The One Surprising Thing That Really Makes Monsanto Evil

A lot of people seem to think the problem with Monsanto is the fact that they use a technology called GMO to produce the seeds that they sell. Some think this technology is in some way ‘bad,’ or ‘not natural,’ while others think it is a live-saver. My opinion is that like any technology it will have good and bad possible implementations. But let’s assume for a second that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the technology of GMO and talk about where Monsanto really gets its power from. The real problem with GMOs isn’t the technology that created them — it’s the artificial scarcity policy that disallows the market from correcting their mistakes. Monsanto’s evil because it is a monopoly.

Let’s say Monsanto makes a GMO strain of wheat that is Roundup resistant and hearty, but also contains a protein you don’t like. In a functioning market, another company would make a pesticide-resistant strain that maintained the protein ratio desired. Most of the legitimate complaints I’ve heard about GMOs are basically just engineering problems. More or less cost is involved, there are consequences for growers, storage, etc., but all these issues can probably be worked out in a way that satisfies. The problem is that, if any company or even an individual doing cross-breeding at home (cross-breeding is a GMO technology that humans have been using for ages), were to solve this problem, they would be liable for suit. Why? Because Monsanto has patents on the genes in its GMOs. That’s the problem. Essentially, they cribbed notes off Mother Nature and got the Patent Office to write a note saying a plant’s genome is now theirs. Which leads to absurd situations such as the one depicted in FOOD INC, where a farmer was sued for trying to save his own seeds.

Fundamentally, I’m optimistic about the possibility of GMOs to drastically increase yields,  the health content of food, and profit for food producers over time. But only if competition and innovation are allowed.

Ideas are Not Easily Quantized (or Why Systems of Intellectual Property Will Always Have Abuses)

All ideas are based upon previous ideas, and all previous ideas are based upon even earlier ideas. The chain of ideas extends backward with no clear beginning. Sometimes people come up with the same idea at the same time and sometimes ideas overlap a great deal without being identical. Drawing clear lines of demarcation between one idea and another, the way you might draw a line in the sand to divide a piece of land, is a problematic task. The fuzzy spectrum of ideas does not easily divide up into neat quantized little pieces of property.

Periodically, abuses of intellectual property law end up in the news. Today the issue being discussed is patent trolls. One might conclude that patent trolls are the result of a broken patent system. I would argue that patent trolls are just the inevitable consequence of trying to divide something which cannot be cleanly divided. As long as you allow ownership of ideas, there are going to be specious arguments that can be made—many which even sound quite reasonable—that one person’s idea is somehow being infringed upon by someone else’s. Ideas on the whole are just not very distinct from one another.

There are new patent reforms on the table right now, some promising, some probably ineffectual. Not surprisingly, the reforms most likely to be effective are the ones that result in less patents being given out in the first place.

Why the Market and Technology Aren’t Playing Well Together (and Five Possible Solutions to Fix the Problem)

A SYLLOGISM TO EXPLAIN THE PROBLEM IN THE ECONOMY

The impact of new technologies on the economy is a hot topic right now. Just a few years ago, the idea of machines replacing human labor was widely dismissed, but now a growing number of pundits and economists are expressing concerns about the impact of automation technologies and the possibility of technological unemployment.

People tend to approach this complex issue in different ways. It can be a difficult topic to think about, so for the purpose of discussion, I’d like to present a simple syllogism as a possible framework for understanding what is happening.

MAJOR PREMISE: Economic opportunities arise from the monetization of scarce commodities.

This is Economics 101. For a good to have a price on the market, it must be scarce. That is, the good must be in demand and exist in limited supply. If you have only one of these two elements, the good will not be worth anything.

For example, breathable air is in high demand but it does not exist in limited supply. Good luck putting air in a bag and trying to sell it. Conversely, your old dirty socks might exist in limited supply, but since no one demands them, they are probably unsellable.

The market rewards people who are able to take a scarce commodity—whether a physical good like a chair or a service like massage therapy—and monetize it. In this way, scarce commodities are the source of all economic opportunities.

MINOR PREMISE: Technological progress reduces the number of scarce commodities by creating abundance.

Technology is a tool that humans use to get more of what they want. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that over the years technological progress has made a wide variety of goods—from food to music—less scarce and more abundant.

Today in the economy, a few trends in particular are having a big impact:

  • Goods are being digitized. Example. Mp3s have digitized music.
  • Services are being automated. Example: Self driving cars will automate driving.
  • Processes are being disintermediated (cutting out the middle man). Example: The web has made travel agencies unnecessary.
  • Markets are being globalized, allowing superstars to crowd out competitors. Example: MOOCS enable a few top-tier professors to lecture to world-sized classrooms.

All of which are part of the same bigger trend: technology is making all manner of goods and services—music, driving, travel planning, education—less scarce, more abundant, and therefore lower price in the marketplace.

It should be acknowledged that abundance in one area often gives rise to new scarcities in another. An abundance of fatty foods gives rise to a scarcity of healthy choices. An abundance of entertainment options gives rise to a scarcity of time to enjoy them all.

That being said, I still believe we are making progress towards a more abundant world. I think it would be wrong to suggest we are just treading water. Like a mathematical limit that approaches zero but never quite gets there, we are getting incrementally closer to the post-scarcity ideal with each passing year, even if such an ideal is fundamentally unreachable. The result is that progressively fewer scarce commodities exist as technology moves forward.

CONCLUSION: Therefore technological progress reduces economic opportunity.

I believe this is the simplest way to understand what is happening. Our technology and our market system, once comfortable collaborators, are increasingly on a collision course. This is because these two institutions have fundamentally opposing goals. The goal of the marketplace is to find and exploit scarcity. The goal of technology is to find and eliminate scarcity. The second goal undermines the first.

If true, this conclusion would partially explain both the unemployment and the inequality we see. Unemployment could arise from the fact that it is increasingly difficult to find a scarce resource to exploit. More and more people find themselves without a scarce service to offer or a scarce good to sell.

Inequality arises from the fact that the few remaining scarce resources are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few. We can think of the economy as like a game of musical chairs where the chairs are scarce resources. As the chairs get removed, fewer and fewer people have a place to sit.

In the past it has been possible to find new chairs to replace those that have been taken away. It might still be possible to do so. But it increasingly feels like the game is being played faster and faster—that the chairs are being removed much quicker than we can replace them.

CATEGORIZING POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

Actually developing a detailed solution for this problem is a complex policy question that I do not hope to answer in this article. However, I think the above framing makes it possible to categorize broad types of solutions.

SOLUTION ONE: Freeze Progress

If technological progress is undermining our market system, one option is to try to stop technological progress. This could take the form of government bans on automation technologies that displace human workers.

However, this hardly seems like a good choice. Aside from the fact that technological progress is generally desirable and gives us lots of nice things we want, such an initiative is probably infeasible given that it would require muzzling scientists and inventors the world over. In addition, without avenues for continued growth, the market might stagnate or collapse.

SOLUTION TWO: Artificial Scarcity

If we are running out of scarce commodities for ordinary people to exploit, then one response is to create new scarcity by artificial means.

Our society creates artificial scarcity all the time. We create artificial scarcity when we grant an author exclusive copyright over a book he’s written or an engineer exclusive patent on an invention he’s developed. We create artificial scarcity with licenses that make it illegal to practice law, drive a cab, or sell alcohol without permission from the government.

It might be possible to greatly expand our current system of artificial scarcity and thereby create more economic opportunities for ordinary people. With regards to the musical chairs analogy mentioned above, you might view this as one way of creating more places for people to sit. Less favorably, you might look upon this solution as counterproductive: essentially encouraging people to put air in bags and charge each other to breathe.

One possible artificial scarcity scheme is to treat all data like property. Ordinarily, data is not scarce. Just as their is no limit to the number of times you can tell a joke, there is no limit to the number of times you can use a piece of data. However, in the future it might be possible to turn every idea, photo, or bit of text you generate into an artificially scarce commodity to be monetized. Enforcing such a system would require either a universal operating system or an overarching surveillance system to strictly monitor and regulate all instances of copying.

I view this solution as less extreme than solution one, but still counterproductive to technological progress. A growing body of evidence suggests that artificial scarcity in the form of intellectual property hinders rather than helps innovation. In addition, by creating artificial scarcity and erecting walls around various goods, we are working at cross purposes to what one might consider the primary goal of technology: to have more access to the things we want.

Still this is a solution which might gain some traction since it could be seen as one way to empower ordinary people. At the same time, elites might like this system because it would afford them numerous levers of control in the form of legal bureaucracy. However even with broad support, it is questionable whether a full-fledged artificial scarcity regime would actually be enforceable. History suggests that decentralized technologies are hard to contain. Our failed wars on drugs and piracy are prime examples.

SOLUTION THREE: New Platforms

There are some commodities that will always remain scarce. These include intangible goods such as authenticity, status, good will, and belonging. Is it possible to carve up these remaining scarce resources in such a way that we can continue to create economic opportunities for ordinary people?

For example, could we have an attention market that allows broad participation? Right now the attention market is dominated by a few advertising middle men like Google. Perhaps with further disintermediation, we could all become our own localized advertising platforms—the digital equivalent of wearing your friend’s band t-shirt and getting paid for it. Alternately the advertising giants might find it worth their while to start paying users for their continued attention/loyalty. These are just a couple (not very imaginative) ideas.

(In Race Against the Machine, McAfee and Brynjolfsson discuss how “new platforms leverage technology to create marketplaces that address the employment crisis by bringing together machines and human skills in new and unexpected ways.”)

In addition, there are bound to be temporary pockets of human ability that cannot yet be duplicated by machines and are therefore still scarce. Although these pockets will shrink and vanish with time, if we can find and exploit them quickly enough via some sort of crowd-sourcing scheme we might be able to ease unemployment in the short term.

Effectively monetizing the remaining scarce resources may require the creation of new economic platforms, along the lines of current platforms like Kickstarter, Flattr, HumbleBundle, and Mechanical Turk, but on a much larger scale. We can think of these platforms as being like “apps” that run on top of the market “operating system.” They do not rely on artificial scarcity; instead they find novel ways to facilitate the exchange of existing scarce resources.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether it is possible to develop a platform or platforms that can actually come close to replacing more traditional forms of employment. I think there is great reason to be skeptical such an outcome is possible. However, we cannot entirely rule it out. This solution is highly desirable because it would cause the least disruption to our current system.

SOLUTION FOUR: Expanded Welfare

(An expanded social safety net could take the form of a universal basic income. In his essay Robotic Freedom, Marshall Brain asks “What if we, as a society, simply give consumers money to spend in the economy?”)

If ordinary people are being crowded out of the market, then one solution is to reduce our dependence on the market as a means of providing for people. We already have a variety of social safety nets that seek to accomplish exactly this goal. So we might extend these safety nets to ensure that people who are no longer economically viable still have access to food, housing, and essential services. This could get expensive, but advanced technologies might help make up the difference by lowering cost of living.

This solution would not require getting rid of the market entirely. Under such a scenario, the market could continue to do the important job of distributing those commodities which still remain scarce. However, over time fewer and fewer people might be active market participants. This could be a smooth transition or a disastrous one, depending on how things play out. To prevent market collapse and maintain the cycle of consumer spending we may need to ensure that people not only have money, but continue to routinely purchase products from the marketplace. Like shaking any addiction, weaning ourselves off the market could be a slow and painful process.

SOLUTION FIVE: Automation Socialism

(Futurist Jacques Fresco has long advocated abandoning money and markets in favor of what he calls a “resource based economy.”)

We could decide that since the market is no longer working well with our technology, we ought to just get rid of the market system entirely. A central government body would then have to take over the distribution of resources. Ideally wealth would be shared equally amongst all people.

Obviously a socialist system would have many detractors. However, some of the traditional problems of socialism—lack of motivation on the part of workers, inefficiency of central planning—could perhaps be mitigated through aggressive use of new automation technologies. It would be incumbent upon the government to aggressively invest in the sorts of technological breakthroughs that would make a fully automated society feasible.

In a best case scenario, automation socialism could speed us on the way towards a utopian society. In a worst case scenario, automation socialism could lead to tyranny and stagnation.

CONCLUSION

The above solutions can be placed on a loose spectrum that runs from those which prioritize the market over technology (freeze progress) to those which prioritize technology over the market (automation socialism). My personal opinion is that the best path is somewhere in the middle, utilizing a combination of artificial scarcity, new platforms, and expanded welfare.

Specifically, I favor new platforms if they can be made to work. Barring that, I would vastly prefer to move in the direction of expanded welfare rather than artificial scarcity. My intuition is that scarce resources are best handled by markets, care of people is best left to governments, and abundance is best left unfettered by artificial scarcity.

What do you think?

The Intensifying Battle Over Public Goods vs. Club Goods

I believe there is a growing battle between those who would like to see many goods become public, and those who would like to keep them locked up. I think this battle will only intensify in the coming years as technology continues to accelerate. To explain what I mean, I’d like to go over a few quick terms from economics.

Economists often classify goods according to two major criteria: how rivalrous they are, and how excludable they are.

A good is rivalrous when consumption by one person excludes simultaneous consumption by another person. An example is a painting. If I have an original painting in my house, you cannot also have that same painting in your house.

In contrast, a non-rivalrous good is a good that multiple people can use simultaneously. An example is a recipe. If I cook using a particular recipe, that in no way prohibits you from using that same recipe in your own kitchen.

A good is excludable if it is possible to prevent people from accessing the good unless certain conditions have been met (such as payment). Again, an original painting is a convenient example. If I want to exclude you from accessing my painting, I can just keep it locked up in my private studio until someone pays me what I consider an appropriate amount.

In contrast, a non-excludable good cannot easily be withheld from other people. A classic example of a non-excludable good is a lighthouse. Any ship within sight of a lighthouse can benefit from the lighthouse’s presence. It is not easy to include some ships and exclude others.

Why does all this matter? Because I think one of the recent effects of technology has been that it is taking many types of goods and doing this with them:

The first example we are all familiar with is music. Music used to come in the form of rivalrous, excludable goods like CDs. But once music made the transition to digital form, it became both non-rivalrous, and non-excludable. Digital music is non-rivalrous because if I copy a song from my friend, neither of us has to give up anything. We now both have equal access to the same song. Likewise, digital music is non-excludable, because its distribution is very hard to control.

Non-rivalrous, non-excludable goods are called public goods. One might argue that these are the best kinds of goods since we can all enjoy them with equal opportunity and without competing with each other. Examples of other public goods include nice things like fresh air, knowledge, and national defense.

And yet, somewhat understandably, the response from the music industry (and other similarly affected industries) has been to try to do this:

In other words, affected industries have made an effort to take public goods and make them excludable. They typically strive to accomplish this using a combination of intellectual property law and digital rights management.

Goods which are excludable and yet non-rivalrous are sometimes called club goods. Club goods include golf courses, movie theaters, and cable television.

The act of turning a public good into a club good is not always easy, as the music industry has found out. There has been a great deal of natural resistance to the idea of taking something which could be publicly available, and instead locking it up so that it can only be accessed by members of a private club. And this is where the battle breaks out.

Now, as long as this only applies to a few goods like music, one might ask “Who cares?” The answer is that as technology progresses we are going to see a lot more goods get moved into the lower right corner of this chart. And consequently a lot more businesses are going to fight to move those goods back into the lower left.

For example, if household 3D printers become widely adopted, we are going to see a lot of physical objects like tools move into the lower right corner. Or imagine: if the new Watson software ends up being runnable on smart phones some day, we could see even a normally expensive good like medical diagnosis move into the lower right.

Now step back and ask yourself: do you want a critical good like medical diagnosis, something we all need, to be treated more like fresh air, or like a golf course? Which is the world you’d rather live in? One where useful goods are ubiquitous and free for all, or locked up and under elite control?

Already today we have the potential to make all of the world’s books free for everyone on the planet. Google already has the infrastructure lined up to accomplish this. And yet they are prohibited from doing so. Why? Because of the demands of a few people in the publishing industry. If enlightened aliens came to visit us, do you think they would believe we are making the correct choice in this matter?

Traditional economic theory argues that the market will under provide public goods; therefore these goods need government intervention (i.e. intellectual property) to encourage their production. As with technological unemployment, I believe this is another area where conventional economic theory has simply failed to keep up with technological change. Computers are dramatically lowering the cost of creating many goods, and as such, the additional help provided by government is less necessary. The wealth of free, useful content on the internet, most of it produced by complete amateurs, is testament to this reality.

True, there are some public goods like street lights which still require government funding or else they would not exist. But we are seeing a vast explosion of new public goods—digital music, digital video, blogs, free apps—that I do not believe are susceptible to this traditional argument. People are naturally inclined to create, and once they have powerful computers, they seem to do so, with or without a government-backed monopoly.

My biggest fear is we will continue losing key battles in the war between public goods and club goods, and that the stakes will only increase as time goes on. As I pointed out earlier, music is one thing, but as physical objects and important services begin to move into the category of digital non-rivalrous goods, this battle will only become more heated and more critical. I sincerely hope that various industries will fail in their mission to turn public goods back into club goods. While this might help profits in the short term, in the end we will all be worse off.

Benjamin Abbott: What We Can Learn From the 1930s Technocracy Movement

In a recent piece for IEET, Benjamin Abott argues that while the 1930s technocracy movement provides an instructive critique of capitalism, it also reveals that technological progress alone is not enough to put an end to scarcity.

“If wielded prudently, Technocracy’s extreme reduction of human beings to machines with energy inputs and outputs constitutes a fruitful thought experiment. As sketched above, the ideal here obliterates assertions of capitalism’s efficiency. At best proponents can retreat to the stance that capitalism is least bad among a lineup of stinkers…

“…the Technocracy movement indicates that we need not wait for nanofactories and artificial general intelligence to terminate human want. The technical ability to create abundance of the basics has been around since the dawn of the twentieth century if not much earlier. Building a post-scarcity society requires political struggle and isn’t likely to happen on its own. There’s no guarantee that increasingly potent productive technology will lead to distributed plenty. As the current intellectual property rights regime demonstrates, governments can manufacture scarcity through coercion.”

The full article is here.

Four Different Types of Scarcity That Keep Us From Getting What We Want

Scarcity is an important concept. Not only is it the source of most human suffering, it is currently the engine of our entire economic system. We strive to overcome it, and yet paradoxically we have grown dependent on it.

On this site I have often talked about the difference between real and artificial scarcity. However, I have long suspected that this paradigm was missing something and a more complete model was needed. Drawing inspiration from Larry Lessig’s classic book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, I came up with the idea that scarcity has four principle causes:

Physical Laws – scarcity caused by the physical world (e.g. land, water, oil)

Positionality – scarcity caused by social competition for positional goods, or goods whose value arises from how much one has in relation to everyone else (e.g. original works of art, membership in exclusive groups, fame)

Architecture – scarcity caused by engineering or design (e.g. digital rights management, the number of seats on a plane)

Law – scarcity caused by government regulation (e.g. intellectual property, occupational licensing)

All four of these forces acting together limit the supply of available resources and thereby create scarcity in our lives.

Let’s say I want to attend a concert premiere, but tickets are extremely expensive and hard to come by. These concert tickets are scarce. This is because:

  • Physical limits on land resources and acoustics science place an upper limit on the size of the theater.
  • Positionality places a value on being among the first group of people to see this concert. By definition only one group of people can be the first, making a position in this group irreducibly scarce.
  • The architecture of the theater dictates the number of seats available. In addition, walls and locked doors surrounding the theater make it difficult for me to sneak in without paying.
  • Law means that even if I do successfully sneak inside I could be thrown out or even arrested.

Now imagine this is a virtual concert. We have just eliminated the issue of physical laws. Since physical constraints are no longer a concern, we now have the potential to make the theater as big as we want and everyone can have a front row seat.

However, this fact alone tells us very little about what will happen to the scarcity of the ticket. There is no reason why even a virtual concert ticket can’t still be scarce because of some combination of positionality, architecture, and law.

Thus when we say technology alleviates scarcity, primarily we are talking about the scarcity of physical laws. To the extent that technology trends are fairly predictable, so is the fate of this kind of scarcity.

The other three causes of scarcity are much more volatile. Positionality, architecture, and law are all culturally and not technologically determined. While it seems somewhat reasonable to guess that the scarcity of physical laws is on its way out (albeit never fast enough), the other three forms of scarcity may be here to stay.

A Used Market in eBooks Sounds Silly But Is It Actually A Move in the Right Direction?

A recent article on Singularity Hub explains Amazon’s plans to create a market for pre-owned eBooks:

“The US Patent and Trademark Office recently awarded Amazon a patent titled Secondary Market For Digital Objects, wherein the mega-retailer describes a marketplace for the transfer of used digital objects, whether ebooks, audio, images, video, and even apps. As stated in the patent, “transfers may include a sale, a rental, a gift, a loan, a trade, etc. Amazon already has a thriving marketplace for used physical objects, but this signals the first time a major online retailer intends to introduce a means to resell digital objects.”

My first response was to laugh. This seems like a particularly bizarre example of artificial scarcity. Obviously digital products do not degrade and can be copied endlessly without any loss in quality. So the idea of creating a secondary market feels like a particularly tortured attempt to drag limitations from the physical world into the digital world unnecessarily.

However, upon reflection I realized this may actually be a good thing. After all, the worse form of artificial scarcity is what we have today. The current system of eBooks, whereby they are tied to your single Amazon account and are not transferrable or re-sellable at all, is far more limiting. By allowing the reselling of eBooks, Amazon is actually making books less scarce, and giving consumers more freedom to control their own digital objects. In addition, this version of artificial scarcity at least has the potential to create new business models and ways for ordinary people to make money.

So is it silly? Yes. But is it also an incremental move in the right direction? Very possibly.

Can Capitalism Continue? (Part 5) “Creating Scarcity by Limiting Access”

This is part five of a multi-part series that seeks to answer the question: what resources will remain scarce in the future? Since economic activity is based on scarcity, by answering this question, we may be able to locate future areas of employment, if they exist…

SCARCE RESOURCE #4: ACCESS

In the previous article, I articulated some of the challenges involved in monetizing digital content. Technology has the capacity to create an abundance of all things digital. Thus, content creators must contend not only with piracy but with knock-offs and free competitors.

But even though technology enables an abundance of copies, people will not necessarily have access to those copies. If you can find a way to lock up your content, then you can charge people to access it.

This is the concept of artificial scarcity. It’s easy to imagine situations where the content in question doesn’t have to be scarce, but the creators have chosen to make it scarce in order to preserve the value. A good example is an eBook. Currently the technology exists for all of the world’s books to be scanned and available for free on the web. However, due to the demands of authors and the publishing industry, books today remain artificially scarce. This enables traditional business models (and associated jobs) to survive (at least for a bit longer than they otherwise would).

Is artificial scarcity a good idea? That is highly debatable. Making things artificially scarce seems somewhat counterproductive from the standpoint of promoting human knowledge and wellbeing. Also artificial scarcity causes a great deal of collateral damage. Our broken intellectual property system is a prime example. Exploring all of the problems with intellectual property is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that the list of gripes one might have is rather long: stifling of innovation, distorting of markets, privileging of wealthy elites who can afford to hire lawyers, and so on.

Perhaps a more relevant question to our discussion is whether artificial scarcity is even feasible over the long term. After all, content companies have been largely unsuccessful at stopping piracy. Both the legal system and digital rights management have failed to control the spread of illicit copies.

However, content creators have (slowly) begun to figure out that if they architect a friendly platform for legal content delivery and keep prices reasonable, people will still pay for digital content in relatively large numbers. The trick appears to be convenience. When the legal option is more convenient than the illegal option, many people choose the path of least resistance.

In addition, we cannot dismiss the possibility that a successful crackdown will still occur. Content creators have been putting a great deal of pressure on governments and platform developers to do something about unlicensed copying. This pressure is only going to increase as more industries become vulnerable to piracy. Who’s to say that the forces favoring artificial scarcity and IP maximalist policies won’t eventually get their way?

And so we arrive at a plausible (if perhaps undesirable) scenario for how capitalism and traditional jobs might continue. If capitalism needs scarcity to survive, then perhaps we can just continue to create that scarcity artificially. It doesn’t seem that far-fetched to imagine a future where many people are gainfully employed in the design and sale of artificially scarce information products. If anything, current social norms might lean in that direction.

In addition there are business models based around selling “access” that may be viable whether or not strong mechanisms of artificial scarcity are even in place. Up until now, I have focused on access to content. What about access to spaces (both physical and virtual)?

Let’s say instead of selling access to static information (which can be copied and distributed against my will), I am selling access to a dynamic community (which is constantly evolving and therefore cannot be easily duplicated). An easy contemporary example would be a pay dating site. You can’t pirate a dating site the same way you can pirate a television show. And yet the business model in both cases is somewhat similar, in that they both revolve around the sale of access to information. It’s possible we will see an ever increasing shift towards community-based information products. Massive multiplayer games. Collaborative storytelling projects. Virtual playgrounds. It would be impossible to list all the possibilities here.

In conclusion, as we consider the future of the economy it’s important to remember that creating new scarcities could be as easy as just deciding to lock certain things up.

Next Up: Positive Feelings

An Internet Without Gatekeepers

I’ve often wondered about the possibility of creating an alternate internet, one that is truly decentralized and arises from individuals forming short-range connections with each other. This post by Ian Pearson seems to be calling for just such a network:

“So I tend to lean towards wanting a new kind of web, one that governments can’t control so easily, where freedom of speech and freedom of thought can be maintained. If a full surveillance world prevents us from speaking, then we need to make another platform on which we can speak freely.

“I’ve written a number of times about jewellery nets and sponge nets. These could do the trick. With very short-range communication directly between tiny devices that each of us wears just like jewellery, a sponge network can be built that provides zillions of paths from A to B, hopping from device to device till it gets there.

“A sponge net doesn’t need any ISPs. (In fact, I’ve never really understood why the web needs them either, it is perfectly possible to build a web without them). Each device is autonomous. Each shares data with its immediate neighbours, and route dynamically according to a range of algorithms available to them. They can route data from A to B so that every packet goes by a different route of need be. Even without any encryption, only A and B can see the full message. The various databases that the web uses to tell packets where their destination is can be distributed. There is a performance price, but so what?”

I left in the part at the end about performance price, because despite Pearson’s dismissiveness, that might actually be a fairly big concern. If I understand correctly, a network like this would need a fair amount of public adoption to be successful, and if adoption means that people have to put up with slower speed, that could be a big obstacle.

That aside, I like the idea a lot, and I have no doubt that given improvements in technology over the next ten years, such performance issues will become less of a concern. Certainly the possibility of networks that don’t pass through ISPs is one more reason why artificial scarcity can never work.

Pirate Bay Plans to Evade the Authorities Using Hovering Server Drones

File this under more-reasons-while-artificial scarcity-can-never-work:

“With the development of GPS controlled drones, far-reaching cheap radio equipment and tiny new computers like the Raspberry Pi, we’re going to experiment with sending out some small drones that will float some kilometers up in the air. This way our machines will have to be shut down with aeroplanes in order to shut down the system. A real act of war.”

Read the full article.