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COOK’s Edge:  Our problems are far more political and educational than technological.  With that in mind i have been looking for non techies to leaven the “stew” - economists, behavioral psychologists and sociologists to add to my discussion group.

Consider what Mark Cooper, Research Director of the Consumer Federation of America, wrote today:

As a sociologist by training, I have been trying to balance the technological elements of the discussion.  I think we now have started down that path.

Is technology extremely important?  absolutely.  Is it determinative?  Not at all.  It defines a space in which a range of outcomes it possible.  Is sociology important? Absolutely.  Is it determinative? not at all.  It defines which outcomes will stick within the space of possible outcomes.

I like to use a quote from Douglas North, one of the founders and pillars of institutional economics who talks about “the endless struggle of human beings to solve the problems of cooperation so that they can reap the advantages not only of technology, but also of all the other facets of human endeavor that constitute civilization.”

Some observations

1)  I think the technological developments have gotten ahead of the sociological.

This happens from time to time and it is why Bob Frankston is so frustrated.  He sees the technological possibilities but correctly sees that the social institutions have not readily accommodated the new possibilities.  He needs to appreciate more the legitimacy and difficulty of building the institutions necessary “to reap the advantages of… technology.”  In times past, these conditions made for revolutions.  The best we can do is study the emerging social solutions and try to help them along.

I got on this list by invitation after Gordon Cook had heard my critique of Yochai Benkler, which was intended to make exactly that point.  Benkler (The Wealth of Networks) has done a wonderful job of studying and cataloguing the ways humans are cooperating (and articulating a morality and epistemology that would vastly improve the human condition if it were to congeal around the new mode of collaborative production).  However, in my opinion, he was not sufficiently concerned about the political backlash of the incumbents or sufficiently charged up to lead the political/sociological struggle to ensure that positive change develops to its full potential and as quickly as possible.

2) The size of the manageable collective is a function or the nature of the communication and monitoring technology available.  The communications revolution has turned the logic of “collective action” on its head:  Namely: the costs of participation were high; the ability to monitor behavior was restricted.  With the new technology people are collaborating in droves, using the transparency wiki style editing and “see for yourself” linking.  That is Benkler’s point, but Steve Weber also made it clearly in “the Success of Open Source,”  and this is a central variable in the Ostrom analysis.

3) The peer/neighborhood effect is important, but not a necessary condition. (It makes life easier for sure).  Credit Unions began with strong common bonds, which created peer and internal pressures to pay the loan off.  Thus credit unions lowered risk for the types of people that commercial banks would not touch.  Lately, credit unions have thrived with a much broader common bond (and some have become huge).  Financial services are a trust good and people like dealing with non profits (who they believe are less likely to exploit them).  They also participate in droves in the management of these institutions (over 100,000 people volunteer for their boards).  Apropos of the mafia story there were other institutions that emerged in American immigrant communities that emerged to fill the needs.  I believe Smelser studied immigrant communities and found that three different institutions came forward as the solution to the social problem that the under served immigrants faced in America – the mafia, the church and labor unions. 

4)  Certain types of enterprises and branches of capitalism failed miserably, just as certain types of cooperative do.  The cartel capitalism with its overwhelming imperialistic needs did not work so well.  Bureucratic capitalism did not do so well either.  The pragmatic version in America did quite well, but it has been abandoned.  Every mode of production will have blemishes and bad actors, but the non-commercial sector is surviving.  That is an important point, the key in a mixed systems, which is what we will have for the foreseeable future, is to be viable, not dominant.

5)  Whether we should be optimistic or pessimistic about non-commercial forms of organization is unclear.  Benkler is wildly (perhaps too) optimistic about new collaborative forms.  There is some hope there, but even in the more traditional forms, there is hope.  Muni’s are popping up all over the world for broadband.  The vigorous effort to crush this phenomenon in the U.S. is a testimony to how potent the phenomenon is (and the failure of the Telco market model to meet the social need for a ubiquitous adequate and affordable communications infrastructure).  Indeed, Brookings has a series of analyses that call the third sector the “resilient sector” because, in spite of the massive onslaught of free market ideologues and corporations in the U. S. it has survived and thrived. 

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