Rifkin’s Economic Fight of the Century—Capitalism vs “Commons”-ism—Called Because of Extreme Weather and No Electricity (part II)

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Welcome to part II. In this final post of this series, I’d like to add a couple of additional important footnotes to the “annual report” for the Collaborative Commons that economist and educator Jeremy Rifkin presents in his 2014 book entitled The Zero Marginal Cost Society—The Internet of Things, The Collaborative Commons, and The Eclipse of Capitalism.

Rick’s Footnote 1: Rifkin is a thoroughgoing liberal. He is a staunch advocate for the liberal way of life. He argues for the liberal model of WIIT—we’re in it together—and against the conservative model of YOYO—you’re own your own. He uses “systemic” causation (i.e., often talking about ecosystems and wholes), which cognitive scientist George Lakoff tells us is typical of liberal thought. (See Lakoff’s 1996 book entitled Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.) Rifkin also argues for empathy. Again, according to Lakoff, a focus on empathy is typical of liberal thought.

I have no problem with someone arguing for one political model or another as long as they are fair and balanced. Personally, I don’t find it very empathic to discount about half of the US population. So, if you’re a conservative, Rifkin’s book will be like fingernails on a blackboard. Plus, Rifkin only sees one form of empathy: the liberal form. As Lakoff points out, both liberals and conservatives are empathetic; they’re just empathetic in their own ways using their own particular cognitive models and frames: Nurturant Parent model for liberals and Strict Father model for conservatives (pulling from Lakoff). These two models—Nurturant vs Strict—have been around since Biblical times and will not be going away anytime soon, Internet or not. When it comes to Rifkin’s book, you can simply “pull a Dick Cheney” if you so choose and utter these words: “I don’t accept your frame.”

If I had to guess, I’d say that Rifkin’s wholehearted embrace of the Internet is motivated by his dismay over how much conservative (and a few liberal) capitalists have privatized public goods and services. Rifkin writes the following:

The Reagan/Thatcher-led economic movement to privatize public goods and services by selling off telecommunications networks, radio frequencies, electricity generation and transmission grids, public transportation, government-sponsored scientific research, postal services, rail lines, public lands, prospecting rights, water and sewage services, and dozens of other activities that had long been considered public trusts, administered by government bodies, marked the final surrender of public responsibility for overseeing the general welfare of society.

Rifkin forgot to mention the US space program, which is in the process of being privatized. I should know because I live in New Mexico, home to Spaceport America. I think the following is Rifkin’s “bottom line” concerning his chief beef with privatization, and, by extension, conservatism: “The public, at large, was stripped of its ‘collective’ power as citizens and reduced to millions of autonomous agents forced to fend for themselves in a marketplace increasingly controlled by several hundred global corporations. The disempowerment came at lightning speed, leaving little time for public reaction and even less time for public engagement in the process.”

Frankly, I agree with Rifkin here. I have maintained for years now that the US government—led by both conservatives and liberals—has in effect “given away the public farm for free.” So, yes, Rifkin is right. The US government makes these huge capital investments in things like airwaves, the space program, and the Internet; then gives them to private interests; and then expects no return on their investment, nay, your investment. At the same time the US government increasingly pulls funding from public educational institutions and then saddles students with huge debt. I’m with Rifkin here; I’m just not sold on the idea that the Internet will liberate all of the above … “and dozens of other activities.”

Rick’s Footnote 2: At no point does Rifkin talk about the downside of the Internet. What’s that old saying, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. To cleanse my palate after reading Rifkin’s book, I read Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side—Moral and Social Responsibility on the Free Highway by philosophy educator and researcher Raphael Cohen-Almagor (mentioned in part I). Cohen-Almagor talks about how the Internet has ushered in the era of cyberterrorism, cyberbullying, child pornography, hate speech, and cybercrime. Outside of how cyberterrorism may take down our electrical grid (talked about in part I), Rifkin does not talk about the Dark Side of the Internet. Whereas Rifkin does talk about the ills of capitalism, he leaves us with the impression that the Collaborative Commons will be almost utopia-like. [1] Rifkin is quick to point out that the Collaborative Commons will not be a utopia. I find his reasoning to be lacking, which brings me to my bonus footnote…

Rick’s Bonus Footnote: At the end of his book Rifkin talks about how the Collaborative Commons will not be a utopia. “Often, people mistake empathic consciousness with utopianism when, in fact, it is the very opposite,” writes Rifkin. He continues, “When you feel empathy toward another being—be it another human being or one of our fellow creatures—it’s tinged with the whiff of their eventual death and the celebration of their existing life.” Rifkin is using old school, “close tie” or “secure attachment” sensibilities when it comes to empathy.

In his 2002 book entitled Rise of the Creative Class, sociology researcher Richard Florida tells us that the Internet will be characterized by loose social ties. Sure, people may have hundreds if not thousands of friends on Facebook or Twitter, but how many will be of the close tie variety? As Florida tells us, people in Internet worlds will favor loose ties because the Internet at the same time puts us closer together in terms of communication but yet further apart in terms of psychology. As Sherry Turkle suggests in the title to her 2011 book, we will be Alone, Together. (More on Turkle in a moment.) So, as loose tie relationships go up, close tie relationships will go down. Whereas old Commons were characterized by face-to-face interactions, the Collaborative Commons will be characterized by “packet-to-packet” communications. (Information is transported across the Internet using packets.)

The Internet is a great answer to the question asked by insecure attachment: How can I connect with others while at the same time avoid the pain that connection inevitably brings? Rifkin does not consider the possibility that the sharing and caring that appears to be driving the Collaborative Commons may in fact reflect a pattern of enmeshed insecure attachment. I’d be remiss if I did not point out that one of the characteristics of enmeshed attachment is hyper-caregiving behavior, especially on the part of women. Hyper-caregiving behavior in women is one type of caregiving pattern that many feminists fight against. They fight against the cultural expectation that women will provide care to the exclusion of other concerns, such as a concern for self. [2] The current epidemic of helicopter parenting, on the part of both fathers and mothers, could be viewed as a pattern of enmeshed insecure attachment. Outside of a few exceptions (Turkle’s work being one), attachment researchers have been relatively quiet on how we should view attachment relationships in a digital world. The few treatments I have read tend to paint a gloomy picture. But there again, maybe loose tie relationships, insecure attachment, and screen device addiction, are but signposts on the highway toward being posthuman. (More on this in a moment).

Empathy is one of the Executive Function (EF) skills generally housed in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain. Social critic Nicholas Carr, writing in his 2010 book entitled The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, argues that the Internet is eroding our ability to develop and engage in EF skills. [3] So goes EF skills, so too empathy. Ironically, the rise of the Collaborative Commons may spell the end to robust EF skills like empathy and perspective taking. MIT researcher Sherry Turkle (mentioned above), writing in her 2011 book entitled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, points to research that suggests that kids (and increasingly adults) are now addicted to their screen devices as surrogate attachment figures. Simply, you cannot be present and empathetic when you’re addicted. Writing in her 2015 book entitled Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Turkle tells us that, “These days, we mistake time on the net for solitude. It isn’t.” She continues, “In fact, solitude is challenged by our habit of turning to our screens rather than inward.” Here’s Turkle’s “bottom line”: “And [solitude] is challenged by our culture of continual sharing.”

Interestingly, conservative critics have picked up on this liberal form of irony. As conservative critic Mary Eberstadt points out in her 2004 book entitled Home-alone America—The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes, we are using all manner of parent substitutes such as food, inappropriate sex, violent music, day care, and behavioral drugs. Turkle increases that list by adding Internet technologies like Facebook and Twitter. All of these parent substitutes are eroding empathy, or, in my view, secure attachment (a point that Rifkin does acknowledge). Conservative critic Allan Carlson makes the following observation concerning the liberal irony of day care: [4]

[T]here is mounting evidence that … child care may be a human activity that cannot be industrialized. The psychological evidence is overwhelming, and still mounting, that children in extended day care—even very good day care—are on average more aggressive, less sociable, and less emotionally secure: traits that, ironically, undo the key socialist goal of enhanced human cooperation.

It’s hard to build a Collaborative Commons when all manner of parent substitutes are undermining our ability to be collaborative.

I agree with Rifkin that empathy is a truly human quality. But I think the point that Rifkin is forgetting is how the Internet, and the promise of an Internet world, is being used to transcend biology, to transcend being human (as mentioned above). [5] For many postmodernists, the Internet is seen as liberation from the constraints imposed by the body. Rifkin mentions the work of futurist Ray Kurzweil but does not mention Kurzweil’s desire to bring about the Singularity: a time in the near future when biological minds will merge with mechanical minds leaving biological bodies behind. Without the body, without biology, there can be no empathy. And I think Rifkin gets this as evidenced by his quote on empathy above. So, it would appear that Rifkin wants his liberation and his body too. This seems to characterize a lot of postmodern thought. Frankly, I’m not sure it is possible to have liberation from all constraints and have body too. Most of the constraints we live by come from the body. You cannot have your Internet cake and eat it too. What makes the Internet truly different from past paradigm shifts is its promise of spirit finally divorced from body. This is why lately there has been a coming together of postmodernists, posthumanists, and those who believe in the End Times or the Rapture: all believe that mind could (and should) be divorced from body.

In sum, I get why Rifkin is advocating for the Internet and the Collaborative Commons. He sees decades of public goods and services being fenced in by privatization and wishes to find a solution, a way to liberate these goods and services and put them back in the hands of the public. My concern is that the Internet may usher in as many ills as it does benefits. As Cohen-Almagor points out, the Internet has ushered in such things as cyberterrorism, cyberbullying, child pornography, and increased levels of hate speech. Kids (and increasingly adults) are now addicted to digital technologies like the Internet and screen devices. Technologies like hypertext are eroding our Executive Function skills. Heck, in his 2014 book entitled The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us, Nicholas Carr argues that the Internet and rampant automation is eroding our procedural memory skills. We use procedural memory to ride a bike or drive a car. Airline pilots, surgeons, heavy equipment operators, athletes, law enforcement agents, all depend on procedural memory. The Olympic Games put procedural memory on the world stage for us to admire and be inspired by every two years. Given the choice between a car and staying connected to the Internet, Rifkin tell us that the majority of Millennials would pick Internet access. They would rather ride in a driverless car than drive one themselves. Writing in his 2011 book The Filter Bubble—What the Internet Is Hiding from You, Eli Pariser suggests that the Internet impedes the development of self because the Internet, through its many algorithms, only shows you to you. Here I agree with Rifkin: we need to start the process of developing an ethics of algorithm life.

So, I’m all for learning more about the Collaborative Commons as long as we take a hard look at the many concerns that are being raised by … dare I say … experts in the areas of sociology, psychology, philosophy, and ethics. For me personally, I’m concerned that the Collaborative Commons will erode such things as pride of ownership and pride in a job well done. I know that these forms of pride stem from the old work ethic, but, you know, an autonomous self filled with pride over a job well done is not such a bad thing. I guess I’m being like “so last paradigm.”


[1] I recently read Kevin Kelly’s 2016 book entitled The Inevitable—Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. Kelly, who co-founded Wired Magazine, also gushes over the Internet and, by his own admission, refuses to talk about any of the negative influences the Internet has had on our lives and the lives of our children.

[2] For more on this theme, see the 2010 book entitled Forced to Care: Coercion and Caregiving in America by Evelyn Nakano Glenn.

[3] For more on EF skills, see the 2012 book entitled Executive Functions—What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved by Russell Barkley.

[4] The full reference is 2003, Family Policy Review, vol 1, num 2, p. 1–22.

[5] For more on this theme, see Francis Fukuyama’s 2002 book entitled Our Posthuman Future—Consequences of the Technological Revolution, and N. Katherine Hayles’ 1999 book entitled How We Became Posthuman—Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.