By Jonathan Beller
The failed revolution
The internet in 2030? To answer, two assumptions: First, we are still alive. Second, things on Earth are improving for more than just a few as we shake off our 20th century monetary systems and our 18th century systems of governance.
There has been a radical transformation in these infrastructures of sociality for two main reasons: First, survival. The old political, monetary and communication structures simply cannot process the informational complexity necessary to sustain planetary life with 8 billion people. There are social movements demanding new forms of cooperation that take their needs and aspirations into account.
Second, there has been a growing recognition that monetary media and communications media have converged as economic media. Communication, computation and finance have already converged.
Jonathan Beller is Professor of Media Studies at Pratt Institute and member of the Economic Space Agency (ECSA) think tank. His forthcoming book, "The World Computer: Derivative Conditions of Racial Capitalism," will be published by Duke University Press in 2021. This essay is part of the Internet 2030 series exploring the future of the digital economy.
The internet, though purporting to solve historical forms of inequality by flattening communications, failed to realize its collective dream. It failed in large part because although it broadened and democratized speech, its economic logic was still beholden to hierarchical capitalist models of value extraction. The internet became, without our really knowing it, an economic medium, and a medium of brutal extraction – a deterritorialized factory.
Indeed, by 2020 world communication had been turned into the most potent engine for centralized value accumulation ever created. The very infrastructure that grew precisely because it promised equality became a distributed machine for the production and intensification of inequality. By 2020, this pyramidal logic of accumulation resulted in a world where three or four individuals held half the world’s wealth, and more that two billion people (population Earth, 1929) lived on $2 a day in a “planet of slums.”
The digital revolution was a failed revolution. The economic hobbling of communication led to a collapse of governance as everyday meaning-makers were progressively disenfranchised, disempowered and dispossessed. And the internet’s extractive model of value capture – long part of colonial, industrial, monopoly, imperial and financial protocols – had been imported into our communications infrastructure.
As computational media colonized our expressive power, our hopes and dreams along with our very struggles to survive made money for our oppressors. The farther down the food chain you were, the more true this was.
Redesigning the convergence
Now, in 2030, there is a global movement to redesign the convergence of communications and monetary media as post-capitalist economic media.
The internet of the past has been clearly grasped as an extension of capitalism that turned everyone to workers in the social factory, who are paid in company scrip, while the real value was hoarded by shareholders. The “background monetization” of our words, images, locations, faces and metabolic processes was recognized as a key impediment to general emancipation and as a blockade against solving world historical problems including climate change.
Indeed, some claimed (rightly from our perspective), that the economic logic of the internet in 2020 also prevented the possibility of adequately addressing the egregious forms of profitable oppression that come under various headings including “racism” and “sexism,” endemic to what was essentially racial capitalism.
No longer, it had been decided by a growing number of Earthlings by 2030, will companies and governments strip us of our expressive power, our powers to create cultures, worlds and value(s). No longer will they devalue our lives in accord with their agendas.
We will no longer alienate our “content” as property for someone else’s platform, we will no longer provide labor for someone else’s capital, we will no longer be a pawn in centralized sovereign governance that couldn’t care less about us. We refuse the psychopathology and megalomania that comes from having to assert ourselves by actively denying the real conditions of existence, conditions that inexorably convert our expression into murder. In short, as one manifesto put it, “We will no longer serve as batteries for someone else’s matrix.”
Our communication is increasingly our economy, and our economy is our communication.
For many people in 2030, the battle lines are not quite as crystalline as all that. Some clearly see that the redesign of the internet as post-capitalist economic media is the key historical movement that will lead us out of the ongoing crisis that came to a head in 2020. And some are also clear that such a redesign of internet as post-capitalist economic media means as well a redesign of money itself.
These two projects, the redesign of communications and the redesign of money are actually one. We know that you only get democracy with economic democracy, and that both imply radical decentralization. We know quite well that states and banks only serve the poor… on a plate to the rich. We know that our communicative and creative activities have intrinsic value and we want to control what happens to that value (who benefits from it, what values it fosters) with our communication.
In fact, in 2030, most of us live in two worlds: Still, the old capitalist world with all of its waste of the social product on military and police that help keep people on message with regard to the “intrinsic” value of the various fiat currencies. But in addition, we partly live in and are building an emerging, post-capitalist world of shared equity, horizontal governance, trustworthy messaging and co-authored performance.
In this emerging world, we offer our capacities in and as our messages, we collaborate on the intellectual and physical creation of new projects and products, be they software, dance moves, farmed goods, anti-racist organizing. Our messages generate our currency, and our networks platform our equity. We do not convene to make decisions as with some 19th century parliament, we offer decisions as messages that people can join.
In 2030 we do not need banks to provide us with liquidity, we receive liquidity over the same medium we use to communicate; we receive it from our trust-worthy network of peers, who will share stake in our activities as we share stake in theirs.
Our communication is increasingly our economy, and our economy is our communication.
Those whose skills and values were not properly recognized by a world bound to dollars, euros and racial hierarchies, have found their networks and with that recognition and validation, and have done so in a way that translates directly not just into the too-soft currency of “likes,” but into economic power.
Here, everything we do that is valuable to anyone else in our network can provide us with liquidity, units of credit on a secure, distributed computing fabric that is collectively built and owned. We provision one another’s liquidity and share equity in cooperative projects. We create our own value and do so in accord with our values.
The “tokens” we issue one another are spendable in our networks, and can, if desired be cashed out to interface with the capitalist economy that still persists, but is, we wager, receding. I say that we wager on that recession of capitalism (indeed we do bet on it – we “short” capital and put our resources in post-capitalist economic media), because the internet in 2030, the economic medium that is available for us to use, is itself an offer.
The collectively owned internet of 2030 provides a convivial space of sociality and economy that is not only non-extractive, it is both cooperative and trustworthy because of its peer-to-peer network architecture and issuance protocols. These protocols allow us to create forms of postmodern kinship with trusted peers who are known to us by reputation and interaction histories that can be both measured and felt.
We receive equity in the infrastructure of post-capitalist economic media in exchange for our participation. Accordingly, we move more and more of our economic activity into this medium, one both semiotic and monetary, because it feels better and is more rewarding. It offers the capacity to scale decision making and to finance ideas (futures) that appreciate in value as they are appreciated and that in drawing interest can be self-actualizing.
Crypto as an emergent medium
Although secure messaging and protocolized issuance began to reengineer aspects of the social contract by creating new consensus mechanisms and immutable ledgers, the real breakthrough emerged when all messaging on secure, distributed computing did not have to be reduced to “price” or a single denomination, that is when all information in the network did not have to be collapsed into a quantitative amount of a single value such as dollars or bitcoin.
Though primitive, Bitcoin was like photography in 1845 or cinema in 1900, a new medium answering historical needs and promising an incredible if barely imaginable future.
With the rise of crypto, finance became an expressive medium and value could be multiply denominated in a variety of interoperable secure networks themselves organized by users for their own purposes. In the mid-2020s, in response to social movements seeking access to liquidity and new forms of cooperation, platforms emerged such that those who created value recognized by others could be those who received value.
“Value” was no longer a one-dimensional (dollar denominated) monologue. It became possible to value, in economic terms, “externalities” such as care, the environment, and indigenous forms of life. The wagers that people made in the realm of culture (as they did on say Instagram or TikTok, but also as novelists or technologists or social architects), could, by the late 2020s themselves aggregate participation in complex ways to accomplish their own ends.
Sharing ideas and images became ways of working together, of scripting projects, amalgamating energies and participating in the development of collectively held dreams. Thus today, in 2030, most of us try to build at least some of our relationships and economy on post-capitalist economic media in order to issue futures that we want to make real and also to avoid the extractive logics of a capitalist world that though in recession will not disappear without a fight.
We must add that 2030 also means the further preparation for this fight so that the neo-fascism endemic to the racial capitalism of the early 2020s, bolstered by their banks and media companies, do not foreclose on the diverse futures we seek. We perceive that if we can create an economy that allows broad-spectrum values to persist while offering a collective authorship of options, that is, of futures, we will move towards the horizontalization and democratization of communication and finance, and thus, we might survive.