Infrastructure as Commons
How We’re Taking Back the Internet
don’t be an mdau!
Over the last two decades, free and open source software has won one victory after another. According to surveys by W3Tech2 (n.d.) and W3Cook (2015), the market share of Linux operating systems in the server market is between 70% and 96.5%, depending on the data source. Linux dominates the supercomputer market (Statista, 2021). As for smartphones, 75.26% of them run the Android operating system, which is based on Linux (StatCounter, 2023).
The dystopia of
the Hollywood film Matrix
has become reality
in a frighteningly banal way.
No red pill will get us
out of that reality.
But the triumph of free software has been a Pyrrhic victory. It has given birth to an oligarchy of tech companies. Free software has turned garage companies into the most powerful stock market giants of all times in just a few years. With the help of free software, those companies managed to turn people and their privacy into a precious commodity for downright dizzying profit maximisation. The dystopia of the Hollywood film Matrix has become reality in a frighteningly banal way. While we play at surfing the internet and doing cool things, in reality we feed tech capitalism with our data. And no red pill will get us out of that reality. The Twitter take-over by tech capitalist Elon Musk was an eye-opener in many ways. The price tag of US$ 44 billion revealed the enormous value generated by the platform users. When the American multi-billionaire bought the social media platform, it had 237.8 million mDAUs (Twitter, 2022). In its earnings report presentation for the first quarter of 2019, Twitter Inc. (2019) defined an mDAU as follows: «We define ‹monetizable daily active› usage or users (mDAU) as Twitter users who logged in or were otherwise authenticated and accessed Twitter on any given day through Twitter.com or Twitter applications ‹that are able to show ads›». An mDAU generates monetisable information through all kinds of activities (following, liking, sharing, commenting) and makes it available to Twitter Inc. free of charge for commercial purposes (‹show ads›). User-created content, information, and metadata are the assets that Musk has acquired for US$ 44 billion. However, those who created the value never saw a single penny. All the money flowed to the shareholders of Twitter Inc. Apologists of digital capitalism often claim that data is the oil of the 21st century, but that is ‹foolishness›.1
In German, DAU is the acronym for ‹Dümmster anzunehmender User› (most foolish user conceivable)
With social media, capitalism has found a way to minimise marginal production costs nearly to zero. Only a small number of paid staff are needed to herd the productive giant army of mDAUs.
The game of producing value
by volunteers may be over soon,
at least in social media
if we choose to no longer
On the other hand, thanks to Musk’s erratic decisions, mDAUs are leaving the platform in droves, discovering the free and decentralised network of the Fediverse, with Mastodon as loadstar. The game of producing value by volunteers may be over soon, at least in social media if we choose to no longer be mDAUs.
Community capitalism: exploiting social needs
The generation of value by exploiting a community is not limited to social media. In their book ‹Community-Kapitalismus› (Dyk and Haubner, 2021), sociologists Silke van Dyk and Tine Haubner shape the notion ‹Community Capitalism› to describe the phenomenon in a much broader sense:
«Community capitalism unfolds its significance precisely because it seems to offer an answer to the longing for community and solidarity and because it offers connection points for actors of the most diverse political backgrounds. In the process, capitalism once again manages to reorganise itself successfully through its crisis effects: The longing for security and support in social communities, which is nourished precisely by the dismantling of social security and a competitively increased isolation, in turn becomes a resource and is exploited in crisis-ridden capitalism as an alternative to social rights»
(Translation by Hasecke/Hierweck)
Van Dyk and Haubner refer to the crisis of social reproduction triggered by demographic change, women’s employment, and the withdrawal of the state from social security systems. Under the reign of community capitalism, social ‹rights› guaranteed by constitutions and laws become social ‹gifts›. The volunteers are sacralised into everyday heroism, and the de-economisation of care work is mythologised. Volunteering creates an incurable structural instability in the system and, thus, ensures a constantly reproduced need for volunteering. Social security from the welfare state, actually a unique social achievement, is discredited as cold and anonymous. Instead of guaranteed social rights, the exchange of voluntary benefits is based on informal reciprocity expectations within the framework of personal dependencies and sympathies. This sounds familiar in our context as, up to now, the Fediverse has been operated by self-exploitation, used parasitically, and is financed by handouts. Van Dyk and Haubner call for «a systematic analysis of the configuration we call community capitalism», and they demand the consistent posing of the property question, while taking seriously the downsides of communal and voluntary structures, and ask about the power to shape society.
In our context, this call means we have to overcome the division between those who care for a decentralised internet, such as the Fediverse, and those who economically and politically shape the digitalisation of the society.
Community commonism: principles to reorganise the economy
In ‹Neoliberalism and the ideological construction of equity beliefs› (Goudarzi et al., 2022), the authors discovered the materialist foundations of equity beliefs in our societies.
«Our results, in which higher than average (within-countries) levels of neoliberalism tend to be followed by higher than average (within-countries) levels of belief in equity, suggest that 4 years is sufficient for – as Thatcher put it – systems to change ‹souls›».
Margaret Thatcher, the mother of neoliberalism, changed our beliefs about social justice by changing the economy, thus proving that materialist theorists were right. If we want to roll back neoliberalism, we have to change the economy.
Basically, there are two alternatives to privately owned infrastructure. We can run digital infrastructure as a public service like, e.g., public radio and television broadcasters. But if digital infrastructure were public property, politicians would shape the digitalisation. If we, the users, want to shape it, we have to choose the alternative and organise digital infrastructure as a common. The American economist and Nobel prize laureate Elinor Ostrom identified eight design principles of stable local common pool resource management. In her works, Ostrom (1990; 2010) characterises stable commons as follows:
- Boundaries of users and resource are clear
- Congruence between benefits and costs
- Users had procedures for making own rules
- Regular monitoring of users and resource conditions
- Graduated sanctions
- Conflict resolution mechanisms
- Minimal recognition of rights by government
- Nested enterprises and polycentric governance
Some of these characteristics apply to consumer cooperatives, such as housing cooperatives, or retail cooperatives, such as DENIC eG, the German domain registry. Cooperatives are a relatively elaborate association of natural and legal persons, proven in practice for decades. Real consumer cooperatives have clear boundaries as only members can use the pool resources. They are democratically structured with implemented processes for collective decision-making, graduated sanctions according to their bylaws, and mechanisms of conflict resolution. And in most states, self-determination of cooperatives is recognised by state authorities and legislation.
Decentralising community clouds without hyperscaling
The legal form of a cooperative is a good umbrella for socialising technical infrastructure in the pragmatic, decentralised, bottom-up manner proposed by Ostrom. Fighting community capitalism based on mDAU-powered private profits requires a decentralised cloud infrastructure under user control. But can we economically implement the technical infrastructure for cloud services within small and medium-sized cooperatives? Can we set aside the usual assumption that clouds can only be economically attractive if they are big enough to profit from economies of scale? Hierweck (2019) showed that, by using local storage and reducing complexity, a scalable infrastructure can be operated economically with as few as two physical servers. This alternative makes it possible to operate digital infrastructure through small and medium cooperatives decentrally and thus more resiliently than with the large hyperscalers. Hostsharing eG has implemented such a cloud solution entirely with open source software components and standard server technology. Through virtualisation, it achieves scalability and hardware independence on a scale that is sufficient for the majority of business models. Redundant hardware and storage replication ensure high availability. As ‹Cooperative Community Cloud›, the solution has been successfully operated since 2020. To sum up, we have the economic and legal umbrella of cooperatives and the corresponding technology to take back the internet and create a decentralised and more resilient web owned by us, the people.Next page