Sunday, April 19, 2009

"The Hobby Economy": Not just for your mama's basement anymore?

Deluded by grandeur, or a worker-bee in the new economy? Image found here.

Via Andrew Sullivan comes what is, in effect, an economic answer to--and justification for(!)--the question, "Why do we blog?": "Hobby Economy," by Rob Horning. You'll want to read the whole post, especially if, like me, you even find yourself wondering what good(s) (in all its senses) blogging on things like, oh, I don't know, riding a bicycle around Wichita contributes to the real-world commonweal. But what follows are some especially pithy passages that ask us to consider re-thinking traditional notions of economies, commodities, the relationship between labor and wages, etc. (Note: The passages are cut-and-pasted from Horning's post; all wording is his. Emphases, however, are mine.):

[T]he internet, as a relatively affordable and powerful means of production available to many noncapitalists, has perhaps started to make possible an alternative to wage legitimation of labor. Tyler Cowen, in a post from a month or so ago, responded to BusinessWeek economist Michael Mandel’s theory that the alleged productivity gains from the IT boom of the past decade and a half were illusory. Cowen writes, “My take is this: there was some productivity growth but much of it fell outside of the usual cash and revenue-generating nexus. Maybe you will live until 83 rather than 81.5 and your pain reliever will work better. In the meantime you will read blogs and gaze upon beautiful people using your Facebook account. Those are gains to consumer surplus, but they don’t prop until the revenue-generating sectors of the economy as one might have expected.” In other words, gains in productivity derived from things like the internet aren’t showing up as more money in our pockets, and they are not showing up as corporate profit, but they do exist in a kind of nascent alternative economy. The “consumer surplus” is being generated outside of capitalist structures, outside of the market, though it is still occurring within a capitalist, consumerist society. It’s being made through activity that has in the past been generally dismissed as hobby behavior—collaborative open-source projects, online content production and archiving, tagging information, sharing and organizing useful data, etc., etc. The internet amasses this effort, consolidates it, distributes the example and rewards of it, and draws more people into contributing.
Weirdly, I feel fortunate to be able to be motivated to do all this work for free. The source of that motivation remains obscure to me, but it’s clearly a product of the (perhaps imaginary) audience the internet appears to marshal for my activity. Getting paid might even discourage me. Right now, I keep writing in part because my motives are obscure. They taunt and provoke me, make me restless and frustrated with procrastinating. If there was a cash payment involved, I’d know exactly why I was doing it, and would feel much better about procrastinating and putting in only the amount of time I thought I was being paid for. I suppose there’s a chance that I like not having a price attached to what I am doing here because it frees me from having to see how little it is really worth. But the more ambiguous rewards, those that the internet as a means of production allows for, seem to be more generative—one must keep trying different things to try to secure them.
Re technological innovations on the Web such as open-source software:
Since no wages are paid to produce them, and they generally don’t cost anything once they are made, they are outside of the market; yet they exist, and innovation is clearly being harvested there. But the use of innovation and productivity to justify income inequality doesn’t hold up—innovation is taking place outside the income-distribution system; the winners in that system are gaming in in some other way—through financial chicanery recently.
If our social production in our spare time on the internet is where we experience the true gains in our life—if that is where we notice marginal improvement, if that is where innovations beneficial to society are being developed more or less spontaneously (see Clay Shirky’s book)—a sensible society would permit us to spend more time doing that stuff. The market and wages don’t direct us to do it, but we do it anyway. Theoretically (and this is getting pretty techno-utopian), we will be able forgo wages (work less) in favor of such social production, since the rewards we get from online participation come cheap. Whether or not employers will be so flexible is another question—traditionally, according to Marx, employers must purchase our labor in blocks of time so as to squeeze surplus value out of us.

An important question is whether this nascent hobby economy now developing alongside the capitalist one has become symbiotic with capitalism—is it helping to perpetuate a system that would otherwise become intolerable without the outlet that it provides, while feeding traditional capitalism with innovations to keep it dynamic?

This last segment is especially intriguing to ponder, in that some descriptions of capitalism-as-system-of-power contend that that which could potentially challenge capital's hegemony becomes co-opted by it so as to render it harmless or, at least, less-threatening. Still, the Internet economy--the exchanging of information and ideas--is clearly the engine driving recent discussions popping up everywhere, it seems, about the need to re-think and, even, re-engineer most if not all of that which has made possible our consumerist economy (most philosophically at Front Porch Republic; pragmatically at any number of the newish urbanism blogs). It is way too early to know how this new economic model will effect real change, but the ubiquity of the 'Nets makes it clear that it will, and profoundly.

UPDATE: Karen of Delano Wichita kindly linked to this post and added both some links in the same vein and some ruminating on existentialist questions pertaining to the Delano District. Local folks--especially those interested in thinking about notions of neighborhood and community that aren't entirely contingent on state action (or lack thereof) or on the usual ways of thinking about economies--should pay a visit over there and, maybe, get inspired.

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