Is the web a battleground of creeping socialism? Yes - and that's why it works

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Commentators love to argue over whether President Obama's bailout represents the end of capitalism and the rise of an American socialist state. But they're missing a broader, more important discussion. As I suggested earlier, the economic distress of 2008 and 2009 does not presage a pinko American revolution, but America is clearly entering an age of shared means of production, shared work, and shared rewards. The strangest thing about this transformation is that a majority of Americans -- including you -- are taking part in it.

In the June edition of Wired, Kevin Kelly argues that Web 2.0 has effectively created a highly functional online socialist world. On a base level, this starts with shared resources. Whether photographs on sites like Facebook, videos on YouTube, or text on thousands of blogs, internet users are enjoying almost unrestricted access to the raw materials of creation. And even as sites like Creative Commons protect the legal rights of creators, they also make free media available to millions.
The means of production for manipulating intellectual property and media are also available online. Whether a user wants to work with photographs, text, or video, widely available programs make editing, manipulating, and sharing completely free. Perhaps more importantly, the internet enables collaboration among strangers in farflung locales. As sites like Wikipedia and Apache demonstrate, online interaction can create valuable tools that, in turn, are made available free of charge.

But the ultimate measure of socialism lies not in "to each according to his needs" but in "from each according to his ability." Without user contributions, the socialism of the internet is basically a collection of freebies, passed on to consumers without charge. The question, then, becomes what average users contribute to the collective.

The answer is simple: everything. Users constantly fill the web with free input, from the heavily researched to the off-the-cuff opinionated, highly produced video and computer code. It all adds to the content and discourse of the web. The interaction between you and me in this post takes the form of comments, forwards, links and Diggs. I read and respond to comments, and the divide between reader and writer, creator and consumer, gets blurred. We're collectively advancing societal understanding of the nature of shared property, even as we share intellectual property.

What's particularly interesting is that corporations are taking their cues from Web 2.0. On sites like Hulu, TV programs and movies are free (or almost free) with a minimum of commercials; as streaming movies becomes more commonplace, viewers increasingly expect free content, and companies that don't offer their programsrisk losing their audience.

The strength of web socialism is that it combines seamlessly with what we perceive as Western capitalist goals. It gives users something useful for free, doesn't require oaths or party membership, and is non-hierarchical. Rather than the top-down organization characteristic of centralized planning, it demonstrates meritocracy: the best ideas rise to the surface, the lesser lights get lost in the chatter. In a basic form, it is a free market of ideas. And we all know how capitalists feel about free markets.

Still, on a fundamental level, today's internet arguably achieves the aims of Marx and Engels to a degree that would have astounded both of them. Millions of users sharing tools, machines, time, and materials? Sounds kind of like a workers' paradise!

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