Towards a Political Ecology of the Digital Economy

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  • Towards a political ecology of the digital economy: Socio-environmental implications of two competing value models. By Vasilis Kostakis, Andreas Roos and Michel Bauwens. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 2015.




"This article explores the socio-environmental implications of two different value models currently competing for dominance in the digital economy: the neo-feudal cognitive capitalism (NFCC) and the hypothetical case of mature peer production (HMPP). Using a systematisation that considers environmental effects of information and communication technologies as direct, indirect and structural, this article discerns the future socio-environmental scenarios indicative of each value model. We argue that the two value models share the same type of direct environmental effects associated with a similar technological infrastructure; however, their indirect effects differ in prospects of consumer behaviour, environmental awareness and product design. Likewise the difference in structural effects is significant as the NFCC is based on profit maximisation and an accumulation of capital, whereas the HMPP is agnostic to growth and oriented towards the commons. Hence, the latter is considered as the socio-environmentally auspicious choice, but comes not without transitional challenges of its own."


"This article has provided a tentative analysis of the direct, indirect, and structural socio-environmental implications of the neo-feudal cognitive capitalism (NFCC) and the hypothetical case of mature peer production (HMPP); two competing value models in the digital economy. Of course, we do not claim to make all inclusive conclusions as there are numerous effects which have not been addressed. The socio-environmental effects that have been taken into consideration can nonetheless be argued to point to non-negligible tendencies that evidently separate NFCC from the HMPP in terms of socio-environmental sustainability. Table 1 (see below) provides a synthetic overview of the two competing value models. Firstly, it is important to note that both of the two value models share the same direct environmental effects as they are mutually utilising ICTs, and are thus offering futures dependent on a steady influx of non-renewable raw material and energy associated with a range of socio-environmental complications. HMPP will, however, likely distinguish itself in this regard as it supports novel productive models such as distributed manufacturing with good chances of alternating global chains of production to the benefit of future socio-environmental dynamics.

Table 1

Secondly, the indirect environmental effects specific of NFCC platforms largely come through associations with proprietary informal (and formal) institutions such as a consumer culture that reinforces patterns of universal commodification and the continuation of environmentally unsustainable behaviour. We should, however, not forget that NFCC platforms do offer dynamics that are widely supporting communication and knowledge. But to whom, and to what end? The HMPP in its association with progressive dynamics of open source technologies, distributed manufacturing and the emerging small scale farming paradigm offer a digital sphere that is reciprocally linked to the means of production in the hands of the users and thus a tool for the creation of social value, sustainable design and possible reconnection to landscapes.

Thirdly, as opposed to some beliefs, we have argued that the global economy is not becoming dematerialised but rather that a new economic sector associated with NFCC is rising, one that can be described as relatively decoupled. While efficiencies provide promising outlooks for the continuation of infinite growth, rebound effects inherent in the profit motive are continually counteracting expected environmental mitigations. In line with its inherited economic logic, NFCC can largely be said to maintain proprietary structures that preserves current trajectories pointing at continued socio-environmental calamities and inequalities, and in the end, provide no alternative to the increase of environmentally unsound consumption and production associated with the destruction of the natural world.

In contrast, the HMPP offers a digital sphere active in the innovation and creation of alternative modes of production that could transform and democratise the means of making, with promising environmental consequences, though not without transitional challenges and repercussions. We have argued that the HMPP currently lacks an internal mechanism to combat already existing social and ecological imbalances intrinsically linked to power relations. This in particular is a matter in need of further research and development. Meanwhile, commons-oriented communities produce use value and products that are designed to last as long as possible, providing us with a foretaste of the HMPP and a more ecologically coherent digital economy.

In the broadest sense, uncovering ICTs and their socio-environmental implications can be seen as a vital part in uncovering what it today means to be human. A non-thorough scrutiny of the social pervasion of ICTs and the Internet has arguably contributed to a generic oversight of its socio-environmental impacts. In our attempt to fill this gap of knowledge we have argued that an understanding of the socio-environmental impacts of ICTs is incomplete without a consideration of political economies. The Internet should be considered as a locus of struggle between different values, usages and types of exchange determined by the techno-social design of the systems. This means for policy makers, citizens and researchers that systematic evaluations aimed at understanding what values underscores online platforms and organisations are crucial in realising a responsible and harmonious coexistence."