In December 2007 I was invited by www.re-public.gr to participate in a debate on the social web. While I like writing and the topic was good for me, getting a grip on the topic proved to be surprisingly difficult. In the past months I've had the privilege to hang around academics who study the phenomenons of Free Software, Internet or as one group calls it in the broadest possible way, peer-to-peer production. Listening to and reading some of the academics has been quite difficult, as socio-economics is not something I would know much about. Yet the setting of the re-public.gr discussion seemed to belong to a category I've had especially difficult to relate to. Thanks to my friend Michel Bauwens I've now learned to categorise these contributions as some kind of leftist socio-economical school of academics.
The basic framework seems to be that no matter how much progress we've had since the 19th century, and no matter what phenomenon is being discussed, somebody somewhere is being exploited!!! With this realisation I was able to scribble some kind of very non-academic reply:
The task as outlined was for me surprisingly difficult to come to grips with. The whole terminology proposed seems foreign to me, yet supposedly I'm still an expert on Internet, communication, sharing and everything that this Web 2.0 thing is supposed to be. I mean, how did we get to the point where paying 10€ for a visit to the cinema counts as entertainment, whereas throwing a sheep on Facebook - for free! - is "exploitation"?
But what then is the new system we are changing to? Striving for some kind of academically usable framework, the best explanation I have seen so far is proposed by Stefan Meretz and the Oekonux project, the concept of a "germ form". In short, a germ form is something that is developing within, and as part of the old and prevalent system, yet it points, at the same time, towards a new system that is to replace the old one.
This is in stark contrast to the capitalist/socialist dualism, where the capitalists and the labour force are imagined in a mutual antagonistic dynamic. On the contrary, a germ form is not completely opposed to the predominant system. An example would be the Open Source software as a germ form of a new way of software production, or for that matter Web 2.0 as a new form of entertainment. Since there are companies profiting from Open Source (and those companies are allies, or members, of the Open Source community, not its enemies or exploiters) clearly Open Source is not against capitalism. At the same time, it is a very different system from the traditional capitalist model of software production, which was based on exclusion.
Another example would be the transition from feudal to capitalist society. The bourgeois class was initially part of the feudal system, and seen as ranking lower and owing servitude to the noble and clergy, if not to the peasants. At the same time, we can see with hindsight, that it was the germ form of a new system that was to overthrow the whole feudal system it was serving.
I therefore cannot emphasize enough the same point with Bauwens: The Internet is changing the system, and trying to explain the change with 20th century economical models is a big mistake, because that would lead to the denial of the change that is actually happening.