Capitalism is the Killjoy of the Internet Age

Hey, hope everyone is recovering from yesterday’s Pink Dot festivities. It’s not easy to avoid stepping on so many expat picnic mats/immaculately bedazzled Pomeranians for 8 hours, albeit for a good cause. Ok I kid, but only in tone, because objectively there really were too many people on the ground in Hong Lim Park, which is a happy problem I guess.

So I’m writing today because, being an undergrad, I often feel like I’m locked in a slowly flooding room, and recently the waterline has gone up to my neck. What am I going to do after I graduate? Will I even be employable? What if I become one of those Instagram people who are perpetual “aspiring artists”? I’ve always cached these problems at the back of my mind for Future Me to handle, but right now I am Future Me. I can’t avoid thinking about these things, and I literally cannot afford to think about these things on abstract grounds. The real numbers have to be churned and crunched, I have to start doing tangible research on actual opportunities and costs. Eventually everything boils down to whether or not I can put food on the table. At this point in our rapid economic development, it doesn’t matter if someone has talent or compassion if they don’t meet the principle criterion. The universal bottomline in this capitalist hellhole is – does it make money?

I think we live in such an exciting age. Our generation has created more products and accumulated more information in the past decade than the history of humankind combined. I don’t think Aristotle and his musty ass would have even dared to dream about the number of books we have (then again he was wrong about a LOT of things, and the first thing that would shock him is probably that women are not by default slaves to men). You know the queasy movies from the 80s about time travel and everyone has their own messaging device and we’re all in silver jumpsuits? We’ve arrived at that stage, we are past what people imagined to be the Great Technological Revolution, but without the jumpsuits. The most amazing thing to come around is the internet, the omnipresent omnipotent entity in the sky (cloud). It moves and it operates through each of us, and truly, it works in mysterious ways.

I read this somewhere and I forgot the source, but you know George Orwell’s 1984? He predicted correctly that we will live in a future under 24/7 surveillance by a hovering entity, but he didn’t predict that we will WANT to be watched. We want our posts to be liked and shared, we want our internet browsers to remember our passwords, we want Google maps to detect our location, we want people to know where we work. We willingly put our personal information up on the internet, and we’ve entered a self-recording future. Is this threatening? Yes, but at the same time so immensely powerful, when the uploaded data is used for the right reasons by the right people. That’s how everything gets done so quickly – everything we need to know is online and readily accessible. But then with this accessibility comes a whole host of problems.

Suddenly every competing company is catapulted into an international arena. There are so many overseas companies that have a lower cost of production, and they can ship those products out to you for a lower price. Things get cheaper and cheaper until companies can no longer break even, and the only survivors are the large corporations with economies of scale and atrocious sweatshops (hello H&M). This isn’t so bad for products which must exist in a physical form, like clothes or furniture, but this is catastrophic for ideas and digital media i.e. intellectual property. Any industry that deals with intellectual property is in a crisis now because there are talented, entertaining, generous and interesting people online who are more than willing to upload free content. Right now, you can get free coding lessons, makeup tutorials, listen to free lectures, and illegally stream Game of Thrones without paying a single cent. The content online is also very often superior to what you can get on a DVD. Why on earth would anyone pay for the substitute products then? Why buy cartoons for your kid when you can show them free animated shorts on Youtube?

This is actually a fantastic place to be. Knowledge is power, and content is key. I think it’s brilliant that we can listen to music from indie musicians from South Africa, and I think it’s revolutionary that people from lower-income groups can access tutorials online to get an education. Education and the internet could be the great equalizers. So many doors are opening for people with smartphones. (Fun fact: more people have access to smartphones than to working toilets, which implies that even people in abject poverty have access to the wealth of information on the World Wide Web.) I also think it’s miraculous that people are volunteering to put up free, quality content. This would be an Information Utopia, if not for the primary assumption of a Capitalist society.

Every reasonable economic player is profit-seeking.

One line to destroy everything.

Right now the game has evolved so that companies which would otherwise be 100% awesome have to re-organise their activities to milk money from customers. Some examples of companies/industries which have found their way back into the game include Spotify and Netflix, and some companies have created entirely new markets, like Google and Facebook (the market for a database of our personal preferences and whereabouts). But what about the other creative companies which are left behind? What if they don’t want to be a company and they were just trying to make something really cool and useful for everyone to use for free?

So many useful apps are free for use and the fact that they are free is indispensable to the app’s function, because a free product attracts a high number of people, including people from lower-income groups. High number of people = more data collected on people and a bigger pool of users = incentive for using the app in the first place, like Tinder.

160605diagram.png

(Copyright me because I’m so clever and this is a diagram based on meticulous research.)

Developers scramble to find ways to get a slice of that revenue pie (through ads or other means), and they don’t just do it because they’re money-grubbers, but because money is needed to keep the app running, and they can’t possibly devote their lives to making no money at all. People have to eat. It’s such a shame that we live in a world where we have all the resources available but we still have trouble making ends meet. It’s kinda like how the Chinese government is pumping money into condominium projects to stimulate employment and economic growth, but the houses remain empty. We have so many vacant houses but the homeless remain homeless because they didn’t “earn” the right to live in a house (as if the rich have earned the right to be born rich). Figures.

If you feel like I’m just raking up problems and I have absolutely no solutions to offer, you’re right. But how could I? Capitalism is a self-validating system, meaning that it makes itself thrive. If we take away capitalism, then the first question on everyone’s mind would be then how are we going to earn money, what about economic expansion? Well, we’re asking capitalist questions about capitalism. I don’t think our current diet of condominium investments and sweatshop labour is sustainable. A capitalist indicator of a healthy economy is economic growth (GDP), but limitless growth? Eternal expansion until we run the rivers on our earth dry? When do we stop? How do we expand while being socially responsible? As it is we’re doing a dismal job right now.

So while we’re stewing in our own mess, here are some great links to free online resources to better yourself, and non-profit projects which have taken off because kind and creative internet users have come together.

Project For Awesome

Every December, thousands of internet users post videos on Youtube to advocate for their favourite charities. The Project For Awesome is parked under the Foundation to Decrease World Suck, Inc, and last year they’ve raised $1,546,384. I think it’s great that they celebrate the agency of each individual internet user by using personal opinion to sieve out the best charities to support. They raise money through digital downloads and artwork from users etc.

Coursera

Free, quality online courses in a wide range of fields, including arts and humanities, business etc. The courses are offered by established institutions from all over the world like the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Yonsei University, and even that Emma Watson school.

Codecademy

I think my coding friends might not find this very impressive but I’ve been using it so far and it helped me to get through my Python classes. They walk you through free lessons on different programming languages, and you complete them at your own pace.

Crash Course

This series helped me to more than scrape by for my A levels. Over the years the show has grown to cover subjects like economics, physics, politics and governance, history, literature etc. They are incredibly entertaining, feature updated information on global affairs, and the show acknowledges and embraces an international audience i.e. they’re not America-centric, and that’s rare in a Youtube channel.

The School of Life

They also offer free, quality educational videos on Youtube but they zoom in more to individual theories, as opposed to looking at the world’s trajectory of history and proceeding chronologically.

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