Wrapping up the Crooked Timber seminar on Walkaway: Coase's Spectre

Two weeks ago, the excellent Crooked Timbre groupblog kicked off a symposium on my novel Walkaway, inviting ten scholars, practitioners, activists and thinkers to weigh in on the novel with thoughtful, sometimes sharply critical essays.

Today, Crooked Timber publishes my response, an essay called "Coase's Spectre," about the underlying themes of the novel (as I see them), and whether novels even have themes, and whether the authors are at all qualified to identify them.

I am a Coasean in that I think that all our institutions exist to help us figure out how to accomplish super-human (that is, “beyond one human’s ability”) tasks. From the Republic to Republicans and the Pirate Party’s Liquid Democracy and so forth, the rubric for hierarchy—and coercion and obedience and other evils—is that working together we can do so much more than working on our own, and one of the most efficient ways to work together is to just put someone competent in charge and let them tell us what to do from their bird’s-eye view of the project.

So we subjugate our will, sublimate our preferences, shut our mouths and screw on the widget or dial into the conference call or show up at the bus stop.

Coordination even explains much of the basis for private property: if you’re going to mow the lawn, you need a lawnmower, and if anyone who wants to can just push the mower away and stash it in their garage, you’ll have to waste so much time searching for the thing—and so will all the other people who need to mow their lawns—that the coordination problem inevitably gets solved more cheaply by everyone buying their own personal lawnmower to use a couple times a month and leave idle the rest of the time.

Command-and-control coordination, whether by your boss or the state, sucks, and the best thing you can say about it is it beats the alternative of scratching in the dirt, wishing you were John Galt and could raise a mighty skyscraper by sheer will as you starve to death on a diet of tubers and regrets.

It’s been 15 years since Benkler made the connection between “commons-based peer-production” and Coase. Networked tools—wikis, source/version control, crawlers, searchbots, collaborative filters (and more advanced machine-learning cousins), containers, VMs, and others—provide a cauldron for all the stone soup the networked world cares to cook. Any of us can throw our contribution into the pot, and possibly improve the soup, and if the soup is not improved, we can always ctrl-Z revert it back to an earlier state. If we disagree about what belongs in the soup, we can fork the soup (or, I suppose, spoon it) and you can have your soup and I can have my soup and we don’t have to agree what goes in the soup.

Coase’s Spectre [Cory Doctorow/Crooked Timber]

(Image: Joebeone, CC-BY-SA)