Let’s imagine that current trends continue, and technology continues to drive down the price of various goods. We could eventually end up with a world in which artificial intelligence equals human beings in most tasks, household devices can manufacture physical goods with atomic precision, transportation is fully automated, solar energy is plentiful, and high volumes of useful data freely flow from person to person.
It might take a while to reach this point, but that doesn’t mean such an outcome isn’t worth thinking about. Articulating our eventual destination is important since there are likely to be economic effects of getting closer to such a destination long before we actually get there.
In such a scenario, what are the goods that remain scarce and might therefore continue to drive a human-based economy?
I have attempted to assemble a list. I’m sure my list is not complete. But I think trying to make such a list is important, because these are the goods we will have to build upon if we want to keep our current economy going. If proponents of the luddite fallacy are correct, and technology always creates as many jobs as it destroys, then these are potential areas of job growth.
SCARCITIES OF TIME
(1) Attention — Attention is irreducibly scarce. Attention is constrained by the physical property of time, as well as by the limits of the human mind. People only have so much attention to give, and paying attention to one thing most likely means not paying attention to another. Attention is most often monetized through advertising. In a future full of attractive options for spending your time, attention may actually increase, rather than decrease in price.
(2) Convenience — Any good that can save you even small amounts of time may become a commodity. For example, imagine today’s consumer who, despite knowing how to pirate a TV show, chooses instead to buy a Netflix subscription because this option is more convenient.
(3) First Release — Even if you produce a digital good that is susceptible to unlicensed copying, you still retain control over the initial release. In certain cases customers will pay to have a product even a few hours before everyone else.
(4) Novel Realtime Experiences — It has always been true that a good restaurant doesn’t just sell food, it sells an experience. In wealthier neighborhoods, we increasingly see the balance of businesses shifting in favor of experiences rather than just consumer products. For example, the types of retail stores that are surviving today are those that offer some extra experiential factor, such as a bookstore that sells coffee, hosts events, and provide useful recommendations to shoppers. On the pure experience side, we see classic businesses like theme parks and bowling alleys, but there is room for a lot of growth in this area. Even in the wake of full immersion virtual reality, there will still be a market for novel and realtime (as opposed to pre-recorded) virtual experiences.
(5) Originals — What separates an original work of art from a perfect replica, or Jimi Hendrix’s guitar from another similar model? The difference is the history of the object in question. Marketing the history of a particular good is a natural antidote to a future overrun by a sea of high fidelity copies. No matter how many times a book is produced there can only ever be one “first” printing.
(6) Potential — In some cases it is possible to monetize potential products that don’t yet exist. 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.” When you fund a Kickstarter, you are buying a potential creation rather than a finished product. This business model allows creators to bypass the issue of piracy. After all, people can’t pirate something that hasn’t been made yet, or design a knock-off of something that is still locked up in someone’s mind.
SCARCITIES OF SPACE
(7) Land — Space on planet Earth (or on other newly habitable planets) will continue to be scarce for the foreseeable future. Thanks to new automated construction technologies, housing prices may fall, but not necessarily the price of the underlying land.
SCARCITIES OF MATTER
(8) Computation — As with today, goods and services will continue to be subsumed by computers. This will obviously save you money on other goods, but you will still need to purchase the computers themselves. Computation will be cheap, but probably not free, and chances are you will always be able to use more of it than you currently have.
(9) Raw Materials — Even with advanced molecular manufacturing, you are still going to have to feed some sort of raw materials into your new-fangled nano-assembler device.
SCARCITIES OF HUMAN INTERACTION
(10) Empathy — Robots will have convincing human likenesses but will probably not share the human experience (unless for some reason they are raised from birth by human families). And there is no way to know if a robot is actually conscious in any meaningful sense. For this and other reasons, people may prefer to visit a human therapist over a robot therapist, or enjoy works of art made by humans over those made by robots.
(11) Goodwill — It is not only convenience which makes people forego piracy. Many people, when given the choice, will willingly pay for products they could otherwise get for free, as demonstrated by the numerous successful pay-what-you-want schemes. In these cases, people are purchasing a “positive feeling” of goodwill that comes from supporting what they believe to be a worthwhile endeavor. Sites like HumbleBundle play up this goodwill aspect by incorporating charitable donations into the sale.
(12) Belonging — People wish to form associations with other people, and this desire can be monetized in a variety of ways. This is a future proof commodity since it is not clear how technology can automate the feeling of belonging (short of literally reprogramming people’s brains). Belonging can be monetized directly, as in the case of a club membership, but it can also be an intangible component of other sales. For example, successful Kickstarter campaigns often foster a feeling of “being involved.”
(13) Privacy — Privacy, like attention, is a commodity that will probably only become more scarce and thus more valuable in the future. Preserving your privacy in a surveillance heavy future will be increasingly difficult, and businesses that can protect you from spying eyes (or who claim to have that ability) may become very profitable.
(14) Status — Humans often measure themselves in relation to other people. This psychological trait creates potentially endless new scarcities. Status can be attached to almost any good, increasing its value. Status signifiers can also be created out of thin air (as in the case of a knighthood, an honorary degree, or a superfluous producing credit).
So the question one should ask while looking at this list is: do you see the seeds of a new labor force? Or do you just see a bunch of fringe commodities that will never give rise to the level of employment we’ve grown used to?