Commentary: The Internet and Its Challenge to Capitalism

Sara AM Golling
By Sara AM Golling
June 18th, 2009

As a society, we have been living under a false paradigm for at least the last 250 years.  That is, that people are largely motivated by self-interest.  It’s an utter absurdity, but one that has been reinforced by various types of clinical prejudice, beginning with Freud, but also, most importantly, Adam Smith.

Smith is the renowned “father” of economic theory, who posited, originally, that greed is good.  He tossed away centuries of human sensibility by suggesting that people seeking their own self-interest was actually good for the whole of society, because they would produce wealth that would trickle down to benefit the rest.

Smith’s idealism was trumped by the advent of monopoly capitalism, which enabled the self-interested few to ensure that their hard-fought wealth did not do exactly that. So we have an increasing chasm building between the haves and the have-nots.

The same attitude has marred much of the economic and political infrastructures that we have built. That begins with our notion of democracy itself. The people-are-not-motivated-by-higher-ideals philosophy has contributed to an inability to apprehend, not only the degree to which people would like to be involved in the political process, but what would be the value of their contribution to it. It of course serves some political ends–for those who would rather not be bound by the interference of public opinion.

The ideal for a society is not people pursuing self-interest, but people moderating their self-interest with the practice of charity. Charity comes in many forms and can comprise financial donations, but the broader definition involves making a contribution of some sort for the betterment of humanity.

We’ve been jaded by the perceived failure of the great experiment in collective charity known as Communism. Despite our modern inheritance, the pursuit of higher ideals has been at the base of all great human achievement since the beginning. Compassion, in most cases, is the very basis of what various prophets have taught throughout history. Nevertheless, it was George Orwell who sealed the coffin of our collective aspirations by suggesting that it is futile to seek to improve society, as the revolutionaries will only turn out to be the new dictators. That’s a callous and pessimistic view of the world, and I don’t buy it.

Rather, Adam Smith, Freud and Orwell have been proven wrong by the wonderful developments of the internet. We still have to see to what extent the ideals that have driven its evolution will prevent the more sinister forces of capitalism from containing it. But for now, the internet has been a thriving example of doing for others. Until now, we’ve been living under the assumption that businesses must be run based on the bottom-line. But a tremendous degree of wealth and technological advancements have been generated purely from the motivation of empowering people.

There are many great examples. Wikipedia is one that stands out. Many are so accustomed to the old paradigm, however, that they have difficulty trusting an encyclopedia that can be edited by “anybody”. That perception comes from a habit of being spoon-fed information by corporations. But democracy is hard work. It means having to think for yourself. Of course there is a lot of garbage on the internet–that’s what happens when you let people express themselves. But the old paradigm of “mainstream” media was not much better; it’s just that we were lulled into ascribing it legitimacy.

But it’s not all “garbage” online. There is a lot of great information. And it begins by understanding how a site like Wikipedia works. That is, by first trusting the efforts of the crowd. Again, that there are enough people motivated by their dedication to their subject, that they will not only amass a wealth of information about it, but that they will do their best to defend it. In other words, a debate ensues, and it is the allowance of that dynamic to happen that produces great things.

That is just the tip of the iceberg. So much of the internet has been constructed on high ideals, beginning with the computer itself which was ultimately a tip of the hat to the average person. It was an attempt to empower him or her. And that continued on through numerous projects like Mozilla which has produced the Firefox browser, as well as the entire Open Source movement, which began with Linux, and continues to proliferate myriad of new technologies at an impressive pace.

Most importantly, these numerous developments prove that people will work for more than their own self-interest, that they can be motivated by higher ideals. And that is of course reflected in our own communities, with the level of volunteerism that we enjoy. And it is that same volunteerism which contributes to most of what we enjoy culturally in this town.

So take that Adam Smith…

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