Post-scarcity stuff #2

I really caused myself physical pain writing this (up till 3:30am one morning writing), and I like it, so I want to keep a copy here. The original was a reply to someone on the World Transhumanist Association mailing list.

> I must admit, I somehow dislike intellectual property rights, as information
> is unlike any other property we had before. But I really see no alternative
> to it. Do you?

A Dorothy Dixer, thanks very much!

As information becomes slipperier in terms of control, we lament
because creators (in the broadest sense) can’t extract a payment at
the point of distribution (copying). This is because the rules have
changed. So something has to give.

Now, copying information for free is straightforwardly a good thing;
more access for more people.

But the other part of that lament, the problem of payment, can we
fiddle with that a bit?

First, ask the question “why do we want to be paid at the point of
copying?” The answer if you dig a little is that we don’t *really*
want to be paid at the point of copying; we just want to be paid for
work performed, and it’s a particular answer to that.

The easy answer is, there are other ways people can be payed for
creation. Lots of people address these elsewhere. Many people live it.
eg: Cory Doctorow.

But I want to leap directly to the hard answer, which is “what if we
cannot pay for creation at all?”

Why do we want to be paid for work performed? Because we need to eat.
And here we are at the heart of the problem.

It is really a conflation of two problems. I want to be paid for
creation decomposes into:

1: I want to create information works and have people use them
2: I want to be able to live

If you separate them out like this, it is clear that point 1 is easier
than ever. You can create, publish, and have people use your works
(btw “consume” is the wrong word, there is no scarcity here, and no

Point 2 is tricky. You want to be able to live, and this means that
you need money, because you need it in order to get what you need to

Just separating those two points out leads to an alternative to being
paid for creation, and that’s doing something else for pay, and
creating for free. Totally possible now, and what many of us in fact

However, it’s not really optimal, because it means you have two
activities, one of which feeds your soul and one which feeds your
stomach, both competing for your time. Noting Bryan’s disdain for
Maslow, we can still say that stomach beats soul.

But wait, we’re missing something. If lots of people are creating
something for free, and it’s zero cost to distribute, then even more
people must be benefiting from these free things. Where is money in
this situation? Specifically, don’t these people using the information
now need less money?

Let’s look at this from the recipient’s point of view. If I am getting
an information product for free, and so need marginally less money,
this is a good thing. Can I do more of the good thing?

Yes. If I was to restrict my use of information products to only those
which are free (in any sense of that word, free beer will do here),
then for a modern westerner, that’s a lot of stuff. That’s all my
books, movies, music, study materials, software, recipes, manuals, TV,
lots and lots of things. That should really make a dent in my need for

Now lets go back to creators of information. Creators are going to be,
by the nature of their interests, heavy users of information products.
On the problem of making ends meet, a creator can adopt a
free-information-only approach, and make some headway by needing less
money (more so than the average person because of a more information
oriented lifestyle).

So even if the creator cannot be paid at all for their creative work
(unlikely), the creator’s money needs reduce drastically by adopting
free culture values.

Now we are a good way there, but not all the way. Our hypothetical
creator still has a substantial need for money, and there are still
scarce goods.

The rest of this journey requires us to think about values.

We live in a capitalist world. Capitalist values are money-centric.
The value of a thing is what someone will pay for it. Money is in a
sense morality; we define money mediated acts as right, so we can see
money accumulation as a measure of moral rightness in a person.

But this means we are biased to only see value in terms of money. We
value that which involves exchange of money, and not that which does
not. Volunteering rates low, but working as a lawyer rates high. CEOs
are reified because they are paid so much, but teachers are not
because they are paid so little.

Particularly, money changes hands most readily when it changes the
relative wealth of those involved. I pay you to make software for me
because I think it will give me competitive advantage; that is,
something which other people (my competitors) don’t have. It will
increase my relative wealth, in a substantial way. I value an
expensive car because it is high status, because others can’t have it.
Examples are endless. On the other hand, I don’t spend nearly as much
on funding research in cancer because it wouldn’t benefit me alone in
a substantial way; it would only benefit everyone in a miniscule way
(a small step forward). I wont pay you to make open source software
because it wont give me advantage, it would only benefit everyone a
tiny bit forever.

Money warps our values in this way. The hammer of money makes all
things look like the nail of scarcity. And crucially, things that
simply refuse to look scarce (like an artist releasing their artwork
for free online) instead look value-less; a drawing  that costs $1
would seem more valuable than the freely available one. A person who
looks after their children at home for free, looks more valuable to
the economy by working in a cafe serving lattes, and paying for child

What we need for post-scarcity to work is simply to look at our
surroundings in a different way, which is this. What if money, rather
than being a sign of success, and of wealth, were a signal of failure,
and poverty? What if something costing more meant we saw it as worse,
rather than as better?

We are surrounded by things that are not at all scarce (existing
information product) or not scarce in a practical sense. For instance,
with modern manufacturing, there are many simple small products which
are so cheap to make that they could be free. Childrens plastic toys,
for example? Or think about second hand goods; the entire class of
used items is seen as a poor substitute for new items. What if we
looked at it the other way around? Isn’t it a failure, every time we
use newly extracted resources in a new product rather than reusing
something whose resource cost has already been paid?

How about food? I can’t recall the exact reference, but I remember
reading that some time around the 1930s, the world passed the point
where we could cater for everyone’s basic needs without everyone
working all the time [citation required]. We invented consumerism some
time around then, to create more demand, to keep everyone working. It
does seem to be true that we can feed everyone for minimal effort now,
that the reason we don’t do this is a failure of distribution and
political and economic organisation rather than anything else. What if
we figured out just how much we actually need, and tried to stick to
that; would we be able to produce it with minimal effort, translating
to absolutely minimal money required?

And this leads to the thread tying these thoughts together, which is
our definition of wealth. What if we redefined wealth in absolute
terms rather than relative? Surely we don’t really need bigger and
better things than our neighbour has, or than we had last week. So
economic “growth” doesn’t make sense. Surely instead, there is an
absolute wealth that each of us would be happy with? (Note here we can
each have our own definition of that level, it doesn’t come magically
down from some committee!)

I don’t need better health care than my neighbour. I just need medical
help when I am sick. I don’t need more or better food than I had last
year. I just need enough at an acceptable quality. I don’t need a
bigger house than I had 5 years ago. I just need a house that meets my
absolute needs.

It upsets me that we have this utter disconnect between the instincts
of the technically inclined, and our system of economic organisation.
Technical people see the need for manual work as a problem to be
solved; automating it is the solution. We’ve been doing that forever,
and damned effectively for the last couple of hundred years. Yet, we
are all working more. Is it not clear that there is therefore a
substantial amount of work being done which simply doesn’t need to be?
Yet under the current system, there is no mechanism for permanently
removing people from the workforce without relegating them to
impoverishment, so somehow makework is being invented.

What if we were to assume abundance? What if we assumed that the total
of the “real world” jobs that really need doing is actually very
small, and assumed that someone would step up in all those cases and
volunteer to do the work?

Then we might, for instance, try to create a system of food production
staffed by volunteers, using the best automation possible, the output
of which was free to all.

How about land and housing? We might encourage owners to donate land
to a cooperative pool, and provide homes (or land parcels) to any who
asked. These might be fairly minimal and restricted to begin with, and
require commitment to the general free land project to begin with, but
this restriction might lift as time passed.

And so with clothes, and tools, and so on.

With this kind of approach, you then find that automating manual
tasks, rather than “taking jobs”, now benefits all, by shrinking the
pool of required volunteers. Volunteers meanwhile do come forward,
because without being compelled to work for money, people instead do
what they want, which surprisingly often is meaningful work which will
benefit others. And  scarcity stops looking like the norm, and begins
looking like a problem that needs fixing. So one of the scary things
on the horizon of the future, which is the slow transformation of the
material world into information-like form (via 3d printing and
replicators and eventually nano-santa) stops looking like a problem
and starts looking like the great cornucopia that it should be.

So a summary of values changes that we need is:

Volunteerism, rather than being the niche value that we have today,
where we all feel vaguely that it is irrelevant and slowly dying,
becomes the highest value. We all want to do things, enough of us want
to contribute meaningfully to our fellow people with our doing, so the
necessary work should be oversubscribed by volunteers. I suspect we
wont suffer from a dearth of volunteers, instead we might have a
problem of people feeling unable to meaningfully contribute as they
would like to.

Money phases out slowly over time. We see money as a sign of failure
rather than success, and although we know it is still required to some
extent, we act to minimize its need and influence. We focus technology
on removing scarcity wherever it rears its head, we try to find ways
of using volunteerism and the magic of massive numbers to replace the
use of the market. This is the incremental path to post scarcity

Behave as though things are already not scarce. Donate. Help people
make better use of a free resource. Make use of a volunteer based

Absolute Wealth over Relative Wealth. Things that increase the
absolute wealth of all people are favoured. Things that modify
relative wealth are seen as worthless.

No one is compelled. Contribution must be voluntary. Socialism was
never the answer to any question, except “how can we royally mess
things up?” The cost of meeting people’s needs approaches zero in this
system, so play world of warcraft forever if you like. Volunteerism,
contributing, is encouraged, but only because it is the secret to
happiness, not because the world will stop turning if you don’t do
something you’d rather not.


I want to address a point about scarcity in the infosphere, which is
the free rider problem.

The free rider problem in scarce spheres is the tradgedy of the
commons. If I can take without giving, then we all will, and the
commons will be destroyed in the process.

In information dissemination, there is no free rider problem. If you
take a copy, it doesn’t affect the original. So, the commons is not

But it is fair to assert that without rewards, creation might be
affected. Creators might stop creating, and we have a commons being
eroded (progress itself!) by our actions of taking without giving.

In answer to this, I point simply at the internet now. Look at open
source. Look at free software. Look at the creative commons. Look at
youtube, and flickr, and wikipedia, and all the myriad ways that we
not only create for free, but we create at very high quality, in
competition with each others for the attention of our fellows.

Go and try to wade in and contribute to a volunteer based project
(such as wikipedia or linux) in a substantial way, without first
paying your dues by learning the culture and doing some less glamorous
tasks. These people don’t seem to be struggling for volunteers; they
are actively guarding the gates against the throngs of well meaning
but undisciplined folk who want to join in, if I’m reading it right.
I’m sure individual projects struggle for people at times, but the
ones with mindshare seem to have absolutely the opposite problem.
This, in a time when people do, generally, have to support themselves

The cost of collaboration approaches zero. The information products
increase in quantity and depth and quality in a ratcheted fashion that
in aggregate looks for the world like some kind of spectacularly
efficient genetic algorithm. Productivity increases inexorably, which
means in this environment that we can make better and better use of
the work of the very best people.

The non obvious outcome of this is that there is no free rider problem
in creation. For each individual, it is ok to take and to never give
back, because the network of billions will keep creating regardless.
In fact, no matter how much you give, I think it is impossible to come
even close to the amount you will receive. It’s a massively
assymetrical relationship we all have with the mass of free
information, and it’s ok, because of the networked billions and the
ratchet effect and the zero cost of distribution.


Post-scarcity stuff #2

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