Saturday Jul 08, 2006

Connected Capitalism

I love the term "Connected Capitalism" coined by Simon Phipps to describe how "open source works by everyone contributing what they want without compulsion and using what they need without restriction -- as a counterpoint to people who try to call open source 'communism'. Think Benkler."

That's a jam packed Simon quote from a comment he left to a recent James Governor blog about press coverage on Simon's keynote at OSBC a couple of weeks back. Ben Rockwood also has some interesting and valuable thoughts on the subject. Ever since I tripped over open source here at Sun about six years ago, I've been fascinated -- mostly because the culture reminded me of things I had seen in the past but couldn't really fully participate in. There is so much to talk about, but I'll just carve out my favorite little bit from Simon's comment -- connected capitalism.

I see a nice consistency between capitalism and open source. If open source were really about communism, as some detractors assert, I'd dump it pretty quickly. Not because of any political belief (I don't waste time on such issues), but because it would be incapable of providing me enough value so I wouldn't want to contribute to it. I'm looking to earn a living with multiple and diverse streams of income but in a way that contributes to the community (whatever community), not detracts from the community like the robber barons of times past (and some present, I suppose). If I don't have the ability to get something out if it, I'm gone. It's that simple. Food is important. So is health insurance. I have a significant amount of experience with the medical community, and I'm determined to have enough money to pay for as many circumstances I can imagine. And a steady flow of cash well into retirement should come in handy as well. So, my perspective is especially economic and I'm getting more and more focused on that every day. It's my primary goal, in fact. But I've never been a believer in the zero sum game, either, so that's why I like the concept, culture, and dynamic of open source. It's the perfect solution.

As an economic system, capitalism has done a lot of good and certainly provides some pretty massive incentives for growth. It has some pretty big holes, though, and many people react negatively to the term. Perhaps because used alone it can sometimes connote "big" and "exclusive" and "exploitive" and the connections supporting it generally pervade insiders -- the special ones, the privileged ones, the rich ones, the ones who control things like Big Oil, Big Unions, Big Education, Big Agriculture, Big Banking, Big Construction, Big Shipping, Big Government, Big [insert your favorite big thing here]. So, if that's the reason someone doesn't like the term, I can understand it. And, for the most part, I agree. Those things bother me, too. Breaking into some of those entrenched industries without paying off the controlling parties is challenging. Those industries are not communities whose members openly welcome new contributors, that's for sure.

I tried to break into the construction industry in New York as a small business owner, and, boy, did I learn a lesson in, ah, capitalism. My goodness. It had nothing whatsoever to do with open competition or competing based on talent, better pricing, better service, better equipment, better ideas, or better innovation. Instead, it had everything to do with paying to play in a controlled market, and it represented an absolutely stunning destruction of innovation and inspiration. I had to pay to enter the kingdom of those who had gone before and who were carefully guarding the gate to their paradigm -- at all costs. The controllers viewed their game as zero sum for sure, and I didn't fit in very well at all. In my case, I ran into several powerful construction and trucking unions (I was non-union), dozens of well-connected contractors (I didn't have their money), many government agencies (I didn't have political connections), and a few other rather strange characters (I'd rather not talk about). At times, the lines supposedly separating these groups blended all too closely, which was confusing and unsettling at best. The experience was both disgusting and exhilarating, and everything I believe today about economics and politics I learned from those early battles in the construction business. Back then I worked with some well-meaning business people -- true entrepreneurs -- and I learned all about what creative, innovative, talented individuals could build and how easily a powerful, centralized, controlling group could take it all away -- sometimes violently -- because the leaders felt threatened. I came to believe that open competition terrified people who contributed so very little..

I've always wondered about this though. In capitalism, why can't the individual and the community (or company, government, or union, or school, etc) benefit simultaneously so the cycle is self referral? To me, open source goes a long way to solving this problem because the culture of that system openly welcomes new contributions from creative, innovative individuals anywhere -- and the more the better. This is not necessarily exclusive to open source software development; it's probably present in other engineering and scientific disciplines as well. I sure saw it at Tufts University where I worked for a few years with physicians, veterinarians, and a variety of researchers. Heck, I bet any true craftsman or artist in any field would get this concept of individual, contribution, community. In other words, the community benefits but so does the individual contributing. In fact, the more one contributes, the more one benefits. It's that whole "you get out of it what you put into it" thing, and it supports the notion of enlightened self interest, which Simon rightly explains can be a problematic term but one I have no problem with (other than the fact that I need to assert it much more often). So, you enrich the commons and all the individual people within the community managing the commons benefit as well, and those especially hard working people have a limitless opportunity at their fingertips. Opportunity is there for all but it's proportional to how hard one works and how much one contributes. And around it goes. Generally speaking, of course. And by "enrich" I don't necessarily mean only in pure monetary terms. Rich means many things to many people: money, reputation, connections, access to shared resources, conservation, safety, insurance, learning, skill development, contribution, feeling of well being, donations, participation, desire to help others, etc. Simon explains all this much better, of course, but I'm trying to understand it based on my past experiences and on my future plans.

Now, elements of this absolutely remind me of capitalism -- but a very, very special form of capitalism. It's called entrepreneurialism. Small capitalism, I guess. Capitalism for the little guy. Capitalism the way it should be. Capitalism where everyone is welcome to participate and dare and risk. Capitalism that the old capitalists and the old communists would both have a hard time dealing with. That's the kind of capitalism I like. I just call it entrepreneurialism because my perspective starts with an independent individual being able to take care of him/herself so as not to be a burden but to do so by being connected so contributions benefit all. I think small entrepreneurs understand this more than big capitalists do (yes I'm splitting hairs a bit here) because the entrepreneurs usually start small and depend heavily on connections to others for resources, whereas those big capitalists tend to rely more on buying their way around since they already have lots of resources. It's certainly not true in all cases, but that's what I've seen along my way.

So, when Simon puts "connected" in front of the term "capitalism" it gives the entire principle a new, de-centralized, individual, empowering feeling and that's something every entrepreneur can understand. Hard work, perseverance, talent, skill, opportunity, luck. Not for Big Enterprise, but for the individuals who can't help but dream of what's possible. In this context, the term "connected" is critically important because it implies rather directly that for all this to work one has to connect to the community and help manage the stuff in the commons. Connected also implies responsibility, and if you are connected to people rather than capital it's more important that you do the right thing, not necessarily the most profitable and selfish thing. It's the connection to the community that creates the opportunity to create individual value, and that's what has hooked me. It solves my problem. I can be entrepreneurial without being a robber baron. The elite wouldn't understand this because they are not connected to anyone other than elitists like themselves. Whatever economic system they use in whatever society they live tends to exploit the commons, not contribute to it, and over time that pisses people off on all sides of the political, economic, and social fence.

"Connected Capitalism" works well for me. And I've yet to see a more powerful expression of the entrepreneurial spirit than the dynamics of a thriving community. Have you?
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