THE “New Depression” has suddenly made poverty fashionable. After a decade in which wealth ruled and the needs of the majority succumbed to those on top of the pile — the elite few, capable of leveraging assets and staking future earnings against the bond market — the realisation has dawned — today’s economy no longer resembles the pyramid scheme invented by Capitalism. Power is no longer in the hands of stuffy bankers. There is a “new world order” and it is not based upon tangible assets, real-world property prices, or even monetary value inside the banking system. It is a virtual economy that includes the rest of us, and it is based upon a collective notion of the digital commons, advocated by electronic pioneers and visionaries like Lawrence Lessig, John Perry Barlow, Richard Stallman and Joichi Ito.
Whether or not you own a computer, enjoy your own Internet access or just know about the Net because of the prevalence of Internet Cafes, you undoubtedly share in the collective wealth of the millions of people who have chosen to share their Intellectual property via the Creative Commons and other forms of digital distribution systems. The GNU open source license advocated by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation, for example, gives users of software carrying a free and open source logo, the ability to modify, redistribute and alter the software, which on the whole is freely available. The net worth of the free Linux computer system for instance has been estimated to run into the billions.(1) Ubuntu, a South African distribution of Linux which has taken the computer world by storm, is said to have increased the wealth of its billionaire founder, Mark Shuttleworth, a thousand-fold.
This is not value in any normal sense of the word. Neither the Creative Commons, nor the GNU-Linux scheme refer to actual monetary gain. Rather, they are what Lawrence Lessig refers to as the increasing prevalence and importance of non-rivelrous resources, a new social good that is infinitely reproducible and whose substance reflects a fundamental shift away from capitalist power relations which rely on scarcity (and rivalry) towards a new world in which abundance and post-scarcity have become buzz words.
The problem with our current banking system and financial markets which rely upon securities, stocks and bonds is that none of these terms reflect anything tangible in the real world. This is through no fault of our own, but rather the propensity to treat everything online, as somehow absent, as if it did not exist. As John Perry Barlow says, “there is no there over there in cyberspace”. The abolition of property in favour of a new virtual economy in which digital assets are freely available threatens to turn Capitalism on its head. How are we to value the entirety of the World Wide Web, the grand social project we call the NET without taking into account all those who stand to benefit in the future, as well as the current users of today?(2)
It was not so long ago that a part of the online world experienced what was known as the Dot.Com Bubble. For a short while, there was a rapid increase in stock prices associated with companies with online profiles such as Microsoft and Yahoo. The boom was short-lived. The first virtual economy based upon growth in terms of new electronic objects which were still valued in the old way (in which shares price was supposed to reflect consumer demand), turned out to be unsustainable.