to produce it, involves depriving most of us, of almost all of it.

So, more interesting question: how might reputation economies, gifting economies, sharing, post-capitalist economics, an abundance mindset, conquer without handwavium making atoms act like bits — and without destroying the world's productive capacity?

There are niches in the modern world which keep the operations of the money economy mostly outside their borders — families, kibbutzim, communes, monasteries, some aspects of academia. There are dumpster-diving squatter freegans now living sort of outside the money economy, giving away what they have instead of hoarding it. There is open source and freecycle and the kinds of sharing projects profiled on What would it take for these scattered pockets to coalesce and snowball, to become the dominant forms of social organization… and to be good at it? (Because let us not kid ourselves; it is our centralized, ruthlessly efficient money economy that enables so many of us to inhabit the world at the population densities we do. I am a big fan of buying the goods of little family-run organic farms at the local farmer's market, but it is the vast agribusiness farms with flotillas of giant combines harvesting selectively bred grain with computer-orchestrated timing that make it possible for most of the over six billion people in the world to eat).

More to the point — for this is SF we're engaged in, not futurism — what sfnal device could we posit to make such a shift plausible — at least for the suspension of belief of a skeptical reader, at least for the length of a story?

[Crossposted to]


  1. I groaned when I read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom — this was around 2003 — because I had been making copious notes for a couple of years towards a novel of a post-capitalist, reputation-economy near future. At the time, I was still a novice enough SF writer to think you had to be the first one to print with an idea — so I thought Cory's book had rendered those notes useless.
  2. I like to buy books via indie bookstores found via indiebound — but I go to Amazon first anyway, in order to find a critical mass of readers unselfishly giving away reviews. And so often, because it's so much easier, I end up ordering through Amazon anyway. Those readers' reputation-economy generosity constitutes Amazon's capitalist moat.
  3. I am reading Little House on the Prairie to my daughter, and I'm constantly struck by the tension between the foregrounded narrative of self-reliance and simplicity, and the ever-present background counter-narrative of material dependence — all the stuff they had to schlepp into the prairie — the hammers and bullets and bags of flour — to make it part of the white man's West, and how crucial the next shopping run to Independence was.
  4. And why weren't the Indians who invented the Potlach, or other small tribal groups that saw themselves as living in abundance, subject to these addictions? Partly, it's that those addictions were not afforded by the infrastructural base they inhabited. But partly it's also a result of their particular cultural practices. As Jared Diamond ably illustrates in Collapse, two societies with similar cultural background and environment — Polynesian Tikopia and Easter Island, or Viking Iceland and Greenland — can develop radically different patterns (and ideologies) of consumption. The relationship between gifting and abundance is circular. In a situation of abundance, gifting becomes logical. But abundance is also a psychological effect created in part by gifting. The folktale "Stone Soup" is a good illustration of the chaotic effects produced by this positive feedback loop.
Benjamin Rosenbaum


Benjamin Rosenbaum

Benjamin Rosenbaum is the author of The Ant King: and Other Stories. His stories have been finalists for the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, the