The elite capitalist class has undergone numerous makeovers in the past century. From the Organization Man of the 50s, to the Yuppies of the 80s, to the Bobos of the dot-com era. A combination of structural changes and cultural pendulum swings have produced these makeovers.
For instance, as those who were immersed in the counterculture of the 70s made their way into the corporate ranks, they brought with them many of the anti-establishment values, and became the bourgeois bohemians, or Bobos, as David Brooks calls them. People like Richard Branson or Steve Jobs.
IEET fellow Douglas Rushkoff’s documentary, The Merchants of Cool, shows in great detail how corporate marketing executives are constantly looking for the next trendy thing, no matter how anti-establishment, in order to sell it back to the youth culture which conceived it.
A result of this process has been the emergence of the hipster subculture, the so-called dead end of Western civilization. Hipsters consciously take any and all cultural or political icons, strip them of their meaning, and appropriate them for purposes of self-glamorization. The more ironic and contradictory the better.
While hipsters are only one segment of this new generation, sometimes called Millenials, they are perhaps the most revealing. At first glance, it is a scary thought to extrapolate the consequences of this new generation entering the highest ranks of society. Yet, Millenials have an ethos which holds the promise of a better world: the belief that knowledge should be free.
This is the first generation to grow up with the Internet. Less than 5% believe that music “piracy” should be illegal. They spend staggering amounts of time on the computer and mobile communication devices, surfing social networks and wikis, gaming, texting, filesharing, blogging, making youtube videos, and building the new participatory panopticon.
They were extremely coddled. In our automated world, the traditional Work Ethic just seems silly to them. They never experienced a World War or a Cold War. Wars only happen on television. In this media and marketing-saturated society, where meaning is sucked from every noble pursuit within nanoseconds, this new generation has adapted by becoming functionally insane. ADD and constant sarcasm are practically coping mechanisms.
It is no wonder, then, why their entertainment choices include trolling, LOLcats, the Daily Show, South Park, and ridiculoussarcasticwikis. Yet, they are not nihilists. Beneath all this lies a belief in classical liberal ideals which is at least as sincere as that of previous generations, if not moreso.
The problem is that for as long as they can remember, all the institutions which they were told to look up to have only given them reasons to be cynical. Instead of honest journalism, we have demagogues. Instead of corner grocers, we have sterile megastores. Elections aren’t won, but stolen… not that it matters. Politics became a series of sex scandals. Religion too, only in a far more sinister sense. The economy is in crisis, but the Millenials are not surprised.
So Millenials aren’t exactly going to be receptive to allegations by megacorporations that they are pirates as they see the RIAA and MPAA launch a legal crusade against grandmothers everywhere. They aren’t going to place much faith in corporate culture as they watch AIG, Bear Stearns, Bernie Madoff, Jim Cramer, and the whole circus self-immolate.
As The Pirate Bay has become more popular, and as the Pirate Party grows in numbers throughout Europe, I think many are questioning who the real pirates are. At the University of Chicago, a new, and highly popular, class about pirates has been created. Indeed, one of the subjects will be Bernard Madoff.
What an opportune time for Open Source to surgeahead. The increasing maturity of open source software has won over many holdouts, and the recession has driven many towards open source software to cut costs. Yet, software is merely the vanguard of the immense Open Source movement. There are countless projects in the fields of music, art, food, electronics, beer, automobiles, sanitation, tractors, you name it.
If there is one thing which Millenials were born for, it is participation in the digital commons. Of course, the merchants of cool will take every opportunity to further commodify the Hacker Ethic, as we have seen with companies which promote Open Source business models and MAKE Magazine. This will create a new breed of hacker capitalists in the mold of Mark Shuttleworth and Jimmy Wales, who will replace the yuppies and bobos who are currently in power. This melding with capitalism isn’t likely to seriously endanger the movement, considering the incorruptible nature of copyleft licenses.
However, we musn’t underestimate the backlash which is likely to ensue. Monopolies are able to extract their high profit margins via the creation of artificial scarcities. This requires keeping knowledge secret, and is fundamentally at odds with the hacker ethic. I think it is likely that a sort of reverse piracy may occur in which corporations steal hacker innovations. However, this will require a means of evading legal restrictions.
Enter Peter Thiel and other techno-capitalist utopians who wish to build colonies in the ocean. This is known as the seasteading movement. Now, most of them may have peaceful, if kooky, intentions. My fear is that this could set the stage for corporations or other authoritarian entities to set up such colonies, and like the pirates they are, take to the seas. Since Google has already begun construction of a floating datacenter, it isn’t incredibly unrealistic to suggest that a company could be completely headquartered at sea.
Currently, if corporations want to influence governments, they need lobbyists. Seasteading could allow them to cut out the middlemen, and become corporatocracies. Talk about vertical integration! They could then proceed to use the methods of scientific management to exact control upon every aspect of life, and reduce their employees to something lower than serfs.
While I don’t think this will become a primary mode of social organization, considering the reproductive fitness of open source models, I wish I could say that such a dystopian scenario is unlikely to happen at all.
Luckily, if the techno-capitalists haven’t already lost most of their money to Madoff, it seems the economic climate in general will make it unlikely for such capital-intensive endeavors to succeed in the near future.
It is true that seasteading could offer some opportunities to hackers. The Pirate Bay had at one point tried to purchase SeaLand for the purpose of evading legal restrictions, and obviously not all seasteading would be inherently bad. Yet, the risks far outweigh the opportunities. We have more than we need within our current social systems to create open source communities from the ground up.
Now is a superb time for all you hackers, tinkerers, hobbyists, and DIYers to kick it into full gear. The political and economic cards are in our favor. Let’s make the most of it!