The Prospects of Equality
On Widely Pervasive Social Production of Energy, Information, Food and Technology.
This is the concluding sub-chapter of my PhD thesis "Distributing Power: A Cratological Study of Emerging Technologies of Electric Power Supply" (2010).
I have discussed here two industries where technological changes currently seem to afford a radical social decentralisation: namely, the electricity supply industry (which, of course, constituted the object of study for this work) and the media and communications industry where, arguably, the egalitarian affordances of novel network technologies have advanced the most. Once again, in the latter as well as in the former, more explicit anti-concentration policies would have to be in place in order to more fully realise those affordances. Let us speculate, once more, about a radical future where, through the political process, those constraints on concentration and accumulation power have been put in place. According to what was stated in the previous paragraph, a certain law of the conservation of social power would predict that, out of the power previously accumulated in those industries some of it would be effectively dispersed among a larger set of social actors while some of it would be removed from those industries by the individuals or companies previously enjoying it in order to try to re-accumulate it elsewhere. From this perspective, it may seem that a political process that would try in this way to eradicate economic power would be endless or perhaps even futile. That this is not the case can be argued in the following way. First, and most obviously, there are not infinite industries or social sub-systems, just as there are not infinite kinds of resources. The process, then, would be effectively finite. Moreover, there is a second, most important and informative fact. What are the resources 'in play' in the two industries mentioned above? They are: energy (i.e. in the form of electricity) and information. Arguably, these are two of the most socially valuable resources that exist: they are, so to speak, strategically important. For this reason, a technological and political process such as that I have just imagined, which would radically redistribute control over those resources, would not be futile but in fact a major conquest in the process of achieving equality of social power at large.
Are there other kinds of resources that are socially hyper-valuable or strategic as energy and information? I can think of at least two more: namely, food and technology itself (or artefacts). Both resources, like energy and information, have been controlled by industries that during the 20th century developed according to the Marx-Galbraith hypothesis: e.g. large-scale manufacturing of equipment and large-scale intensive farming. Is a technological and political process, such as the one partly occurring and partly imagined here for the electricity and information industries, currently foreseeable for these other resources? There are two trends that may allow for a positive answer to this question.
As for food, there is, of course, the current trend towards widely distributed and small-scale rural, suburban and urban farming. Some of the technologies supporting this trend are, of course, millenarian, such that the trend may be seen as driven primarily by ecological, cultural, economic and political concerns. However, there is also an important set of high-technology resources that may allow for a very radical vision of the future of urban farming, such as living skyscrapers or 'farmscrapers', vertical farming, living walls, mobile gardens, aeroponics, etc. There is a risk, of course, that urban farming ends up controlled by the same large multinational corporations that today control a great share of global agriculture. The political task is the same as for the industries mentioned above. Moreover, there is a risk that the technologies employed there, as in the case of those employed in the production of information and energy, may allow for the concentration of power in the hands of the companies that have or will develop those technologies. The second trend may be of relevance here.
With respect to the production of technology or artefacts, one promising trend exists, which is, in fact, two-fold. On the one hand, there is the well-known movement of open-source software that has brought with it an important redistribution of control over an important technological resource, namely 'code', which in turn has redistributed the control over some aspects of information and computation technologies. On the other hand, there is the more recently emerging movement of open-source hardware thanks to which the production of all kinds of artefacts may well see a development along the lines of current open-source software production. There are, in turn, two dimensions to this movement: on the one hand, there is the scheme of social production or collaboration in which a mass of individuals share on-line their designs, such as in the form of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) files; on the other hand, there is an ongoing revolution in the development of cheap, small-scale Computed Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines, such as 3D printers and cutters. These two dimensions together may spur a trend towards decentralised small-scale manufacturing of many kinds of objects, including fully functional technological artefacts.
In the future, this last trend towards widespread social production of technology may, in turn, feed back into the other three such that we may see the open-sourcing of technologies for the production of information, energy and food. All these trends together may wall lead to an age of widely pervasive social production of the most valuable or strategic resources in society. The prospects of equality are much higher in that scenario than in one, like the present age, where the production and reproduction of those resources rests in the hands of a few large multinational corporations. As I have argued throughout this work, the most important challenge is political in two fronts: first, there is a need to develop and implement policies that are conducive to the development and diffusion of those technologies; second, there is a need to develop and implement policies that are conducive to the actualisation of the egalitarian affordances of that future vision of technology as a whole.