Just a year or so ago, Bitcoin was weird. The digital “crypto-currency” had become fairly notorious as a preferred medium of exchange for hackers, outlaws, and the most strenuous libertarians. The underlying blockchain technology — a secure, distributed database requiring no central server or owner — was earning the curiosity of radicals and visionaries who saw in it the means of re-engineering the whole social order, of replacing banks and governments with distributed systems that ordinary people could manage together. Nowadays, however, the weirdness seems to be waning, along with the utopian promises. Governments are starting to craft policies for regulating blockchains, and Goldman Sachs’ research division is studying them. Many of those same radicals and visionaries have now started working for banks.
Over and over, this is what happens with the most promising new technologies. From the telegraph to radio and television, early adopters imagine a coming reign of freedom and democracy. But then investors buy in and monopolies rise up, extracting profits above all and suppressing the next generations of innovators, at least until the next “disruption.”
A different online economy is possible. Especially since the onset of the Great Recession, we’re living through a renaissance of solidarity economies in the United States and around the world. The flourishing of farmer’s markets, benefit corporations, credit unions, and fair trade demonstrates the longing for enterprise that serves the common good, rather than merely rolling in profits for the few. A bedrock of any solidarity economy is the old idea of cooperativism–sharing ownership among those affected by an enterprise and governing it democratically.
The tech industry, meanwhile, for all its talk of “sharing” and “democratizing,” has become addicted to a business model of massive early investment in exchange for massive short-term returns. Ordinary users are made to think that the platforms that they use every day are meant for them, and that they’re free, even as the personal information they share is sold off to pay investors. People working in Amazon’s warehouses, so-called crowd workers assembling a living out of on-demand fragments of jobs, and Uber’s increasingly precarious drivers are among those who shoulder the price as they see their rights and protections evaporate. This is not a bug, it’s the business model.
The tech industry, for all its talk of “sharing” and “democratizing,” has become addicted to a business model of massive early investment in exchange for massive short-term returns.