BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

When everything becomes nearly free ...

This book took one of the more unusual paths to get into my hands … it turns out that the author, somehow, ended up reading my Green Tech Chicago blog over on the Tribune's “Chicago Now” platform, and asked his office to send me a copy of his new book. The fact that the author is the global figure Jeremy Rifkin, just blows me away … and I'm thrilled that he thought enough of one of my posts to send out his latest book: The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism.

Now, I am pretty sure that, lacking this particular trajectory into my to-be-read piles, I would have been very unlikely to have obtained this title in my “free range” book shopping, as “economic theory” is not one of my favored genres … although this has the clear connection to much of my reading in that it concentrates a great deal on how the Internet has changed the world. This is a follow-up to his The Third Industrial Revolution, the broad strokes of which are presented here as the concept linking energy and communications to the various jumps in industrial/societal change … the first revolution coming via the development of steam power, paired with the printing press, the second being the development of the internal combustion engine (and the oil economy), combined with electronic communications (radio, TV, etc.), and the third, being the evolution of “renewable” energy (I'd prefer to think of neighborhood Thorium reactors, but the focus here is more in the wind/solar zone) combined with the global connectivity of the Internet (and the sub-titular "Internet of Things”).

The “story” here starts in the feudal times in Europe, where most people had a totally subsistence lifestyle, which, through the effects of the water-driven mill, eventually evolved to a market economy, which moved people off the land and into the cities, eventually developing into Capitalism and vertically-integrated models:
The solution {to new demands} was to bring production and distribution all together, in house, under centralized management. The vertically integrated business enterprise took off in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and became the dominant business model during the whole of the twentieth century.
To his credit, the author does note at one point that Soviet-style communism was no less vertical, just with different job descriptions at the various levels of management.

I don't think it's accidental that the printing press and broadcast media are used as the symbols of the first two Industrial Revolutions, as in the Third these are some of the first victims of the "zero marginal cost” reality. This has been a personal bête noire of mine, having been in the publishing biz at the dawn of the e-book phenomena. It was just back around 1999 (OK, for me that sounds like yesterday – no doubt “your mileage may vary” on that perception) when large colleges were spending the money to provide (relatively) high-speed internet services to their students ... once this was available, it was not long before “sharing” music (or “stealing” intellectual property, depending on which side of that chasm you resided) was a very common thing, with platforms such as Napster emerging to simplify the distribution. Whether or not it was “robbing the blind paperboy” or not, that distribution was an illustration of “zero marginal cost” ... if one person had a CD and could copy a song into an .mp3 file, potentially everybody who had an adequate connection (and back then “fast” was around 200kbps, and your cell phone now is about 25x as fast), could have that song for no cost. Needless to say, this created a generation which believed that all intellectual property should be “free” ... and it took quite a lot of legal ugliness to arrive at the current model of paid downloads!

Rifkin focuses a good deal on both 3D printing and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). The latter of these is fascinating, as it grew out of a standard university setting ... but has developed to the point where it is threatening to "burst the bubble" of traditional college education. He notes:
      The revolution began when a Stanford University professor, Sebastian Thrun, offered a “free” course on artificial intelligence (AI) online in 2011, one similar to the course he taught at the university. Around 200 students normally enrolled in Thurn's course, so he anticipated that only a few thousand would register. But by the time it commenced, 160,000 students from every country in the world – with the exception of North Korea – were sitting at their computers in the biggest classroom ever convened for a single course in all of history. “It absolutely blew my mind,” said Thrun. Twenty-three thousand of those students completed the course and graduated.
      Although thrilled that he was able to teach more students in one virtual course setting that he could reach in several lifetimes of teaching, Thrum was struck by the irony. While Stanford students were paying $50,000 or more per year to attend world-class courses like the ones he taught, the cost of making the course available to every other potential student in the world was nearly nothing.
An earlier book by the author is The End Of Work where he argued that as technolgy makes for more efficient production, the number of workers plummets. An example he gives here is:
In the United States, between 1982 and 2002, steel production rose from 75 million tons to 120 million tons, while the number of steel workers declined from 289,000 to 74,000.
Those are sobering numbers (unless one owns a steel mill, I suppose), with production nearly doubling, while the work force is at a quarter of its previous numbers. And, that is an example over a decade old, nearly predating the Web.

He goes on to paint a very dire picture for standard employment. Whole categories of jobs have disappeared, and the combination of “automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence” are threatening even classic white-collar gigs. Speaking personally, I've been out of (regular) work for SIX YEARS, and every year it gets closer to a world where even writers can be replaced ... there's even a program that will take the basic data of a sports event and write the news copy from that in a way that you'd never be able to tell there wasn't a human involved. And it goes almost everywhere ... one thing described here is a program for analyzing legal documents ahead of trials ... and “one lawyer can do the work of 500 lawyers, and with greater accuracy”. Scary stuff.
      We are in the midst of an epic change in the nature of work. The First Industrial Revolution ended slave and serf labor. The Second Industrial Revolution dramatically shrank agricultural and craft labor. The Third Industrial Revolution is sunsetting mass wage labor in the manufacturing and service industries and salaried professional labor in large parts of the knowledge sector.
What Rifkin foresees is a “Collaborative Commons” populated with “prosumers” (producer/consumers) ...
In a Collaborative Commons, sellers and buyers give way to prosumers, property rights make room for open-source sharing, ownership is less important than access, markets are superseded by networks, and the marginal cost of producing information, generating energy, manufacturing products, and teaching students is nearly zero. A central question arises: How is the new Internet of Things infrastructure that makes all of this possible going to be financed?
I have a more practical question: if there are no professional jobs, how do I pay my condo's assessment fees and put groceries in the fridge? I have to admit at about halfway through here I sort of got lost ... lots of stuff about traditional theories of “the commons” mixed up with material about environmental issues, and various energy issues (I take it that the author isn't a fan of reactors – even of the GenIV variety – as these don't end up even being mentioned that I could tell). The “solution” in the short term that he proposes is that there will be TONS of jobs in the building-out of “the Internet of Things”, but that's hardly a happy prospect if a “wordsmith” has to retrain to be a “wire twister”.

The last parts of the book seemed to me to be quite pie-in-the-sky (pretty much projecting from the vectors involved in a wide spectrum of new technologies and business models), and somewhat hard to “take seriously” as there's a GIGO factor here ... making a guess at something 20 years down the road based on the “trendy” thing of the past month is hardly a reliable course to take. He does project a “philosophical” evolution, however, which has a certain plausibility ... how “forager/hunter” societies exhibited “mythological consciousness”, the “great hydrolic civilizations” of 4,000-6,000 years ago developed into “theological consciousness”, in the nineteenth century, the convergence of coal-powered steam printing and the new coal-powered factory and rail-transport system gave rise to “ideological consciousness”, and in the twentieth century, the coming together of centralized electrification, oil, and automobile transport, and the rise of mass consumer society evolved “psychological consciousness” (living simultaneously in both an inner and outer world that continuously mediates the way we interact and carry on life), leading (possibly) in the new model to an “empathic consciousness”, or, in a massively connected world, a “biosphere consciousness” (unless, of course, the machines reach “the singularity” first - another concept I don't believe the author touches on).

He does, however, get into a lot of number shuffling over things like “carrying capacity” and various other similar grim scenarios, with warnings about climate issues and terror threats, but his closing points primarily deal with saying that we need to move past materialism and ownership of things. Having been in Marketing Communications (although only peripherally in the ad biz) my whole life in one form or another, I found the following “red flag” of particular interest:
      For the materialist, advertising becomes the powerful drug that feeds the addiction. Advertising preys on one's sense of inadequacy and loneliness. It promises that products and services will enhance a person's personality and identity and make him or her more appealing, attractive, and acceptable to others. The German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel defined the new materialist man and woman coming of age at the dawn of the capitalist ethos. He argued that beyond its utilitarian and material value, property is an expression of one's persona. It's by forcing one's will into objects that one projects his unique persona on the world and creates a presence among his fellow human beings. One's very personality, then, is present in all the objects one claims as one's own. Our property becomes indistinguishable from our personality. Everything that is mine enlarges my unique presence and sphere of influence and becomes the means by which others know me.
      Advertising plays off the idea that property is the measure of a human being and pushes products and services as essential to the creation of an individual's identity in the world. For much of the twentieth century, advertising pitched the idea that property is an extension of one's personality and made deep inroads in reorienting each successive generation to a materialist culture.
Needless to say, the author “is against it” when it comes to “materialist culture” and is, by extension, advocating for the sub-title's “eclipse of capitalism”. As much as I can't stand the current state of advertising (I am incapable of listening to broadcast radio as every ad out there is blatantly anchored onto one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins, which I find extremely irritating), this does wander into a zone which is more about espousing far-Left rallying points that charting out actual solutions.

Anyway, The Zero Marginal Cost Society is a very interesting read with a lot of fascinating takes on the economic evolution of the culture. As noted above, I was hardly in close alignment to many of Rifkin's projections, but the material he brings to bear supporting the over-all thesis is well worth reading. This only came out last year, so should still be on a shelf at larger brick-and-mortar book vendors, but the on-line big boys have both the hardcover and paperback at very generous discounts at the moment (close to 40% off), and copies are available in the new/used channels. This is hardly a book for everybody, but if you have interest in technology, history, or economics, you should find something to your liking in this (and if your politics are towards the Left you'll probably have less “aggravation points” that I found when reading it).

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Tags: book review
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