(Harvard Business Review Press 2012; ISBN 978-1-4221-8318-2)
How do futurists ply their trade? One method is to take a large number of observations of the world, join the dots to form an hypothesis about its workings, develop a model of the underlying causality of those workings, and then use the model to explain the past and speculate about the future. In terms of that process, this book represents an important work that has joined up quite a few dots.
When we think about piracy, we normally have in mind a vision of piracy on the high seas in the Eighteenth Century. This is historically inaccurate. The golden age of piracy was two hundred years earlier – in the Sixteenth Century – at the point where the European nations were starting to colonise and develop the freshly acquired lands in the New World. It was more Drake and Hawkins than Long John Silver. This is an important distinction that becomes evident when we consider what piracy is about.
It is best to view piracy as a process by which property rights are established in an environment where it is unclear to whom they belong. It is the mechanism by which public goods – in the economic sense, where nobody and everybody owns those goods – are made private. The golden age of piracy helped to develop the rule set by which behaviour was conducted on the high seas. The later brigandage on the high seas in the Eighteenth Century was about the enforcement of that rule set rather than its development.
This has resonance for us today in those areas where property rights are not fully developed. For example, one could argue that we are still in the process of shaking out the rule set that governs the digital world. Here we have a public good (cyberspace), which has been fairly unregulated in the recent past, where social norms and rule sets are still being developed, and where ‘deviant’ behaviour is categorised as piracy. From the perspective of a futurist, this is an uninteresting area because the governing rule set is now largely developed. If you doubt this point, try defaming Lord McAlpine using Twitter to see how fast and how hard the law can come down upon you. Digital piracy has moved from the rule making phase to the much later enforcement phase.
The authors do, however, point to an area that ought to excite the futurist – our genetic make-up. We are currently at the early stages of determining who ‘owns’ our DNA, and the uses to which it can be put. If the model suggested by the authors is correct, then we can anticipate a good deal of genetic piracy in the next decade or two. At the microscopic and nanoscopic scale, there are still vast uncharted areas that present the opportunity for commercial advantage. The conditions are right for all sorts of skulduggery until the rule set governing this area is determined.
This hints at the importance of this book. Central to the argument is the assertion that capitalism, as a form of social organisation, is constantly evolving. However, that evolution is dominated by leaps in both hard and social technologies. It is a bit like the movement of tectonic plates – gradual, but with dramatic earthquakes when there is movement. Piracy represents the earthquakes when the tectonic plates of capitalism move. In this respect, the onset of piracy in a given area acts as an early warning signal of an emergent future. The containment of piracy represents a more settled period of social and economic relations.
If - as many believe today – there has been a breakdown of the Washington Consensus and that a new capitalism is emerging, then the model suggested by the authors would indicate a period of piracy is about to emerge. We have already pointed to genetic piracy as one strong candidate for an emerging future. There are others. For example, one aspect of piracy is a lack of respect for established forms of authority. One could argue that this creates an opportunity for new ‘piratical’ forms of government – varying from the producer collectives of La Mancha in Spain to the rise of the ‘Occupy Movement’ around the world. They all indicate an unsettled prospect where the established rule set will come under pressure.
It should be said that this book represents an important first step towards understanding how capitalism evolves and changes. The model is only suggested and not developed, and could do with more historical instances of pirate organisations. For example, the English Enclosure Movement of the Seventeenth Century would make a good example of how a public good (common land) was captured and turned into private property. From a long term perspective, this proved to be beneficial (it allowed for the development of the capital surpluses that funded the Industrial Revolution), even though it was an unmitigated disaster at the time (it gave rise to rural impoverishment, destitution, and vagrancy). A more complete work would start to capture these different dimensions of piracy.
It should also be said that this is a book written by two French academics and is written in an academic style. It is not an easy read and the reader will have to work at taking away some of the points made. Is the effort worth it? Yes, this is an important book that adds to our understanding of the transition between different phases of capitalism. For that reason, we recommend it.
© The European Futures Observatory 2013