Can Capitalism Continue? (Part 2) “Authenticity Can’t Just Be Automated Away”

This is part two 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 #1: AUTHENTICITY

Authenticity is one of the few resources that can by definition never be digitized or automated away. Authenticity explains why an original painting is more valuable than even the most perfect copy. Or why the exact guitar that Jimi Hendrix used is more valuable than an equivalent (and possibly better condition) model.

Authenticity also plays a background role in why some people prefer vinyl records to mp3s or film cameras to the cheaper digital cameras that are now built into just about everything. Granted, there are cases where the analogue versions still have an advantage in quality. But as the digital versions continue to improve, such differences will take a backseat to authenticity.

In the future, authenticity may also place a premium on goods which are human-made (rather than manufactured using automated processes), or experiences in real space (rather than virtual space). One could imagine this becoming a new form of conspicuous consumption for people with disposable income. “Last night, we went to this really nice restaurant where the food was actually made by people the old fashioned way!” Or: “We paid extra to attend the concert in meat space. I mean, we were like really there, man.”

In the neighborhood of Los Angeles where I live, quite a lot of the businesses appear to be trafficking in authenticity at least a little bit. There are stores which sell vinyl records, vintage clothing, and antique furniture. There are art galleries and music venues. There are restaurants that go out of their way to advertise their food as “organic” or “natural.” Do these trends represent a glimpse of the future, or are they just a momentary byproduct of the current technological moment? I suspect it is more the latter. All of these businesses offer utility beyond just authenticity. I doubt many people would still seek out “original” vinyl records, for example, if they could just as easily print those same albums at home. But I could be wrong.

Authenticity is a more resilient source of value among committed collectors, for whom the original is paramount. One wonders if we could see the rise of a new “collector culture.” Authenticity-based businesses would do well to foster such a culture, and thereby stoke ongoing demand for their products even in the face of a proliferation of perfect copies.

Of course, the culture could also shift in the opposite direction. We could stop caring about authenticity altogether. After all, if copies are just as as good as the originals, what’s the point? This outcome seems perhaps more likely. Another possibility that would undermine the value of authenticity is if copies become so widespread and indistinguishable from the originals that authenticity can no longer reliably be verified.

In conclusion, if I had to guess, I suspect authenticity will continue to be a significant but largely fringe part of the future economy. However, as someone who doesn’t personally care much about authenticity, I am perhaps biased. I may also be underestimating the power of a little creative marketing.

Next Up: “Attention”

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