- The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism by Jeremy Rifkin
In an age that has seen the emergence of the “knockoff economy”—where no copyright protection of certain industries has had no negative impact on innovation and creativity—and the “shared economy”—where the millennia generation prefers access to the ownership of goods and services—it seems that indeed we have entered a new economic phase or paradigm. Some have understood them in terms of a “hybrid” or “postcapitalist” economy, where strands of capitalist and socialist theories coexist without rancor or where the best of both come to fruition.
Jeremy Rifkin is not a newcomer to this conversation, having written Biosphere Politics in 1991 and The Age of Access in 2000. After a quarter of a century his voice should be heard, regardless of any disagreement about the details of his analysis. For him, the Third Industrial Revolution in the twenty-first century is characterized in these terms: “The Internet is becoming the communication medium for managing distributed renewable energies and automated logistics and transport in an increasingly interconnected global Commons” (22). Coming on the heels of the Free Software movement (1980s), “whose aim was to create a global Collaborative Commons” (100), Rifkin moves to the more contemporary Free Culture movement and the environmental movement. Along the way he introduces us to the more recent Maker movement: “the open-source sharing of new inventions, the promotion of a collaborative learning culture, a belief in community self-sufficiency, and a commitment to sustainable production practices” (99).
The Third Industrial Revolution depends to a large extent on an appreciation of the Internet of Things, which Rifkin defines in terms of the connectivity of people and things via sensors that are processed automatically, feeding [End Page 256] Big Data (11); this is a “disruptive technology” (in Schumpeter’s terms) that will lead us to a “new era” in which “we each become a node in the nervous system of the biosphere” (14). Given that Rifkin’s notion of the “infrastructure” requires three elements—“a communication medium, a power source, and a logistic mechanism” (14)—it makes sense to suggest the demise of capitalist production as we have known it in the past two centuries (for him, the First and Second Industrial Revolutions). His overall vision is based on the fact that “as more and more of the goods and services that make up the economic life of society edge toward near zero marginal cost and become almost free, the capitalist market will continue to shrink into more narrow niches where profit-making enterprises survive only at the edges of the economy, relying on a diminishing consumer base for very specialized products and services” (5).
Just like David Harvey (2014), Rifkin contends that “capitalism’s operating logic is designed to fail by succeeding” (2), because increased productivity leads to “the zero marginal cost revolution” (4), admittedly one that sets aside (or ignores) initial or fixed costs (6–7). But while Harvey focuses on numerous internal inconsistencies or contradictions of market capitalism (already outlined by Marx), Rifkin is exclusively preoccupied with the reduction of marginal costs as productivity increases. If the marginal cost of X comes close to zero, he suggests, X is actually “free.” And free goods and services bring about “a new economic paradigm—the Collaborative Commons” (1). Using Thomas Kuhn’s famous (and for his critics infamous) notion of “paradigm” and its revolutionary shifts, Rifkin insists on seeing the Internet of Things as part of the Third Industrial Revolution, which ushers in the Collaborative Commons. Is this a futuristic dream? Is it a utopian ideal, the realization of which we can only imagine? Not at all, as far as Rifkin is concerned.
To begin with, “the young collaboratists,” as he calls them, “are borrowing the principle virtues of both the capitalists and socialists, while eliminating the centralizing nature of both the free...