Republics of Makers: From the Digital Commons to a Flat Marginal Cost Society

Mario Carpo at eFlux: “…as the costs of electronic computation have been steadily decreasing for the last forty years at least, many have recently come to the conclusion that, for most practical purposes, the cost of computation is asymptotically tending to zero. Indeed, the current notion of Big Data is based on the assumption that an almost unlimited amount of digital data will soon be available at almost no cost, and similar premises have further fueled the expectation of a forthcoming “zero marginal costs society”: a society where, except for some upfront and overhead costs (the costs of building and maintaining some facilities), many goods and services will be free for all. And indeed, against all odds, an almost zero marginal cost society is already a reality in the case of many services based on the production and delivery of electricity: from the recording, transmission, and processing of electrically encoded digital information (bits) to the production and consumption of electrical power itself. Using renewable energies (solar, wind, hydro) the generation of electrical power is free, except for the cost of building and maintaining installations and infrastructure. And given the recent progress in the micro-management of intelligent electrical grids, it is easy to imagine that in the near future the cost of servicing a network of very small, local hydro-electric generators, for example, could easily be devolved to local communities of prosumers who would take care of those installations as their tend to their living environment, on an almost voluntary, communal basis.4 This was already often the case during the early stages of electrification, before the rise of AC (alternate current, which, unlike DC, or direct current, could be carried over long distances): AC became the industry’s choice only after Galileo Ferraris’s and Nikola Tesla’s developments in AC technologies in the 1880s.

Likewise, at the micro-scale of the electronic production and processing of bits and bytes of information, the Open Source movement and the phenomenal surge of some crowdsourced digital media (including some so-called social media) in the first decade of the twenty-first century has already proven that a collaborative, zero cost business model can effectively compete with products priced for profit on a traditional marketplace. As the success of Wikipedia, Linux, or Firefox proves, many are happy to volunteer their time and labor for free when all can profit from the collective work of an entire community without having to pay for it. This is now technically possible precisely because the fixed costs of building, maintaining, and delivering these service are very small; hence, from the point of view of the end-user, negligible.

Yet, regardless of the fixed costs of the infrastructure, content—even user-generated content—has costs, albeit for the time being these are mostly hidden, voluntarily born, or inadvertently absorbed by the prosumers themselves. For example, the wisdom of Wikipedia is not really a wisdom of crowds: most Wikipedia entries are de facto curated by fairly traditional scholar communities, and these communities can contribute their expertise for free only because their work has already been paid for by others—often by universities. In this sense, Wikipedia is only piggybacking on someone else’s research investments (but multiplying their outreach, which is one reason for its success). Ditto for most Open Source software, as training a software engineer, coder, or hacker, takes time and money—an investment for future returns that in many countries around the world is still born, at least in part, by public institutions….(More)”.