Bauwens: “Will Capitalism Survive Abundance?”

This article written by Michel Bauwens, a founder of the P2P Foundation, asks “will capitalism survive ‘value abundance’? Open-source software, shared innovation and crowd-sourced manufacturing threaten capitalism as we know it.”

What happens if more and more of our time goes into producing use value – a fraction of which creates monetary value – but there is not a substantial return of income to the use value producers?

…Not only is the world faced with a global resource crisis, it is also facing a crisis of intensive development, because value creators are increasingly income-less. The knowledge economy turns out to be a pipe dream, because what is abundant cannot sustain market dynamics.

Thus we have an exponential rise in the creation of use value, but only a linear increase in the creation of monetary value. If workers have less and less income, who can buy the commodities that are offered for sale by companies? This, in a nutshell, is the crisis of value that we are facing as humanity…

Virtual Reality Has Already Been Here For a While

Nintendo's disastrous Virtual Boy had the silly glasses but was arguably way less "virtually real" than even its immediate contemporaries.

Virtual reality is often lumped in with jetpacks as an example of an anticipated technology that did not arrive when scheduled. I’ve always found this puzzling, because in my opinion we have VR and it keeps getting better. If you’re looking for VR, look no further than the ongoing flow of cutting-edge mainstream video games that continue to improve in terms of audio, visuals, tactile feedback, gestural interfaces, and social interactivity. But I suppose for many people it won’t be considered VR until silly glasses get involved, even though ultimately silly glasses may not even be the ideal way to achieve full immersion. I once heard it argued that even phone conversations can be thought of as primitive VR, and I think this perspective is essentially right. Progress in the field of VR has been alive and well for decades.

“Technology is a resource-liberating mechanism”

My copy of Peter Diamandis’s new book Abundance arrived in the mail yesterday. I’m only two chapters in, but I’m quite fond of this elegant description of the role of technology:

“Technology is a resource-liberating mechanism. It can make the once scarce the now abundant…

“When seen through the lens of technology, few resources are truly scarce; they’re mainly inaccessible.”

This is exactly consistent with the major premise of this site, which is that technology reduces scarcity over time.

All Future Roads Lead to Problems With Intellectual Property

Technology is advancing on multiple fronts. Here’s a partial list of fields:

  1. biotechnology
  2. additive manufacturing (3D printing)
  3. nanotechnology
  4. virtual reality
  5. artificial intelligence

Once significantly advanced, any one of these technologies has the potential to fundamentally blur the line between ideas and physical objects. All of these technologies strive to take reality as we know it and “digitize” it into malleable information that we can then control.

Biotechnology seeks to make life itself programmable. Additive manufacturing and nanotechnology seek to treat physical goods like software. Virtual reality seeks to digitize full-fledged experiences. Artificial intelligence seeks to scan the measurable world and use all of this data to build reusable decision-making models.

So now let’s consider intellectual property. Fundamentally intellectual property is about assigning exclusive ownership over ideas. When we consider that increasingly we are using our technology to transform the whole world into “ideas”, one starts to see where the conflict arises. Few of us, I think, would want to live in a world where all of reality is subdivided, apportioned, and proprietarily owned (as if that sort of future would even be feasible).

Here is a short round up of links symptomatic of this underlying collision course between technology and intellectual property.

Report Claims that Robots Create Jobs

At this site a central question of: “Is technology destroying jobs faster than it creates them,” motivates a fair amount of the discussion. Here’s a political article that links to a report that comes to the negative conclusion, at least considering robotics and manufacturing. I’d like to hear some push-back on this, if any can be made, from the data side (I’m not really interested in the politics either way). What do you think? Are they missing something important?

Theory of Four Currencies: Money-dollars, Time-dollars, Pain-in-the-butt-dollars, Integrity-dollars

Lars Doucet of Gamasutra has a nice post up in which he uses a simple theory of four currencies to explain the economics of piracy:

“I propose the following:

  1. ($M) Money-dollars
  2. ($T) Time-dollars
  3. ($P) Pain-in-the-butt-dollars
  4. ($I) Integrity-dollars

“Whether a player buys or pirates a game depends on how much each service – not product! - “costs” in terms of these four currencies, as well as how much the player values each one…

“Additionally, there’s some strong interplay between the various currencies – a high $M cost makes the player feel entitled to a low $P cost – if I’m paying out the nose, I expect white-glove, full service VIP treatment.  If Im treated like a criminal instead, the $I cost of piracy just plummeted.  I’ll give my time and pain-in-the-butt dollars to the competition, thank you very much.”

Read the full article.

Kickstarter, Kickstumbler, and Future-Proof Economic Platforms

In a recent post, I wrote about how Kickstarter might represent the beginning of an important new economic paradigm. Rather than selling a product directly, Kickstarter projects sell a promise to create a product in the future.

This is important because in a digitally abundant economy, monetizing individual copies can be difficult. As I explained:

“Once you release a product digitally, the genie is out of the bottle. You can’t control the sea of inevitable copies. You can still monetize the product after the fact, but not using traditional coercive means. You can only provide people a convenient way to support you and hope they will do so.

“So another strategy is to time shift the digital sale to before the product release. This is essentially what Kickstarter does. The creator has a promising idea in his head that the fans want. The creator then ransoms the idea, saying “If you want to see this idea come to fruition, you will need to pay up.”

So essentially when you fund a Kickstarter you are buying the existence of something that wouldn’t otherwise exist. On top of that you are buying karma, a good feeling that comes from supporting something or someone that you care about.

But a new site called Kickstumbler raises a third consideration:

“At some point, Kickstarter became more than just a way to fund art, music and other creative endeavors. It became entertaining content in itself. A new website called KickStumbler plays up the entertainment value of Kickstarter projects by applying a StumbleUpon concept to them. Users can hit a button on the site’s toolbar in order to see a new random project.” (link)

The idea of Kickstarter campaigns as entertainment has several interesting economic implications. For one, if enough people are interested in browsing Kickstarter campaigns, these people represent a monetizable audience who can be sold to advertisers. Second, and perhaps more importantly, members of this audience may very well turn from passive browsers into Kickstarter “shoppers.” Kickstarter could in some senses become a virtual store that helps you find projects worth paying for.

Put another way: Let’s say as a consumer you have some extra time and money to spend. By using a service like Kickstumbler you get essentially three products in one:

  1. Entertainment, in the form of project stories and campaign videos
  2. Opportunities to bring about the existence of a new product by purchasing a promise to create
  3. Opportunities to feel good about yourself by buying karma

Keep in mind that Kickstarter is just a particular brand. The same sorts of services could just as easily be provided by any number of other companies. What is interesting here is the business model. As technology marches forward, it is increasingly clear that our future economy cannot and will not be based upon either routine labor, or the discrete sale of mass market products. Kickstarter is an example of what looks like a reasonably future-proof ecosystem. One cannot easily imagine a robot formulating a compelling Kickstarter campaign. In many ways the requirement of humanness is baked into the system itself. Moreover, Kickstarter cannot be undermined by piracy or digital abundance for the reasons mentioned above. You cannot copy a product that doesn’t exist yet.

In my critique of the book Race Against the Machine, I challenged the authors on their idea that “new platforms” will create new economic opportunities for ordinary people. I felt that their listed examples—Mechanical Turk, Taskrabbit, eBay, Threadless—did not seem likely to offer a way out of our present and future unemployment concerns. However, I did not rule out the possibility that such platforms could exist.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Kickstarter or something similar is necessarily the answer we need, it is certainly a fairly compelling example of a platform that is both resistant to automation, and potentially inclusive of a wide swath of people.

Neuroscientist-turned-CEO Adrian Hon’s Take on Employment

Here’s a solid, well argued, somewhat conservative (20 years for driverless cars? Try 5.) take on the employment situation that goes almost far enough for me. And Adrian’s pleasing Britishisms make it all the more entertaining to read.

The march of technological progress doesn’t create jobs: it destroys them

And if you aren’t reading his blog, you should be.

1972 Film “Future Shock” Narrated By Orson Welles

This documentary film is based upon the Alvin Toffler book of the same name. As you’d expect from a work of futurism made in the early seventies, there are some dated sounding predictions in here. But on a whole, if you’re willing to look past some of the sillier details, the central thesis holds up fairly well. I have experienced lots of little “future shock” moments in the past decade, from the first time I saw a camera perform facial recognition, to the first time I saw Sebastian Thrun describe autonomous cars at the Singularity Summit in 2006. Since I’ve started following tech news more aggressively, it seems like almost every week there is some crazy new technology coming down the pipeline, most recently the announcement that we might have augmented reality glasses consumer-ready within a year. In fact, it seems like I can scarcely think of an idea before some company announces that the concept in my head is already well on its way to becoming reality. Would-be science fiction authors beware! In any event, I would be lying if I didn’t say that all these rapid-fire technological advances aren’t occasionally accompanied by a slight feeling of nausea, almost as if I’m on a ride that is going too fast. I would be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes I feel “future shocked.”

Are Augmented Reality Glasses Really Coming THIS YEAR?

This is just a rumor right now, and might not pan out, but if true this is a great example of how difficult it is to get out of the linear thinking trap. The smartphone has existed in some form since 2001 and didn’t get to the price and quality where it represented a worldwide market until 2007.

On this site we’ve spent a lot of time reading and projecting technology trends. We try to avoid tossing out ideas just because they seem radical. But I’m finding it hard to accept that the smartphone, which barely existed ten years ago and has driven growth in world computing for only 5 years, is about to be obsolete.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Google really introduces useful Android-powered smartglasses this year, and they really cost $250-600. Chances are these represent the 2001 Palm OS version of what augmented reality glasses will really be capable of. But can we expect it to take even the 6 years it took smartphones for them to catch up? First, since this is running Android, it’s not a new software stack, but instead a smaller hardware packaging. This makes it more like the shift from desktop to laptop computers; for the most part, the software is already there. Second, these shifts are trending shorter over time. It took nearly 4 decades to shift from mainframes to PCs, more than 2 decades to shift to laptops, and the mobile shift took 6 years. Perhaps we’ll see mature augmented reality glasses 3 years after introduction.

As hard as it is, I think we need to expect more changes like this, and we need to expect them to come even more rapidly. An 11-year window (let alone a 30-plus-year one) in which a particular type of computing product is the most advanced available may be something we never see again.