Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways

Jeremy Rifkin was in Germany in 2017 to help launch the EU’s Smart Europe initiative and while he was there he gave a talk entitled “A history of the future – the world in 2025”. Rifkin is an environmentalist, economist, social theorist and author of The Third Industrial Revolution, and The Zero Marginal Cost Society. We are moving from ownership to access, he said, from markets to networks as the basis of wealth. And along with it, our post-Westphalian ideas of freedom, power and identity will change. Power will not flow from hierarchies but from networks; freedom, not from individual sovereignty and exclusive rights, but from sharing and collectivity; identity, not from location, but from a global consciousness.

Referring to the millennials as “prosumers” – people producing and sharing at the same time “for free” – he said “we’re going to have to move from ownership to access, from markets to networks…and you’ll make money by managing these networks”. It’s going to be so cheap and efficient to make things, he maintains, that a whole new economic system will emerge as a result: “part of the day, our young millennials are in the marketplace, as sellers and buyers, as owners and workers…. But part of the day the millennials are in the sharing economy and they’re producing and sharing all sorts of virtual goods with each other, at zero marginal cost.” Young people are producing their own YouTube videos, news sources, and content with each other “open source, [with] no intellectual property”.

If I can crystallise the challenge this presents to artists in particular and to culture in general it would be in this way: art has always been a product, something that is made – and made by an artist, a human being. The means for sharing it was always external to it, in that the museum, the book, the theatre, the channel was meant to deliver it without becoming a part of the work. If Mr Rifkin is correct, that products (both physical and virtual) will become so cheap and abundant that the only valuable things will be the means of accessing them, how valuable will producers be? And will a dumb network that simply carries things from place to place be less valuable than smart network that modifies as carries? If it costs nothing to make something, there is no value in preserving it, in treating it as unique and irreplaceable. Will the only valuable creation be a pattern – a means of making things instead of the thing itself?

In another way: If networks and the means of sharing become the currency, instead of what’s being shared, then two things follow. First, since these networks are “smart” they will both adapt to our behaviour but equally our behaviour will adapt to it – so where is the possibility of an inner life that exists outside this system, and how will we tap into it especially if artists cannot compete with a million intelligent content-bots? Second, will those people wishing to retain that intangible freedom be forced to go off-grid and live in the kind of savage reservation Huxley imagined in Brave New World?

Jeremy Rifkin warned the audience that as the third industrial revolution gathered pace, so much of what the first and second revolutions created would become “stranded assets”.  Perhaps another warning is to prevent that “old poetic feeling” from being stranded as well.

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