5/12 – Jeremy Rifkin. The Zero Marginal Cost Society

Bruce Gibb

Jeremy Rifkin. The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014.

Bruce Gibb


Bruce Gibb

Bruce Gibb

My intention in this review is to show relevance of the book to Spiral Dynamics Integral. In summary, Rifkin uses a similar conceptual framework and his analysis proceeds from a Yellow, Stage 7 (S:7) stance. This is revealed in his creation of a vision of the future, his use of an historical and prospected future time perspective, his assertion that life conditions drive culture and cultural change, and his use of complexity, scope and time as the underlying dimensions of cultural evolution. He identifies similar cultural dynamics: advances build on foundations but do not eliminating them; a more adequate theory replaces a less adequate one; and he elaborates and add to the theory and examples. In essence he extends the Green, S:6 culture horizontally into all sectors of a society.

Rifkin’s core thesis is straightforward: zero marginal cost is driving a new, post-capitalist paradigm, the Collective Commons. It is an expansion of the non-profit, social sector based in social capital. His summary of the history of the CC and its existence at all stages of cultural evolution is instructive especially for those of us interested in the evolution of social systems. His public presentations emphasize this paradigm shift. See:

This book is a compilation of the main insights of some of his previous books: The Age of Access, The Empathic Civilization, and The Third Industrial Revolution. His contribution in Zero is new and more elaborated material on the Collaborative Commons (CC).  As a backdrop, he concisely presents the history, present functioning and future of capitalism. Fascinating to me is his history of capitalism and the dynamics of the enclosure movement. The major dynamic in these transitions is from public participation or ownership in a “common” resource to its enclosure, privatization, and exploitation. This dynamic under capitalism applies to land, labor, ad natural resources.

Currently this ideology and process is being used to justify privatization of prisons, health care and education. But he believes that the CC paradigm will replace a good portion of the capitalist regime. The CC will not be enclosed—if the fight is successfully won over those who profit from the capitalist regime—these capitalist operations will be reduced in all sectors of society.

His description of the cultural shift from “theocratic consciousness” (Blue), “the great chain of being” to what he terms “ideological consciousness” (Orange) “private property” of the Enlightenment is excellent and concise. The dominant life conditions which dictate the cultural values and functioning are two: the types of energy and the technology of communication.  At present, the emergent drivers are renewable energy and internet communication which build on prior developments.

New communication/energy matrices and accompanying economic paradigms don’t cast aside previous periods of consciousness and empathic extension. Those remain, but become part of a larger empathic domain.

The great economic paradigm shifts in human history not only bring together communication revolutions and energy regimes in powerful new configurations that change the economic life of society. Each new communication/energy matrix also transforms human consciousness by extending the empathic drive across wider temporal and spatial domains, bringing human beings together in larger metaphoric families and more interdependent societies.

He goes on to trace the evolution of social systems and the cultural “consciousness” at the evolving stages of cultural development:

In early forager/hunter societies, the source of energy was the human body itself—we had not yet domesticated animals as energy carriers or harvested the wind and water currents. ***And every forager/hunter society—even those few still remaining today—had “mythological consciousness.” The empathic drive in forager/hunter societies only extended to blood ties and tribal bonds.

The advent of the great hydraulic civilizations in the Middle East around 3500 B.C., in the Yangtze Valley of China in 3950 B.C., and in the Indus Valley of South Asia in 2500 B.C. brought a new communication/energy matrix. Building and maintaining a centralized, canal-irrigated agricultural system required both mass labor and technical skills. The energy regime—stored grains—gave rise to urban life and spawned granaries, road systems, coinage, markets, and long-distance trade. Governing bureaucracies were established to manage the production, storage, and distribution of grain. Centralized management of these far-flung hydraulic enterprises only became possible with the invention of a new form of communication called writing.

The coming together of writing and hydraulic agricultural production shifted the human psyche from mythological to “theological consciousness.” Several great world religions were formed during the period called the Axial Age (about 800 B.C. to 100 A.D.): Judaism and Christianity in the Middle East, Buddhism in India, and Confucianism (a spiritual quest) in China.

In the nineteenth century, the convergence of coal-powered steam printing and the new coal-powered factory and rail-transport system gave rise to “ideological consciousness.” The new communication/energy matrix made possible the expansion of commerce and trade from local to national markets and solidified the nation-state as the governing mode to manage the new economic paradigm.

In the twentieth century, the coming together of centralized electrification, oil, and automobile transport, and the rise of a mass consumer society, marked still another cognitive passage, from ideological to “psychological consciousness.”

Psychological consciousness extended the empathic drive across political boundaries to include associational ties. Human beings began to empathize in a larger fictional family based on professional and technical affiliations, cultural preferences, and a range of other attributes that stretched the boundaries of social trust beyond the nation to include affinity with like-minded others in a world where the communication/energy matrix and markets were becoming global.

As he describes all the manifestations of the CC, we see n SDi terms that they are an horizontal extension of the democratic vMeme of Stage 6, Green, Human-Bond into all sectors of society: energy, education, economics, farming, information, manufacturing, logistics (transportation), politics, social life, etc.

Rifkin thinks like a Spiral Dynamics integral devotee but without the jargon. Witness the following summary of the stages and dynamics in the evolution of consciousness (with my additions of the colors in parenthesis).

Mythological consciousness (conflation of Beige, Purple and Red), theological consciousness (Blue), ideological consciousness (Orange), and psychological consciousness (Green) all still exist and coexist in ensembles embedded in each individual psyche and in various proportions and degrees in every culture. There are tiny pockets in the world where forager/hunters still live with mythological consciousness. Other societies are exclusively bound to theological consciousness. Still others have migrated to ideological consciousness and now even psychological consciousness.

If we have passed from mythological consciousness to theological consciousness to ideological consciousness to psychological consciousness and have extended our empathic drive from blood ties to religious affiliations to national identities and associational communities, is it not possible to imagine the next leap in the human journey—a crossover into biosphere (Turquoise) consciousness and an expansion of empathy to include the whole of the human race as our family, as well as our fellow creatures as an extension of our evolutionary family?

This transformation is being accompanied by a change in the human psyche—the leap to biosphere consciousness and the Collaborative Age.

Rifkin engages in Stage 7, Yellow, Integral-Systems thinking but seems to be unaware that he is doing so. (Johnathan Haight claimed that we do not know our own culture until we get out of it). He recognizes that life conditions—and in particular the sources of energy and the technology of communication—are the drivers of cultural evolution. He integrates his sectorial descriptions into a coherent whole; he thinks systemically. Not content to just criticize the past and current manifestations of Orange materialism as unhealthy Green would, he highlights its current and potential future contribution to the society. His time frames are from past to present to open future.

Of particular interest is the dramatic shift from Orange to Green consciousness in the younger generation. He reports on various surveys documenting the Millennial generation’s values shift. First, researchers documented the period when young people held predominantly Orange values:

The Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor notes that by the 1990s, children spent “as much time shopping as visiting, twice as much time shopping as reading or going to church, and five times as much as playing outdoors.” Even more disturbing, youngsters said that they “would rather spend time buying things than doing almost anything else” and more than half believe that “when you grow up, the more money you have, the happier you are.”

A massive study of 14,000 college students conducted between 1979 and 2009 by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan concluded that “college kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.” Sarah Konrath… says that today’s college students are less likely to agree with statements such as, “I sometimes tried to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

Second, recent studies show that the younger generation, the millennials, have shifted to many of the Green, Stage 6 values. Unlike the Gen Xers, millennials are “much more likely to feel empathy for others in their group and to seek to understand each person’s perspective; they are the least prejudiced and most empathic of any generation in history in championing the legal and social rights of previously marginalized groups of the population, including women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and the disabled. Deeply affected by the Great Recession and a stagnant global economy, the millennial generation has begun to shift its psychic priorities from material success to living a meaningful existence. After 2008 among young millennials, reported “more concern for others and less interest in material goods; they are less interested in keeping up with materialistic trends and less invested in obsessive consumerism as a way of life.

These findings dovetail with the sharp rise of collaborative consumption and the sharing economy. All over the world, a younger generation is sharing bikes, automobiles, homes, clothes, and countless other items and opting for access over ownership. A growing number of millennials are eschewing designer brands in favor of generics and cause-oriented brands and are far more interested in the use value of material things than their exchange value or status. A sharing economy of collaborative prosumers is, by its very nature, a more empathic and less materialistic one.

Of course, it will be a generation before this cohort is in positions of power. And when they are, will they hold true to the values they currently espouse or will they “sell out” to the currently dominant capitalistic Orange paradigm? Will the reaction and blow back from the unhealthy Orange institutions kill the collaborative commons baby in its cradle? But not naïve, Rifkin acknowledges that the battles will be many and fierce to bring about the CC as he envisions it.

Rifkin’s reporting has a hopeful, optimistic view of the future, a future that could become reality.  But recent FCC proposed rules for the Internet that would undermine net-neutrality would trash his hopes for an information commons since it would begin the process of enclosing, privatizing and exploiting the internet commons.

This book needs to be read by those interested in cultural evolution and the current “tragedies of the commons” because it is a down-to-earth description of the interplay of vMemes in American society today and it presents a coherent vision worth working for. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Unfortunately, the book’s technical title may limit its popularity.

About the Author

Bruce L. Gibb, PhD, an organizational psychologist, has been in private practice since 1973. His expertise is in developing the human aspects of organizations. He specializes in the design and the creation of socio-technical systems or the conversion of classical organizations to socio-technical systems. Building adaptive organization cultures is one of his competencies. He is co-creator of a whole systems change methodology now commonly used in organizational development. He has worked with international organizations as well as in a dozen countries outside of the United States in agricultural, industrial, energy, financial, governmental, health, military and educational sectors. Since 2001 he has been studying and applying SDi concepts of cultural evolution in his practice.

After obtaining a Master in Public Affairs degree from Princeton University, he was the training support officer in Peru for the Institute of Public Administration of New York. Dr. Gibb then served the Ford Foundation as a program officer in New York and as assistant representative in Chile. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in organizational psychology.



  1. Edwyrd Burj on June 6, 2014 at 5:13 am

    While Gibb admits near the end that biosphere consciousness is turquoise, he also said right before that statement that the collaborative commons is a horizontal extension of green consciousness into all sectors of society. He led up to that conclusion by noting that green’s psychological consciousness extends empathy to larger associational ties to include like-minded others. His own logic doesn’t follow here, as the collaborative commons goes beyond associational, like-minded ties into biosphere consciousness, given its expansion of empathy to all people beyond associational ties as well as the entire biosphere.

    Also he doesn’t provide a description of an SDi yellow cultural mode. His progression seems to indicate we can jump from associational communities (green) to the biosphere (turquoise) with no yellow in between? Granted he’s following Rifkin’s empathic levels here, which don’t account for what Gibbs describes as yellow. But Gibbs doesn’t account for a yellow cultural stage either.

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