By Kali Akuno and Gyasi Williams, for Cooperation Jackson and the Community Production Cooperative
The Third Digital Revolution, a revolution in cyber-physical integration and personal fabrication, is changing the world, and changing humanity, culturally and physically, in the process. The Third Digital Revolution is marked by technological and knowledge breakthroughs that build on the first two Digital Revolutions, and the three Industrial Revolutions that preceded them, which are now fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds—including the human body. The main technologies of this revolution include advanced robotics, CNC (computer numeric control) automation, 3D printing, biotechnology, nanotechnology, big data processing, artificial intelligence, and of course these autonomous vehicles we’ve been hearing so much about of late. As a result of these developments, soon millions of people will be able to make almost anything with their personal computer or smartphone and fabrication technology in their own homes. Truly, a new era of technological innovation is upon us. One that could enable many of the social freedoms envisioned by scientists and science fiction writers for over a century.
As we have painfully learned from the previous industrial and digital revolutions, technology is not entirely value-neutral, meaning neither good nor bad. Under the social and economic system of capitalism, most technological innovation has been driven by the desire to maximize profits, reduce space/time limitations (i.e. how long it takes to make and deliver a commodity or service), and eliminate labor costs. So, while it is true that the technology does not determine its own use (not yet anyway), its application and value have largely been determined by a small subset of humanity. We want to make sure that we change this equation with the Third Digital Revolution. How we structure the ownership, control, and use of the technologies of the Third Digital Revolution will either aid humanity in our collective quest for liberation, or deepen still our species’ inhumanity towards itself and our dear mother earth. One thing is painfully clear, and that is if these technologies remain the exclusive property of the capitalist class and the transnational corporations they control, these tools will not be used for the benefit of the overwhelming majority of humanity, but to expand the profits and further consolidate the power of the 1% that rule the world. Under their control, these technologies will lead to a crisis of global unemployment on a scale unseen in human history. The end result will be a global dystopia, a social nightmare predicated on massive poverty, lawlessness, state repression, and ever greater human disposability rather than the potential utopia these technologies could potentially enable.
Confronting the Challenges: Class, Race, Gender, and Ecological Limitations
In order to make the future that we want, we have to openly confront the stark problems already at the heart of the Third Digital Revolution, and there are several glaring problems already in plain sight. Despite great efforts toward democratizing the Third Digital Revolution by making much of the technology “open source”, historically oppressed and disenfranchised communities remain excluded. The same access gulf seen in the current “digital divide” is being replicated and deepened. Instead of a ubiquitous transformation, with equal access and distribution, what in fact is emerging is a “fabrication divide”.
This divide is layered, multi-dimensional, and compounded. The first and obvious barrier to access is cost. Those who can afford the machines will eventually be able to produce whatever they want, while those who can’t will remain dependent on the inequitable market, the forces that manipulate it, and the increasingly antiquated methods of production they employ to produce their consumer goods. While this revolution is spurred on by the dropping cost and rapid development of fabrication technology, indigenous and working-class Black and Latin-x populations will still find themselves at least a step behind as the cost of early adoption will continue to advantage the already privileged.
The issues of cost and accessibility lead directly to a discussion of class. The working class is almost always alienated from the market mechanisms that enable people to take the best advantage of emerging technology. Further still, the dismantling of society by the neoliberal project has eroded the bonds of social solidarity and eradicated the safety nets created through working-class political victories. The emergence of the Third Digital Revolution within this socio-political context will only widen the inequality and access gaps that already exist. For example, the recent elimination of net neutrality combined with years of starving public schools of funding and eviscerating city services ensures that libraries and any other public services that once helped to counterbalance the technological gaps experienced by the working class during the latter half of the 20th century are becoming ineffective or altogether nonexistent.
While there has been a great deal of public discussion about the advance of the Third Digital Revolution and what benefits and threats it potentially poses, there has been little discussion about racial inequity within the Third Digital Revolution. Without a major structural intervention, the Third Digital Revolution will only exacerbate the existing digital divide. Again, here the problem is layered and compounded, for the advances in automation and artificial intelligence that the Third Digital Revolution will advance will disproportionately eliminate many of the low-skill, low-wage manual labor and service sector jobs that historically oppressed communities have been forced into over the last several years. Given some projections of massive job loss due to automation, there is a real question about whether the potential benefits this transformation could have will outweigh the severe pain and loss Indigenous, Black and Latinx working-class populations will face as this technology advances.
Even less discussed than the class and race-based impacts of the Third Digital Revolution are the gender disparities that are likely to deepen if there is no major intervention in the social advance of this development. Despite recent advances, it is no secret that women are grossly under-represented in the technological and scientific arenas. The question is, how can and will the gender inequities be addressed in the midst of the social transformations stimulated by the Third Digital Revolution? Will the existing gender distribution patterns remain, be exasperated, or will they be eliminated?
The Third Digital Revolution, like its predecessors, will undoubtedly make fundamental shifts not only to human society but to the planet as well, many of which have yet to be anticipated. One likely shift that must be examined is the potential of accelerated environmental catastrophe. Currently, 3D printing is all the rage, and for good reason. It inspires the imagination and hints at a future where we are able to download or create a file that will allow us to fabricate just about anything that we can imagine. The key question that hasn’t been asked is how will humanity manage personal fabrication on a mass scale? The earth’s resources are finite. Nevertheless, capitalism has ingrained in us an infinite desire for commodities. While the methods of production under capitalism have been horrifically destructive to the environment, there is no guarantee that the appetites that have been programmed into us over the last several hundred years will suddenly accommodate themselves to ecological balance and sustainability if we are suddenly given the ability to fabricate what we want in the privacy of our own homes. There is a great deal of consciousness-raising and re-socialization about our ecological limits and responsibilities, accompanied by major policy shifts, that must be done to prevent the resource depletion and massive fabrication waste that is likely to result from this technology becoming broadly adopted.
All of these challenging facets of the coming Third Digital Revolution must be addressed, and quickly. The Third Digital Revolution is emerging in a society with immense inequality and imbalance with regard to the integration of existing technology from the previous Industrial and Digital Revolutions. As these historic developments converge into the Third Digital Revolution, the concern is that not only will this inherited inequity continue but will be drastically deepened for all of the reasons listed above. Those of us seeking to realize the potential of the Third Digital Revolution to help our species realize its full potential, must create the means to combat this deepening inequity, and democratize this transformation. If we can do that, we may very well be able to lay the foundation for a democratic and regenerative economic order, one that could potentially eliminate the extractive, exploitative, and utterly oppressive and undemocratic system that we are currently subjected to.
Those who seek to assist in democratizing the technology of the Third Digital Revolution must understand that any initial investment at this time is risky. The road ahead is not clear. What we do know is that we cannot afford to leave the development of this technological revolution solely up to actors like Amazon, Google, Walmart, or the US Department of Defense. In their hands, it will only serve to further extract profits from the majority of humanity and maintain the imperial dominance of the US government through force of arms. However, finding capital players willing to make “non-extractive” investments that center on tech justice, cooperative business innovation, and production driven to fulfill human need over profit realization are hard to find. There are many organizations experimenting with getting this technology out to vulnerable populations to aid us from falling further behind the technological access gap, but none of us really know what will work initially, nor when the technology will be at a significantly advanced stage to truly replace the existing mode of production. The stakes are high, as are the risks at this stage. Nevertheless, we must struggle, as all early adopters should, to not only avoid being left out in the cold but to help guide the development in a democratic and egalitarian manner.
Creating the Future, Taking Risks, Co-Constructing Solutions
Early adopter risk-taking is exactly what Cooperation Jackson is embarking upon with the launch of our Community Production Center and Community Production Cooperative. Our aim is to make Jackson, Mississippi the “city of the future”, a Transition City anchored in part in the practices of a “Fab City” that would transform our city into an international center of advanced, sustainable manufacturing utilizing 3D printing and other innovative tools of the Third Digital Revolution. The only way we are going to come anywhere close to attaining anything like the utopia these technologies promise is by democratizing them and subjecting them to social use and production for the benefit of all, rather than the control and appropriation by the few.
The democratization of the technologies of the Third Digital Revolution, both in their ownership and use, is one of the primary aims of Cooperation Jackson. To realize this aim we struggle for Tech Democracy and Tech Justice first and foremost by educating our members and the general public about the promises and perils of the technology so that people can make informed decisions. We suggest this as a general framework of struggle. The next course of action we suggest is the pursuit of self-finance to acquire as much of this technology as we can, with the explicit intention of controlling these means of production and utilizing them for the direct benefit of our organization and our community.
Another course of action we suggest and are embarking upon is organizing our community for political and economic power to expand and reinforce our Community Production efforts. Our aim is to gradually make Community Production ubiquitous in our community, with the explicit intent of gradually replacing the exploitative and environmentally destructive methods of production in use at present. A related course of action is to utilize our political power to make demands on the government, the capitalist class, and the transnational corporations to remove the controls they have on the technology, like exclusive patents, in order to make these technologies publicly accessible. Another essential demand on the government is to make massive investments in these technologies to make them public utilities and/or commons and to ensure that the corporations make restorative investments in these utilities for the public good.
We also think that public/community partnerships should be pursued on a municipal level to establish direct community ownership over these technologies to help ensure that vulnerable populations and historically oppressed communities gain direct access, with the prerequisite being where these communities are sufficiently organized and possess a degree of political power within the municipality. Public/community partnerships could also be essential towards capitalizing these democratic pursuits, by enabling the community to use both its tax wealth and various vehicles of self-finance to build out the necessary infrastructure in a manner that will ensure that it remains in the community commons or public domain. It is essential that these types of pursuits be public/community partnerships, with the community being organized in collective institutions like cooperatives, credit unions, community development corporations, etc., and not your typical public/private partnerships that will only remove this infrastructure from the commons or public domain as soon as possible in our neoliberal dominated world.
Further, given the steady decline in union membership, density, and overall social and political power, coupled with the ever-growing threats of automation, mechanization, big data, and artificial intelligence to the working class as a whole, we want to appeal to the various unions, in and out of the AFL-CIO, as the most organized sector of the working class in the US, to take the challenges of the Third Digital Revolution head on. In fact, we think organized labor should be leading the charge on the question of Community Production, as it is in the best position given its resources, skills and strategic location in society to steer the Third Digital Revolution in a democratic manner. In this vein, we want to encourage organized labor to utilize the tremendous investment resources it has at its disposal to start creating or investing in Community Production Cooperatives throughout the US to further the ubiquitous development and utilization of the technology to help us all realize the benefits of a “zero-marginal-cost society” to combat climate change and eliminate the exploitation of the working class and the lingering social and material effects of racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, etc. It is time for the cooperative and union movements, as vehicles of working-class self-organization, to reunite again, and Community Production units could and should be a strategic means towards this end.
Finally, we have to keep pushing forward-thinking universities, particularly public colleges and universities, and philanthropists to also provide support to community production development efforts seeking to democratize control of this technology early on.
These are the core elements of what we think is a transformative program to utilize and participate in the development of the Third Digital Revolution for the benefit of our community and the liberation of the working class and all of humanity. We want and encourage other historically oppressed communities throughout the United States to follow this path, Jackson cannot and should not follow this path alone.
Supporting Cooperation Jackson and the Center for Community Production
If you agree with this analysis, in whole or in part, we need your help to bridge the Fabrication Divide. Cooperation Jackson is seeking broad public support for the development of our Community Production Center. We are aiming to raise $600,000 to complete the purchase of the facilities, build out them out, and equip them with all the utilities and equipment needed to create a dynamic Production Center. You can help build the Center for Community Production by becoming a National Donor or Investor and recruiting others to do the same. The $600,000 figure does not have to be daunting, if we can recruit 600 people to donate and/or invest $1,000 each, we can easily meet this goal. So, let us not be swayed, but moved to organize to turn this vision into a transformative reality.
 We draw our primary definition of the Third Digital Revolution from the work of Neil Gershenfeld, particularly his more recent work “Designing Reality: How to Survive and Thrive in the Third Digital Revolution”, co-written with Alan Gershenfeld and Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld.
 For more detail on the gender gap in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields see, “Women still underrepresented in the STEM Fields”, https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/10/21/women-still-underrepresented-in-stem-fields.
 We derive our notion of Community Production from Blair Evans and INCITE FOCUS based in Detroit, Michigan. For more information see INCITE FOCUS https://www.incite-focus.org/ and “Green City Diaries: Fab Lab and the Language of Nature” http://www.modeldmedia.com/features/greencity1113.aspx.
 We utilize the notion and definition of the Commons utilized within the Peer 2 Peer Network. For more details see “What it the Commons Transition?” at https://primer.commonstransition.org/1-short-articles/1-1-what-is-a-commons-transition.
 We have adopted the notion of a “Zero-Marginal Cost Society” from Jeremy Rifkin and his work, “The Zero-Marginal Cost Society: the Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism”.