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The breakdown of Mass Production and the rise of Mass Control

by Trond Ove Sat Apr 15th, 2006 at 03:32:18 AM EST

Unlike Jerome and several others on this site, I think the Leftist forces in Europe need to start staking out new positions in this rapidly changing world. The Market Liberals are actually correct when they state that the changing economic conditions are going to have to force reforms on us. The problem is that their proposed reforms will crush the power of the strongest equalising force in the world today, the Nation State, and move political and economic power completely into the hands of corporations, with the rise of something close to corporate feudalism as the probable outcome.

Why is this? And how do we fight this, and propose a new, positive way forward? My contention is that there are two broad trends that are going to be the main driving forces in the Western World in the foreseeable future.

Let us start with the most positive aspect, the end of the Mass Production model and the rise of decentralised production of goods and services. Classical Mass Production, with vertical integration and a high degree of standardisation is clearly dying. Brands, who either are no more than design and marketing shops, or who assemble parts produced by the lowest bidder has taken over. Advances in customer research means that people no longer wear the same jeans, drive the same car and watch the same TV channel. Products are still being mass produced, and at a lower and lower price, but they are also increasingly being tailored to the needs and fancies of smaller and more numerous fractions of the market.

At the same, not only the cost of production, but in many fields, the cost of the equipment needed for production is falling rapidly. An example is the medium we are communicating in now. The Internet has lowered the cost of a wide range of tools (programs, etc), news gathering, communication, education, and so on, down to the price of an Internet-capable computer and an Internet line. How phenomenal this is, is very difficult for each and one of us to fathom, as we are only using a tiny part of this enormous pool of free information and tools for ourselves.

The rise of the Open Source movement is an example of how transformative the lowering of production costs and of the machinery needed for production can be. Linux, the flagship of the Open Source movement, has been able to become a credible opponent to Microsoft's Windows, one of the most profitable products ever produced, in many market segments, mostly built on free work done by thousands of computer programmers around the globe.

The Open Source idea has already spread to other fields where the cost of entering is approaching zero. This site is one example. And you can undoubtedly think of many more. I can mention the traditional top-down model of Mass Media, which is creaking under the stress. The cost of high-definition low-cost video cameras has led to an explosion in independent film making that we will no doubt see blossom over the next few years.

We are already able to produce products virtually without cost in our own living room today. Every time you electronically copy a picture you took and send it by email to your friend, you are producing and distributing a product. And the range of products we are able to produce in our homes are increasing by the day.

With advances in 3d printing and nanotechnologies, we are heading towards a situation where most goods needed or wanted in our lives can be produced in our own homes, andor designed to our specifications. In such a world mass-production would probably still be economical, but would be vastly less efficient and convenient compared to the home produced alternative.

So what is in my opinion the biggest hurdle to this Marxist wet dream, where the means of production is put into the hands of every single one of us?

The biggest problem is that the means of control are also getting cheaper and more far-reaching, and they are actively being used by Government and Private entities.

By means of control, I am talking about everything from the strengthening of Copyright, Patent and Trademark regimes and the ability to enforce them, to the increased ability of Product and Service providers to shape and monitor the way we use what they sell. And also direct surveillance of our lives by Government agencies and private entities (banks, etc) of course, which is growing rapidly in scope and efficiency.

This control apparatus is what will keep the elites in power as the Mass Production, Mass Media and Mass Consumption society slowly fades away. The rhetoric of the Information Economy usually goes hand in hand with talk about "intellectual property rights" etc. They are ways to use the growing power of control to keep the lowered cost of information and production from undermining the economical elites.

In essence a system is being built wherein people will be charged for products or the access to making products, by complex means of control. Two examples should hopefully make it clear what I am talking about; iTunes selling mp3s (which are free to copy), and producers of printers selling ink costing more than gold. Not only are there technical means of control in these products to stop people from freeing themselves from the providers, but the companies, along with compliant politicians are also building up laws and regulations to make it illegal to do so.

Artificial scarcity versus the Post scarcity economy

Fighting technical and legislative controls on our lives and our ability to produce content and products is vital if we are to avoid a future where economical elites are using sophisticated technological controls and state power to create an artificial scarcity of products and information. At the farthest extent, we can glimpse a Utopia and a Dystopia, one where the cost of production and the access to means of production and information sinks so much that we can lift the world out of poverty. On the other side, a corporate-feudal society, where the rights of most activities or production of most products are subject to license fees.

I don't see either of these scenarios as very likely to come to full fruition, as there are obviously checks and balances in place in most societies to stop them from going that far. But it seems clear to me that we should be fighting the gradual creep of information and production control seen lately. The alternative is to lose the rights to tinker and produce, and the complete negation of the Post-war European efforts to redistribute the wealth of Nations from the few to the many.

Just wanted to say that I see this as long-term trends, not something that will be played out over the next few years. We are talking decades (at least.)

And of course, we might all be dead before that, if the Nukes starts to fly...

by Trond Ove on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 10:57:05 AM EST
Excellent move, glad to see that conventional wisdom is not taking hold of ET <snark> not everyone is struggling to think along the same line as our Lider maximo :)

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill
by Agnes a Paris on Fri Apr 14th, 2006 at 12:55:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, my views are not that original, neither on this site nor elsewhere. This was just an attempt by me to summarise our argument and bring it to the fore, in connection with the general policy debate going on on this site.

But thank you for the compliment :)

by Trond Ove on Sat Apr 15th, 2006 at 11:23:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A middle class version of the knowledge based economy. But acces to communications is still a privilege that many cannot afford.

Also you are closing out many who do not readily deal with knowledge and commercial creativity, craft and experience are resistant to your paradigms.

What you have delineated are the boundaries of the next class divide. Technocrats and neo-con economists may own this current cycle, but peak oil will do for them.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 11:17:28 AM EST
How is virtually free access to information and the means of production middle class?

The cost of access to information and communication channels are dropping like a stone too.

by Trond Ove on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 11:42:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It isn't virtually free. Computers cost money. Also, providers may be competing with low cost now, but one only has to look at regulation speeding through Washington now to see where things are headed in our neo-con globablised future for clamping down availability of information and the ramping up of cost.

That sum may be a trifle to the technocratic, but I don't think computer ownership in the UK has broken the 60% mark yet where I believe we are in the vanguard of Europe.  

This revolution would be no different to any other. A minority, however large, will benefit enormously, and a majority will be left behind more or less where they were.

Part-time provision in libraries simply allows the temporarily poor technocratic to keep up, it does not enable others to catch up. Glib statements maybe but it's how I see it.

I just don't believe in utopian visions. We've had the "energy too cheap to meter" promises before, the Marvel comic visions of the future of leisured societies and somehow they only seem to come true for a favoured few.

No, I'm not dystopian either but I think we have to work harder for an egalitarian future than just assume it is the inevitable result of technological advances. After all, the advances are owned by the current elites and they haven't impressed me with their generosity yet. They ain't giving nothing away.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 12:24:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You are attacking straw men.
by Trond Ove on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 03:14:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
or up
by observer393 on Sun Apr 16th, 2006 at 02:35:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A middle class version of the knowledge based economy. But acces to communications is still a privilege that many cannot afford

In the US public libraries have computer centers with Internet access even in the back-end of beyond, where I live.  While not "in the home" this global communication and information service is available, free, for those who want to use it.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 12:00:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Much scarcity is consumer driven. Large numbers of people desiring the latest movie or song allow the providers to use monopolistic tactics.

If everyone can create content for low cost, then it is the marketplace that determines worth. The problem is distribution and marketing. No matter how good your creation is, it's worth nothing if people can't find it. So, currently, the bottleneck is the search engines, of which there really are only three.

I've complained about this in this essay:
Google Monopoly

As for mass production of more tangible things, the dynamics are similar. People are willing to pay more for a branded product. This has to do more with self-image and the skill of marketing than technology. There are only a few areas where there are absolute constraints on markets. The two that come to mind are automobiles and prescription drugs. The first because of the cost of entry into the business, the second because of the type of intellectual property abuses referred to in the diary. Even in the outrageous case of drugs, the monopoly is shortlived, averaging about five to ten years. That there may be much unnecessary suffering in the interim is the fault of governments for allowing these policies to continue.

I've written many times about transitioning to a society that is less dependent on "stuff", but in the west people are too busy spending money to listen, and in the third world people just want some of the goods for themselves. Change may only come when resource scarcity forces it.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 02:11:32 PM EST
I agree with your comments. They are somewhat beside the point however. There will undoubtedly in the foreseeable future always be products that are in scarcity. Antiques, and luxury products etc. would be good examples.

But consumer culture in general grew hand in hand with the industrial revolution. There is no reason to believe it to be eternal.

The whole point of my diary however, was mapping out a probably expansion of intellectual controls, and why we need to fight it. Because fighting it might lead to a vastly better world than by not fighting it.

by Trond Ove on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 03:25:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
we need to broaden the pyramid's base, not narrow its apex.

example: $100 laptops with dynamo cranks and wifi.

solar panels for peasants to power their media centres to keep them entertained after a long day in the fields, and to take the drain off the groaning grids, hastening the end of the dinosaurs who presently stomp on the energy landscape.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 03:23:03 PM EST
There are many projects with this aim out there, fighting the digital divide. Many of them have failed however, because they hadnt anticipated the rapid decline in price of computers in general, which often undercut these projects, because they worked on different time scales.
by Trond Ove on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 03:27:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you are right on the rise of mass control even though I do not see utopia in the other direction, just a not as bad outcome. I do think we are heading for dark times nevertheless, but how dark is still a question to be decided. And one of the decisions is made by if we can keep and expand the freedom of thoughts and exchange of ideas the internet has brought or if effective mass controll can be enacted.

That is why I am a member of the Pirate Party of Sweden.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri Apr 14th, 2006 at 11:15:52 AM EST
It is often shocking to me how little thought is given by people on the internet towards how much of a fluke this way of communicating is in the grand scheme of things. And how easy it is for us to loose our newfound freedom in the use of new technology, should the powers that be decide to clamp down, for whatever reason.

While much attention is (deservedly so) being put on the Great Firewall of China, and the free speech issues of bloggers in for instance Iran, the growing restrictions put on technology use in the West is not as hotly debated, outside of the EFF and libertarian circles.

Our freedom to discuss, share, tinker, remix, etc. is what has made the Internet grow as fast as it has. It is a force that I am sure will also have a transformative power on society in general, as long as we allow it to.

I think the reason why we are all feeling that things are running out of control now is because most people arent aware of the dangers of moving from a product based economy to a license based one. I think that if we manage to convey this struggle clearly, we will be able to win over a great many people. This is issues that are increasingly affecting people directly.

by Trond Ove on Fri Apr 14th, 2006 at 12:33:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Decentralization. Of power, ultimately. Of energy (whither the fuel cell?). Of production. Of media (which is what we are helping with). Of food production. Of politics.

Decentralization's main outcome is the removal of the middleman. Politicians are 'middlemen'. They may not be needed at all in the long term, if everyone can be connected to decision-making without the need for representation (and manipulation of that representation by politicians)

The only thing that can't be decentralized is the Judicial system. Or at least I can't think of a way in which that could happen. I could see support for private litigants being decentralized - that is what blogs assist in by marshalling the facts, doing the research, honing arguments etc. But I don't see any way around the fact that the law is by nature centralized, and interpretation of the law requires professional courts.

Laws, of course, can be changed politically. So, in the future, laws might evolve due to a decentralized process.

The most important factor in democracy in our favour is 'one-man-one-vote'. There will always be more poor than rich, always more consumers than producers etc. The protection of these imbalances is the crucial question. Chavez and Morales in S. America have shown the power of this equation.

The distortion of this equation comes about through the undue influence of money on our political representatives. Eliminate them, and the system may recover. Eliminate the mainstream media (and replace with decentralized sharing) would also help the system to recover.

The process has begun. These blogs (in relation to mainstream media) are just the beginning.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Apr 15th, 2006 at 04:27:12 AM EST
I was chatting with some Finnish hacker friends and realised that they use a sharing model that could replace patent and copyright.

The model is based on putting in as much as you get out. One of their sites has a vast amount of cracked software. In their ethic, the work to be done in cracking software (and apparently it is not that difficult for a seasoned coder) is balanced by having access to other coders' cracks.

It is not strictly governed, but what happens is this: if you upload any cracked software or files to their 3 tera server for open distribution, it is a unit of credit which allows you to download any one file uploaded by another hacker. Additionally, the number of downloads of the file you uploaded increases your bandwidth (up to the max of the system)

As ebay has proved, absolutely anything will interest at least one other person providing you have demographic volume. So there do not necessarily need to be content relevance rules. In the case of the hackers, if you upload a piece of music that you have composed and recorded, it is as valuable as the crack of a major piece of software.

It's not so very far from the trusted user system here. You gain by sharing.

So the model would mean that you have no copyright - everyone who also contributes can use your contribution freely. Your benefit is access to the work of others.

It is similar to the Local Exchange Trading System system or LETS for short.  You offer your time and skills 'locally' that can be exchanged for the time and skills of another person in the system. So an ad copywriter could swop with a plumber. The copywriter gets his sink fixed, and the plumber gets the copy for his ad in a local paper. Or whatever.

I don't have personal experience of the system, but it was explained to me by someone in Amsterdam. It functions in 40 odd countries apparently. The beauty of it to an old anarchist like me is that, since no money changes hands, there are no taxes.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Apr 15th, 2006 at 05:22:35 AM EST
We are already able to produce products virtually without cost in our own living room today. [...]

With advances in 3d printing and nanotechnologies, we are heading towards a situation where most goods needed or wanted in our lives can be produced in our own homes, andor designed to our specifications.

I agree with your first proposition as regards intangible products. However, I have to wonder where we as a planet are going to find the resources to build the capital base to manufacture the 3d printers/nanotech, the resources to actually manufacture these devices on a global scale plus resources these devices require as inputs.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Sat Apr 15th, 2006 at 05:47:18 AM EST
Self-replication has turned into something of a holy grail in nanotechnology, robotics and also lately the related 3d printing research. Complete self-replication, where the only input is raw materials and energy, is quite far off. (Althought a couple of break-throughs would considerably shorten the time)

But there is already very interesting research going on, with at least basic prototypes of self-replication having been produced in robotics and 3d printing. The most important one would probably be self-replication through nano technology thought, which has the potential to really open up the flood gates.

Why is self-replication important? Because there is no need for mass production or its industrial or financial base to produce the product any more.

by Trond Ove on Sat Apr 15th, 2006 at 11:40:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not sure that the new information technologies are making Mass Production obsolete, rather they make the productive benefits of the democratization of work much more evident.

The Open Source model was exquisitely suited to the sort of intellectual effort-intensive business of creating software. The possibilities that knowledge and information dissemination in large networks offers, make the positions of the managers and the technocrats - indeed of an arbitrary workplace hierarchy of power and rewards - vulnerable theoretically, as most of the highly-educated persons that work for a company realize that what management has to offer isn't something that they can't do themselves. So indeed in the knowledge-intensive sectors of the economy this sort of revolution is not only more productive, but it is kept in check by job scarcity, inertia, "common wisdom" and initial capital demands which, while not immense, are a great risk for persons who are already insecure financially.

But the point is that this is only more evident in the information/research industries. It holds for most (possibly all) of economic activity. It is a fact, from what I've seen, that no-one knows how to organize  work and spot problems better than the people doing the work, and the new information tools that allow quick dissemination of knowledge and information and instant communication, certainly could enhance these self-management capabilities. Indeed the high-tech sector could serve as an example to the rest of the economy.

Take for example Argentina's "recuperated businesses" i.e. the businesses taken over by their workers after the economic collapse and their owners escape to places nearer their swiss-bank accounts. It seems that most are doing quite fine, but facing legal and political challenges. As far as self-management is concerned, well management isn't exactly rocket science:

One of the biggest worries that the workers at Argentina's recuperated enterprises have is how to self-manage their business. As the largest recuperated factory in Argentina, Zanon now employs 470 workers. Under worker control, no management professional stayed at the factory. Only the workers stayed. The workers had to learn everything about sales, marketing, production planning, and other highly technical aspects. The workers at Zanon regularly work with lawyers, accountants, and other professionals whom they trust, but the professionals don't make the decisions. The worker assembly votes on technical decisions. Professionals have provided specific skills training for the workers at Zanon. However, for many of the recuperated enterprises there is a deficit of trustworthy professionals.

Planning systematic skills training has been another challenge. While many of the recuperated enterprises have formed informal knowledge-sharing networks, there is a need for specific skills training. In the midst of running a business and fighting legal battles, long-term production planning and training often times becomes a last priority.

So imagine this, in a political climate and balance of power actually favourable to self-managed businesses... If it can work under adversity and crisis, it can certainly work if politically these sort of businesses have some sort of equal playing field (or even more, a preferential treatment) and are equipped with the necessary technologies that facilitate training and management...

The problems facing these sorts of developments seem to me twofold:
 - The fact that they are actively fought by the elites at all levels and face a rising wall of legislation and subversion from the states and the corporations, as Trond notes.
- Inertia. It is not by accident that workplace occupation and self-management occurred only after a most violent economic crash, in desperate times in Argentina. It is quite a bold move to remove ones self from the "comfort" of a steady pay when it exists, where you only have to do your job, without worrying about the inner workings of whatever it is you're working for. Especially when there is no precedent and the political "common wisdom" flies against such a move.

So the potential is there. The question is how does one utilize it and how it can be translated to a political movement. It isn't simple, of course.

Let me add that as a socialist it always struck me as absurd that a "revolution" could be made for a system which doesn't exist even in small pockets inside society and the economic model of which is opaque. Which means that people aren't supposed to revolt for something concrete they like, but for principles that, they would hope, lead to a better and more fair society. Not very likely - especially in a system that most people more or less get by. The transition from feudalism to capitalism wasn't like that. Capitalism was dominant or ascending anyway, economically, when it obtained political power. So unless you have the embryo of a more democratic and just workplace and economy somewhere actually functioning efficiently, you never are going to challenge corporate capitalism, anywhere, anyhow...

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake

by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Sat Apr 15th, 2006 at 08:06:38 AM EST
You can't eat bits.  Most people need food, energy, water, and shelter.  The means of production of those isn't going down, it's going in the other direction.  Decentralization of communication poses no threat to Exxon-Mobil.  Decentralized energy production might.
by tjbuff (timhess@adelphia.net) on Sat Apr 15th, 2006 at 09:54:22 AM EST
There are some promising movements in the direction towards energy independence. It has become quite fashionable to drill heat wells (or whatstheirnames) on Norwegian huts. They drill a well that is quite deep, and then heat their huts from the energy difference. This is on top of a small but growing number or micro hydro power stations, built locally on small streams.

The heat wells are expensive to drill, so it takes a long time before they pay off. But a rise in the cost of electricity might make them much cheaper. And there is probably room for the technology to mature and get cheaper too.


And I havent even mentioned the potential for localised wind power production, if a legislative framework is put in place so as to make energy trading between these local producers and the energy grid is made economical.

But to be honest, I do not know enough about this field to speak with perfect confidence. I am optimistic on this field thought, because I have noticed interest among people for these kinds of solutions.

In my parents decidedly middle class neighbourhood in rural Norway, people are outdoing themselves on buying the biggest and most effective heat pumps. I find it encouraging albeit baffling that "Keeping up with the Jones'es" suddenly involves being more self-reliant and wasting less energy.

by Trond Ove on Sat Apr 15th, 2006 at 11:58:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To clarify, my point isnt the small numbers of people that are actively trying to get off the grid. It is the fact that a move towards energy independence, which would have been cognitively unthinkable in the modernist world of mass production and mass consumption, is now contemplated by people. It is a shift in persception more than in actual behaviour so far. But I think it has the potential to grow. Thereby opening up a market, leading to more research, etc.
by Trond Ove on Sat Apr 15th, 2006 at 12:17:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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