Every now and then, you come across an article that really, really makes you think. One of our recent favourites is a New York Times opinion piece by the American economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin, which explores the fate of capitalism in a ‘sharing economy’ – defined by the proliferation of free goods, usually shared online. Below is a summary of his fascinating argument, and, crucially, how it relates to the world of scholarly publishing.
We have all benefitted from freebies online. In fact, you probably make use of them more regularly than you realise, without even thinking about it. For one, there’s the vast array of videos, music and other content you view on social-networking sites and YouTube on a regular basis. Then there are peer-to-peer file-sharing networks – from Napster in the early days to the current BitTorrent model – which allow you to share books, music, films and video games with people anywhere on the planet, often without paying a penny.
Add to that open-source software, which allows users – among other things – to build their own websites, and also (offline) 3D printers and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – a free form of higher education – and you’ll see that our world is absolutely awash with either ludicrously cheap, or entirely free, goods and services.
So what does Jeremy Rifkin have to say?
In his article ‘The Rise of Anti-Capitalism’, Rifkin discusses what he terms the ‘zero-marginal-cost economy’ – an environment in which unit costs are being driven down so much that goods are becoming either very cheap, or free. They are bypassing traditional markets and are therefore no longer subject to market forces; in other words, the ‘sharing economy’ is shaking the foundations of industry upon industry.
Rifkin goes on to discuss The Internet of Things – an impressive new technology infrastructure that will underpin our daily lives by connecting everyone and everything. Sensors attached to everything from natural resources to the electricity grid to offices and homes will feed Big Data back to the platform, which will greatly accelerate efficiency, driving marginal costs down even further in the future.
Rifkin wonders how the economy of the future will function in a world that’s more ‘about shared access rather than private ownership’. The answer, he says, lies in civil society and its non-profit organisations – a sector that’s booming in the current climate. Non-profits tend to promote community sharing, contribute a huge amount to the economy and offer a wealth of job opportunities in the fields that ‘strengthen social infrastructure’ – a boon for a labour market that’s being hit hard by a trend for automated, workerless factories and offices.
How all this relates to scholarly publishing
As we’ve touched upon already, books and higher-education courses are becoming available in free, or nearly free, forms. Without a doubt, the ‘sharing economy’ is shaping the spheres of book-publishing and education as much as any other.
Arguably, though, scholarly publishing – with its digital, shareable forms, from open-access books and journals to eLearning websites and apps – also supports the ‘communal’ character of civil society. In many ways, it does just what Rifkin says The Internet of Things does; it ‘optimizes collaboration, universal access and inclusion’.
To sum up, then, publishing – particularly in its community-led, niche, scholarly forms – is moving with the times at a galloping pace, feeding back into the new economic model that’s driving its transformation in the first place.
The challenge for us all is to contribute in a meaningful way, and for our contribution to mean enough for people to pay us for it.