Towards a Common Wage for the Digital Commons

How do we support digital content? How can we foster a digital commons that doesn’t rely on the unwaged immaterial labor of those who produce it? The following is a set of reflections and proposal for a platform that I believe is an answer to this question.  The platform idea is essentially a subscription-based service that would foster the creation of a digital commons, not just of freely accessible material, but a common wage for all those producing digitally.

Before anything else, I want to articulate that I believe that all digital content should be released into the digital commons, freed from behind paywalls. If we cannot constitute a digital commons, and merely re-produce enclosure in the digital world, I believe any utopian possibility of the internet is dead (if it ever existed.) 

This means that any support for content has to be voluntary. However, I believe that any attempts  to introduce single click voluntary micro-payments have an adverse effect, transforming the content into a quasi-digital commodity and the content producer into an entrepreneur hawking their digital wares, competing for the attention. The negative effects can be seen in the current ad-based support structure for digital content not behind paywalls.

For this reason, I prefer subscriptions: ongoing support which enables the content producer to explore and create according to their own interests, rather than what will get the most clicks. The possibility of a real regular income, rather than occasional large one-time contributes, also reduces the threats of precarity, allowing digital content producers to eschew traditional careers and focus on their own work. I love the idea of someone like Fuck Theory or Scott Carrier being able to survive entirely outside the constraints of the academy or institutional public radio, writing and producing according to their own interests, without the censorship or funding constraints of the academy. 

 A slew of projects are embracing this model of subscription-based funding, most noticeably Patreon. However, I believe that the subscription model has a significant drawback: it threatens to reproduce the individualization of the wage-relation, creating incentives for competition between people rather than collaboration. It’s no good if the funding for digital content means that I want to hoard my own ideas so as not to let my friends and potential collaborators gain subscribers.

For this reason, I prefer subscriptions to collectives rather than individuals. This in effect creates a common wage, a shared income, which both allows people to survive but doesn’t do it in a way that reproduces the individualization of the wage-relation. I also strongly support income sharing among friends, but that is another issue entirely. 

This of course is not a new model for the digital age: organizations, especially public radio, magazines, and non-profits have long relied on subscriptions. (I once spent a summer working in a call center, begging people who regularly made large one-time to environmental non-profits to make smaller monthly contributions.) Notably, Radiotopia’s current fundraising drive is pushing for exactly this kind of subscription and the quality, intellectual integrity and originality of their shows indicates how successful this model could. 

Of course, once these sorts of collectives form, they often are large enough to have their own subscription campaigns. This is great for them, but difficult for me as someone who is willing to pay 30-40 a month on subscriptions but finds it difficult to keep track of my subscriptions. I would love to pay a small monthly amount to a wide variety of individuals and organization, especially those that already release their content for free: Democracy Now, Radiotopia, This American Life, Scott Carrier, Fuck Theory not to mention magazines like  Dissent and Mask Magazine or musicians and artists. 

Thus, my ideal platform would be a central clearinghouse for my subscriptions, a place where I can decide how much money I am willing to give a month to all my subscriptions and what percentage would go to each subscription. This organization could also incentivize individuals joining collectives, reducing individuation and creating creative collaborative spaces. In an ideal world, this model would slowly allow projects that were truly committed to the idea of the commons to all come together under one giant platform, allowing a wide variety of artistic, political and creative projects to bloom. It also would not need to be necessarily solely limited to digital content producers: teachers, doctors, lawyers, programmers all could be supported eventually through such a model. As we begin to put our lives in common, new potentials for supporting each other outside of traditional structures will become possible. 

Significant questions still remain and though the platform seems entirely feasible in the digital age, this sort of project is well beyond my scope. It would need good designers and coders and people who understand how to manage and send money, and while a good deal of this could eventually be automated, someone would still need to do the work of contacting those organizations and individuals who are being supported and recruiting them to use the system. Perhaps the project itself could be a collective  funded through small subscriptions of anyone who feels affinity with the project. 

Finally, there is the reality that money, or the value-form, will always be a force hostile to the commons. If we truly want to create a form-of-life that is autonomous from the state and capital and allows for creativity and dissemination of ideas, this sort of subscription-based support for the creative commons can only be an intermediate step. What good is the creative commons being supported by subscriptions commons if the people themselves still buying food individually, still paying rent individually, still owning property as individuals? This is not an anarcho-capitalist proposal, but an intermediate step on the road to the Commons. Ideally, these collectives can begin to network with each other in the real world and and securing the conditions of their own existence, becoming involved in growing their own food, living communally in collective houses, and doing the slow and hard work of building a truly autonomous and ungovernable commons with their own hands.