Becky Hogge is afforded a medieval vision of the future.

Jeremy Rifkin at the RSA, London, 29 April 2014.
The Zero Marginal Cost Society by Jeremy Rifkin is published by Palgrave MacMillan, HB £16.99

The trick to reading Jeremy Rifkin’s latest work is to treat it less like a book and more like a mystical text. That’s because Rifkin, a prolific writer and the management guru most likely to be found at an Occupy sit-in, has synthesised so many ideas within it that laboring over the contradictions seems like missing the point.

The clue is in the book’s multiple titles. Capitalism has been our bright sun for two centuries, but as the human journey continues, technological advance driven by capitalism’s (ultimately) self-destructive quest for efficiency will serve to reduce the marginal cost of producing everything to near-zero, and a new star, called “the commons” will begin to attract us to its orbit. Sure, the “eclipse” bit may sound serious, even biblical, and Rifkin admits that this shift will not come without a little human suffering. But in the end, we’ll all be better off, mainly because we’ll have diverted our path from the cataclysmic climate change towards which our doomed planet is currently headed.

Rifkin’s new star is conveniently crafted from the marriage of two ideological clans of the late twentieth century: environmentalism and what Evgeny Morozov might call internet-centrism. The creation of a distributed renewable energy infrastructure will allow us to power our own homes and micro-factories at near zero marginal cost. This future, Rifkin argues, is ungainsayable: just look at the exponential growth in photovoltaics. This “Energy Internet” will disrupt our vertically-integrated fossil fuel industries to the same extent the “Communications Internet” has disrupted modern media, and then some. Energy wants to be free, as 1960s techno-hippy Stewart Brand might have put it.

In a less-than-brief recap of human economic history to date, Rifkin encourages us to understand the metamorphoses of capitalism through a series of “energy-communication matrices” – steam-post, oil-telephone, renewables-internet. This sleight-of-hand allows us to surrender to Rifkin’s future, rather than Marx’s, in which capitalism refuses to fizzle out gracefully and instead finds something new to commodify, like ideas, or sunshine. But if we can pull off that mental leap, what does the world to which are we surrendering look like?

As Rifkin has it, the current crop of baby boomers will grow up in a landscape very different from the one they encounter in their prams and car-seats today. In this new world, the roads on which they travel in driverless cars (electrically powered and “printed” individually rather than manufactured on an assembly line) will be lined not with electricity pylons, but with fields and fields of photo-voltaic cells winking at the clouds. These roads will link, not cities, but multiple small-town communities, hubs of 3D printing “infofacture”, each powered by a small-scale shared renewable resource.

Our inner landscape will change too. This will be the age of Big Data. Many of the efficiencies Rifkin relies upon are conjured from the ability of computers to orchestrate the “internet of things” at a tempo precisely guided by ubiquitous, real-time data sharing on the health, energy use and movements of their human masters. Our sense of individualism, which Rifkin argues is little more than a coping mechanism for the capitalist era, will give way to a neo-feudalist dedication to community that renders the desire for privacy a “passive” and therefore unattractive quality. If his physical landscape has something of the Mad Max about it, Rifkin’s new social landscape is about as far from libertarian as it is possible to get. On both counts, it’s clear he’s not in the business of selling (or sharing) a utopia here – “no-one is naïve enough to believe that the dark side of human nature will suddenly vanish from our DNA.” If steam-punk is Victorian technology plus modern values, Rifkin’s world could be medieval values plus twenty-first-century hardware.

Although the evidence Rifkin marshals in defence of his claim that we are learning to love sharing over selling and access over ownership will be nothing new to readers of Yochai Benkler, Rifkin is the first to succeed in articulating an emotionally convincing vision of the future for the “open” movement to get behind, and presenting a compelling reason why:

The millennial generation rarely speaks of right versus left or capitalism versus socialism. When millennials judge political behaviour they have a very different political spectrum in mind. They ask whether the institutional behaviour, be it in the form of a government , political party, business or educational system is centralised, top-down, patriarchal, closed and proprietary, or distributed, collaborative, open transparent, peer-to-peer and an expression of lateral power.

And while his capitulation to the hype around cyber-terrorism is disappointing and his treatment of the centralising force of communications-internet giants like Google and Facebook is unsatisfying, his call for open standards on the energy internet is timely and strong.

In the end, Rifkin is right to style this dense work “more hope than expectation”. Still after reading it, it’s hard not to share “an unmistakable feeling of possibility in the air”.

@barefoot_techie

The future’s not about change. It’s about persistence, says Marek Kohn. Read “What won’t change” in Chromewash (Arc 2.2) out now.

Also on the blog: Jon Turney reviews I Spend Therefore I Am by Philip Roscoe.

4 months ago
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