* A taste of Post-Scarcity
* Some economic numbers related to Post-Scarcity
* What does "post-scarcity" mean exactly, anyway?
* A history lesson: pre-scarcity times (Eden), then scarcity times (Dickens), then post-scarcity times (real soon now)
* Making the whole world into Princeton University, or how Princeton locally stands in the way of Princeton globally :-)
* How might a "post-scarcity" society really work?
* More about moving beyond money
* The need for balance even with a new mythology of abundance
* A Proposal, the Lewis Center for Post-Scarcity Studies and Economic Transcendence
* Some comments on the PU Economics department and related research directions from a post-scarcity perspective
* Princeton University Freecycle Transportation Network -- an internet of physical packages
* More motivation for PU to move towards Freecycling and openness and post-scarcity ideals
Note: This is a condensed version of a much longer, more personal, and more Princeton-specific 200 page book:
"Post-Scarcity Princeton, or, Reading between the lines of PAW for prospective Princeton students, or, the Health Risks of Heart Disease"
Wikipedia. GNU/Linux. WordNet. Google. These things were not on the visible horizon to most of us even as little as twenty years ago. Now they have remade huge aspects of how we live. Are these free-to-the-user informational products and services all there is to be on the internet or are they the tip of a metaphorical iceberg of free stuff and free services that is heading our way? Or even, via projects like the RepRap 3D printer under development, are free physical objects someday heading into our homes? If a "post-scarcity" iceberg is coming, are our older scarcity-oriented social institutions prepared to survive it? Or like the Titanic, will these social institutions sink once the full force of the iceberg contacts them? And will they start taking on water even if just dinged by little chunks of sea ice like the cheap $100 laptops that are ahead of the main iceberg?
These four projects all represent post-scarcity trends relating to a small local investment yielding huge results globally. A few million US dollars on Wikipedia turned into millions of person-hours of global labor (taken mostly from TV viewing) to yield a global multi-lingual resource that is changing the face of education worldwide. A college student (and grandson of a poet) named Linus Torvalds developed Linux in Finland, and, along with others' contributions (both volunteer and done while on payrolls), that free software now makes possible huge server farms and huge supercomputers (which previously were slowed by the inability to customize proprietary software, as well as essentially a tax per CPU); those supercomputers are promising all sorts of wonders including new medicines. A few million dollars spent developing WordNet at Princeton has led to a "cognitive revolution" in software that can process text. GNU/Linux and WordNet together made possible Google as it is now. While Google may have annual operating costs in the billions of dollars, it is saving trillions of dollars worth of time spent researching, and it is also improving the quality and timeliness of information used to make important decisions globally. In each case, a relatively small initial investment has produced enormous global benefits. Encyclopedic knowledge is no longer scarce. End-user modifiable software is no longer scarce. The ability to intelligently process text is no longer scarce. Timely answers to certain questions are no longer scarce.
And those trends continue to the point where, say, for *only* US$600 billion (plus some more for communications infrastructure in some places) everyone on the planet can have a personal laptop with access to all these services and others, including free-to-the-user voice communications. US$600 billion is about a fifth of the current projected total cost of the Iraq war. And if a family shares one laptop, this might only cost about $200 billion, or about the size to a recent mailing of "rebate" checks to US Americans intended to prevent recession. And the potential benefits of a connected planet to help everyone become prosperous together in a diverse and democratic way is enormous. Even just one breakthrough innovation, like, say, a general cure for cancer, developed by, say, a woman in Africa studying pond water who might otherwise not have received an education, might pay back that $200 billion investment a hundred fold. And, if $200 billion still sounds too expensive right now for a chance at world peace and prosperity, extrapolating from Moore's law, in another ten years, it might only cost US$20 billion ($10/laptop) to give every family such a laptop. And in ten years after that, US$2 billion ($1/laptop, same as some electronic greeting cards now integrating paper, printing, and circuitry). Or, essentially, at that point twenty years from now, the laptops are free, compared to the benefits and other cost savings (like not needing to mail paper as often).
And, as will be mentioned later, everything that digital computing touches is seeing falling cost trends.
Even food, despite the current grim news of food shortages from speculation,
can and will get cheaper through agricultural robots and precision farming, and with another benefit of less environmental impact.
These exponential trends in rising capacity and dropping costs illustrate a very different future than the increasingly competitive gloom and doom ones most conventional economists tend to paint for the short term. They even suggest a future where money itself may be less and less important as a control system for day-to-day activities. As Ray Kurzweil puts it:
Most technology forecasts ignore altogether this "historical exponential view" of technological progress. That is why people tend to overestimate what can be achieved in the short term (because we tend to leave out necessary details), but underestimate what can be achieved in the long term (because the exponential growth is ignored).
We are witnessing a historic end to scarcity of many things (maybe not all, but enough to be a new global Renaissance). But is Princeton University helping prepare either students or the rest of society for these changes? Or is it instead an institution under stress, crashing into these trends instead of moving with them? Or is it perhaps conflicted in how it sees itself and its future, and so trying to do both these conflicting approaches at once? :-)
A taste of Post-Scarcity
Capitalism is often it seems all about cost cutting. Why do people have such a hard time thinking about what happens as costs approach zero, even for improvements in quality? Or why do economists have a hard time understanding that many conventional economic equations may produce infinities as costs trend towards zero?
That's because any number divided by zero is infinity (except maybe zero itself. :-)
You know all those "divide by zero" errors in economics simulators? Maybe they were telling us something?
Results 1 - 10 of about 18,000 for "divide by zero" economics.
"The Long Tail: The Tragically Neglected Economics of Abundance"
I'm preparing for my talk on Long Tail economics at O'Reilly's Emerging Technology conference in ten days, and I've run into a slight problem. The Long Tail is all about abundance: the economic effects of infinite shelf space. Unfortunately, neoclassical economics has virtually nothing to say about abundance. Indeed, the economics of abundance is almost exclusively the domain of extropians, a few other transhumanists, and science fiction writers. How can this be? Well, for starters the classic definition of economics is "the science of choice under scarcity". That's a warning sign right there. From Adam Smith on, economics has focused almost exclusively on behavior within constraints. My college textbook, Gregory Mankiw's otherwise excellent Principles of Economics, doesn't mention the word abundance. And for good reason: if you let the scarcity term in most economic equations go to nothing, you get all sorts of divide-by-zero problems. They basically blow up.
Also discussed here:
"The (Needed) New Economics of Abundance"
So, any aspect of the economy which goes towards zero in cost, tends to make everything else also go to zero in cost (or infinite in abundance), whether zero cost food, zero cost energy, zero cost time, zero cost healthcare, or ... zero cost computing. Karl Marx and others talked about related (but not identical) ideas a long time ago.
And so, maybe more economists (especially at PU) need to start using a calculus of infinites, since infinity times anything is ... infinity. Well, that's true for infinity times anything except maybe zero, if, say, our global society chooses to blow itself up physically. :-( Is diverting our R&D resources to war really a better option than learning to share, and learning to use our collective imagination to make the world work abundantly for everyone, and thus learning to let those now obsolete neoclassical economic equations just blow up *numerically* instead of guiding our society to blow itself up physically fighting over artificial scarcity? :-)
"The Myth of Scarcity"
Perhaps the single most devastating myth on earth is that of scarcity. ... The irony of this tragedy is that while people eagerly embrace the myth of scarcity with respect to everything which in reality is or could be abundant if we use our imagination, they ignore the one thing that is actually running out for humanity - TIME.
"Battlestar Galactica vs. Star Trek [The choice is ours]"
Star Trek takes place in a world where all the ugly things about human existence have been erased. Interstellar globalization has brought us new technologies to make transportation and translation effortless. Machines called replicators can produce absolutely anything you want, so the economics of inequity are gone. The injuries of race and class and gender have been surmounted, if not forgotten altogether. Scarcity, borders, money, and culture have all ceased to exist. ... Galactica is sci-fi without that BS. Sci-fi with all the anger and stupidity and sadness that real people experience. Sci-fi without the conviction that we will conquer our own ugliness. Sci-fi for the age of peak oil and 9/11 and natural disasters compounded by climate change to the point where they can completely destroy major cities. Galactica's message is that unless we come to terms with our own history, we are doomed. Mankind created the Cylons to fight our wars and to do our grunt work for us. Eventually they rose up and wiped out 99.999% of us. This basic lesson is one we still haven't learned: that exploitation leads to exploitation, that if you oppress someone you sow the seeds of your own oppression. ... These days, Battlestar Galactica's warning that technology and progress will bring us to the brink of total annihilation is far more resonant than Star Trek's hope that technology and progress will solve all of our problems.
After an earlier version of this essay was up and people were skeptical that a post-scarcity economy is emerging, I issued a challenge on PU's Advocates and Skeptics mailing list to pick *any* industry and I would reply with a plausible way that digital computing can reduce the cost to near zero over the next few decades. :-) (I hoped. :-)
Here are what one person picked, along with my replies and some elaborations:
* "Aluminum smelting"
Generate the electricity with solar panels that are printed similarly to how
computerized ink-jet printers print on paper:
Energy is the dominant cost there.
Printing solar panels to make cheap electricity to power aluminum smelting involved computers, both for design and to control the printers. That all reduces costs.
* "Steel refining"
I could say the same as Aluminum. But for variety, replace most of it with plastics. Grow the plastics as specially bred trees. Use supercomputers to design the new materials and the new DNA for the trees.
Designing new types of plastics and bioengineered trees to replace steel involves computers. That reduces costs.
* "Transportation of people"
"Personal rapid transit"
In rural areas:
"Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering"
Suburbs perhaps best being demolished and returned to farmland? :-)
I know, you will object that these vehicles cost resources to build and
operate? But what if energy is nearly free from those solar panels above and
aluminum and steel-like substances are nearly free? See how all these trends start to interact?
"[unrev-II] Singularity in twenty to forty years?"
Machines to guide vehicles involve computers. As I pointed out, those will be free or cheap if the other aspects are free and cheap, and the rest of this explains how they will. That all reduces costs.
People may suggest materials will still be expensive, but what about robot mining?
"Robots Set To Change The Face Of Australian Mining"
We need to differentiate between the true energy, informational, time, and physical capital costs of doing things compared to a societally-defined acceptable "rent" a few may charge for access to resources.
And when robots make the robots, they are all cheap too. So. that all really
* "Water purification"
Currently in design:
LifeStraw™ is a simple device, still in a prototype phase, designed for those unfortunate people in the third world who do not have access to clean drinking water. The pipe is composed of two textile filters, followed by a chamber with beads impregnated with iodine.
And available for purchase:
At about an ounce in weight, this survival water filter straw takes out giardia. It will also make you the star of the backpacking trip with friends and colleagues. ... SuckUp Survival Water Filter Straw $9.79
And that's even without nanotech. This will only get cheaper and better as people at places like PU invent new materials (perhaps solar powered ones) to make these things filter better and last longer.
I wasn't kidding when I say later in the essay that dissolving Harvard would give everyone who is poor in the world clean water -- via one or two of these straws.
Granted, I don't know how long the straws can last. But that's the kind of research
the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials is for,
Water purification using nanotech (and the internet to spread the word about earlier cheap solutions) involves using computers. That reduces costs.
Theoretically near free for materials:
"MAGMA, CERAMIC, AND FUSED ADOBE STRUCTURES GENERATED IN SITU"
And nearly free labor:
"Could This Robot Build A House In A Day? California Engineer's Invention Could Roll Out Concrete Homes Starting This Year"
Construction using robots involves using computers. As does related structural and materials simulations. That reduces costs.
Granted, this area needs work. But hey, the PU's CE&OR graduate program twenty years ago didn't seem to want me to stick around in their graduate program. :-) Granted, I was less of a nice person then. :-(
Already essentially free:
Welcome! The Freecycle Network™ is made up of 4,383 groups with 5,173,000 members across the globe. It's a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (& getting) stuff for free in their own towns. It's all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills. Each local group is moderated by a local volunteer (them's good people). Membership is free. To sign up, find your community by entering it into the search box above or by clicking on "Browse Groups" above the search box. Have fun!
OK, I'm playing here, but really, you want free furniture there it is -- or just cruise by PU just after graduation. :-)
OK, another answer: if you are growing free genetically engineered plastic as above, then why not grow it into chairs directly instead of logs you need to cut? :-)
Furniture grown using programmable DNA involves computing, as does freecycling coordinated over the internet. How much furniture does the world need anyway? How much is just landfilled when it could be repaired if it was designed better and people had more "free time" to fix it for fun? That all reduces costs.
Already essentially free:
I just reprapped a left shoe. It cost me 30 pence...
A custom shoe was printed in 3D already for about US$0.60. (That is printing a new one, not reuse.) That involves computers. What more proof do you want for the possibility of cheap things -- shoes made to your dimensions for about a dollar right now. Granted, the materials need more work, which brings us back to structural and materials simulations, as above. That reduces costs.
* "Movie production"
This is already essentially free (for some definition of "movie"):
As with all of the above, people may object that I am discounting the value of people's time. But that is part of a point made later on. If things are easy or fun, motivating people to do them for their own sake is not very hard. Lots of people bake cakes, and the world could survive without cake (though it might be hard for some).
Movie are now produced and distributed "free to the user" using computers and computer-powered digital cameras. The people who make the movies generally do it for *fun* so the time is essentially free. That reduces costs.
* "Crop growth"
Agricultural plants are already free and self-replicating and powered by sun and rain. :-)
And these self-replicating food plants have been the basis of most societal wealth through the past few thousand years. Our natural
self-replicating capital of all sorts has sustained humanity for countless generations.
Self-replicating technical artifacts such as dogs, corn, and trees have been in use by humanity for thousands of years. While humans cannot lay credit to the original creation of such systems, they can claim the adaptation and selective breeding of these for defense, food, and building materials. In the past few millennia, many people have become dependent on technology that is not self-replicating. Primarily this technology involves fairly pure forms of metals, plastics, and crystals. These technologies have expanded the earth's human carrying capacity in the short term, but are not sustainable in the long term. Such technologies lack the closed resource cycles, independent operation, redundancy, and resiliency found in natural systems. A symptom of the use of such non-sustainable systems is the fear that a single problem (like Y2K) could cause a major disruption of life-support infrastructure in the developed world.
OK, how about asking who does the actually planting and harvesting and tilling? How about these agricultural robots
from the 1970s sci-fi movie "Silent Running"?
Robots tending crops involve computers. Precision agriculture to reduce fertilizer and water use is only possible by computers. That all reduces costs.
And contrary to what
some might say, water and artificial fertilizer just increase yields -- they are
not strictly necessary, at least if you return the nutrients from "night
soil" back to the land like China has been doing for 40 centuries.
Professor King provides intriguing glimpses of Japan, China, Manchuria, and Korea, with information about the customs of the common people; utilization of waste; methods of irrigation, reforestation, and land reclamation; and the cultivation of rice, silk, and tea. An invaluable, profusely illustrated resource for organic gardeners, farmers, and conservationists. 249 illustrations.Ground rock dust also make great fertilizer.
There are rocks everywhere. Some are better than others for this purpose, naturally.
If you can think of something that eludes me in seeing how it can get cheap in a world trending post-scarcity,
remember that I am only one person (granted echoing thousands of other voices I have read or learned of
directly or indirectly). Imagine what would be possible if most of the
people on campus at Princeton University and all the alumni decided to think
about these issues too. :-) Just imagine...
"YouTube - Imagine - John Lennon"
(More on that later.)
Maybe that's the best song to answer Silent Running's bittersweet ending?
Or maybe this satire by Frederick Pohl is more likely our future than scarcity? :-)
The Midas Plague" (originally published in Galaxy in 1954). In this new world of cheap energy, robots are overproducing the commodities enjoyed by mankind. So now the "poor" are forced to spend their lives in frantic consumption, trying to keep up with the robots' extravagant production, so that the "rich" can live lives of simplicity. This story deals with the life of a man named Morey Fry, who marries a girl from a higher class. She is unused to a life of consumption and it wears at their marriage.
Many capitalists, like members of any secular religion, still seem in denial about the trends Marx
(and others) spotted long ago. The end is near for capitalism -- admittedly
in part through its own success. :-) Some people end up that way too: :-(
If Jesus of Nazareth was anything, he was an extraordinary friend of the down-trodden, definitely a Liberal, whose advocacy on their behalf so infuriated the ultra-Conservative religious and political leaders of his day that they had him killed to prevent the public from hearing the very liberal teaching that you will see quoted abundantly in Jesus' own words on this web site!
Capitalism, like the USSR as the Berlin Wall came down, is already history. And all the stuff people have been saying with precise sounding economic numbers has not helped them predict its ongoing demise, just like the collapse of the USSR took the US government by surprise -- and studying the USSR was a major reason for the CIA's existence and high level of funding.
I'm sorry to be another bringer of the bad news to Princetonians that the capitalist world view
is way out of date. :-( Our society is in the midst of transcending to
something beyond it. Whatever any of us do. I do feel we can make a
difference here and there though -- to represent the virtues we chose to
My wife, by coincidence, is currently working on a study on "The future of volunteerism" for a non-profit consortium.
Hint: a major issue is that volunteers don't have enough "free time".
A post-scarcity society promises a lot more "free time" to volunteer. So,
a lot of the issues relating to the emerging post scarcity-economy relate
to transitioning from a mostly command economy (whether central government commands or market financial commands)
to a mostly voluntary economy. And, in many ways, from child raising to elder care, the
economy is mostly voluntary (even given some daycare and some nursing homes). A related idea is that most homes are currently heated with solar energy even when we say they
are heated with oil, which would be pretty obvious if the Sun suddenly went out. So, while it seems like
the "economy" is all about money, if you look at actual hours spent in activities,
from voluntarily watching endless TV sitcoms (and commercials) as a "consumer" to voluntarily cleaning up vomit (and blood) as an "EMT",
the economy is already, and always has been, mostly volunteer. It's just hard
to see that sometimes unless you turn off the television.
About two to three billion people on the planet live in technological societies out of approaching seven billion people. That's a lot of capacity, even if the other half of the planet may have more social capital and ecological capital than industrial capital.
In the dollars everyone wants to talk about, the global economy is about US$60
trillion annually as a gross world product (GWP).
There are naturally problems focusing on money -- this is one alternative view:
Or, per capita:
Gross world product (GWP) is the total gross national product of all the countries in the world. This also equals the total gross domestic product. See measures of national income and output for more details. The per capita GWP in 2000 was approximately $7,200 US dollars (USD). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in their Third Assessment Report (TAR), predicts a maximum per-capita gross world product in 2100 of approximately $140,000 (in year 2000 dollars). The IPCC reports a survey of "economic literature" as providing a maximum value of approximately $110,000 (2000 USD).
That's a lot of per-capita income projected ninety years from now. :-) But let's ignore it as "speculation" even if it is what this essay is about in some sense. That would make things too easy. Also it would be misleading, as it assumes our current economic structure would persist when everyone on the planet could essentially be a millionaire by today's standards. So, let's stick with the current GWP of US$60 trillion and assume in rises only slowly.
On that scale of a US$60 trillion annual GWP, none of the costs for the four projects above, even billions to operate Google
per year, are even barely noticeable. That's all part of this issue of
post-scarcity -- the costs to do big public digital works whether Google,
WordNet, Mammalian Genetics Simulation, or anything else likely to be of breakthrough
value are so trivial as to not be noticed. One billion dollars is 0.002%
(rounded up) of GWP. Trivial. The entire venture capital sector in the USA is a
laughable 0.06% of GWP.
A recent National Venture Capital Association survey found that majority (69%) of venture capitalists predict that VC investments in U.S. will level between $20-29 billion in 2007.
So, do we need to structure our *entire* global economy a certain way because Princetonians and others strongly control 0.06% of the money flow?
That makes no sense as a big picture. That's not even the tail wagging the dog. That's a flea wagging the dog. Naturally, it's still a flea that is a lot bigger than my own personal net worth. :-) Unless I count differently, like measured in free time. :-)
OK, the global equity market is a big thing too.
Estimates of the size of the world's capital market vary; the average of figures compiled by the McKinsey Global Institute, Goldman Sachs, and Merrill Lynch place the total stock of global equities at roughly $33 trillion; global government bonds - $21 trillion; private sector bonds - $24 trillion.
That's US$78 trillion for all three together. But, that is still only a little over one year's global spending. So, while that is not a flea, it is still a tail wagging the dog if you consider global spending over twenty years.
As long as investors think in terms of private gain, not public gain, they will emphasize investments that can be the best guarded, not investments that maximize social returns they do not see on their balance sheet. Sometimes, as with Google, they can still make a lot of money, because the trillions in annual saving from Google (for time saved searching, and improved quality of results) leaves a lot of money falling off the table to grab some of somehow.
But if you don't need much funds, because you are frugal, or you are retired,
or your parents support you as a student, then you can do whatever you want
with your "free" time. :-)
Linux is a free Unix-type operating system originally created by Linus Torvalds with the assistance of developers around the world. Developed under the GNU General Public License , the source code for Linux is freely available to everyone. [Find] out more about the operating system that is causing a revolution in the world of computers.
TV watching is consuming 2,000 Wikipedias per year:
Mining the Cognitive Surplus
Shirky defines as a unit of attention "the Wikipedia": 100 million person-hours of thought. As a society we have been burning 2,000 Wikipedias per year watching mostly sitcoms.
A flow into foundations of $55 trillion is expected over the next 25 years:
Is Open Source the Answer To Giving?
So. we are looking at about one year of global GWP going into foundations
over the next 25 years. If something is worth doing as a digital public
work, money is not the problem. Again, nor is time when "TV watching is
consuming 2,000 Wikipedias per year". Mythology is the problem. Which is why
I wrote this presumably ignored email around 2001: :-)
"On funding digital public works "
So, what is even a *billion* hours of human work on those scales compared to sitcom viewing on TV? It is about 0.5% of the total hours devoted to sitcoms.
What is even a trillion dollars on this scale? Nothing.
I've seen an endless parade of articles reassuring the US public how "affordable" the Iraq war is as a percent of the USA's GDP -- a war now projected to cost three trillion dollars or more. If that exercise in fantasy and needless suffering and spawning terrorists is worth that much, then surely we can as a society spend much more than that on real investments in a happy future for everyone on the planet?
There is plenty of time and money for a massive number of massive projects. That we don't see so many projects has more to do with the economic mythology still dominant in our culture.
Again, the investment right now of US$600 billion that would give everyone on the planet a mesh-networked laptop is only 1% of just one year's global GWP. In ten years, as the GWP increases, and the laptop costs decrease, this will be less than 0.1% of GWP. Or, a trivial amount not even worth mentioning considering the potential benefits of reducing global want and ignorance. Well, it would reduce technical ignorance, as I suspect the social ignorance is on the other side in the "developed" world and the industrialized nations will actually get more out of it than the materially poor ones. :-) There would be some consumerist blowback no doubt as poor people became dissatisfied, which is why laptops for everyone is just the start of a transcendence beyond money, not the end of one.
One reason Google looks free is because, relative to how powerful computers are now for a little money, and relative to the $60 trillion global annual GWP, Google is *essentially* free to operate. :-) And Google search (along with the world wide web it indexes) enables trillions of dollars a year in cost savings and increased productivity and quality. My essays and emails would be effectively impossible without Google search or something similar (I know, I'm wide open for a joke here about the time people spend reading my emails actually reducing productivity. :-)
In twenty to thirty years (assuming continued exponential growth in
technological capacity along the lines of Moore's law like
price/performance, which most experts agree will happen),
likely even a $100 laptop computer in 2033 will be literally a million times faster than today (as the OLPC is approximately tens of thousands of times faster than an Apple II). At that point, you could hold the equivalent of all of today's Google physical computer equipment literally in your lap. :-) And likely, someone would be throwing one out to get something better, so if you "dumpster dived", you could get a "Google" of today's computing power for free. :-) By the way, that computer could likely hold all the surface internet of today in *RAM*. And if I turn out to be off by ten years, so what?
Perhaps our biggest danger as as society is in putting the *tools* (some being useful as weapons) of a post-scarcity civilization into the hands of scarcity-preoccupied minds. (Especially minds following outdated military dogmas like unilateral security instead of mutual security.) As Albert Einstein said, with the advent of atomic weapons, everything has changed but our thinking. And if nobody listens to Albert Einstein about this, why should they listen to me?
WordNet was developed at Princeton, and in the internet age is Princeton's greatest claim to fame (well, maybe other than Amazon :-):
WordNet® is a large lexical database of English, developed under the direction of George A. Miller. Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are grouped into sets of cognitive synonyms (synsets), each expressing a distinct concept. Synsets are interlinked by means of conceptual-semantic and lexical relations. The resulting network of meaningfully related words and concepts can be navigated with the browser. WordNet is also freely and publicly available for download. WordNet's structure makes it a useful tool for computational linguistics and natural language processing.
Maybe someday free software for ethical cars and robots might be a claim to fame by Princeton, too? :-)
Future security and prosperity is likely a major concern of prospective Princeton students these days, who are choosing whether to give the university the gift of their youth and presumed future allegiance. Is the "Princeton University" brand up to that challenge, as the social pendulum swings from "greed is good" back to "the love of money is the root of all evil"? How does the "Princeton University" brand interact with an emerging post-scarcity of abundance (of which GNU/Linux is just the beginning)?
What does "post-scarcity" mean exactly, anyway?
Murphy's (First) Corollary: Whenever you set out to do something, something else must be done first.
And also, to keep us humble:
Murphy's (Second) Corollary: Every solution breeds new problems.
The idea of "post-scarcity" is a central theme in this essay, so let's explore what that idea means.
It has nothing to do with "posts" being rare. :-)
And it has nothing to do with not getting enough mail from friends and family. :-)
The term "post-scarcity" means "after" scarcity. So it is about a world where most everything essential to human life is
so common and easily obtainable that anyone can take practically as much as they
would like without metering. An example now is how people can breathe as much air as they like
(even if hyperventilation can give people a headache or much worse). Or at the beach anyone can drink as much
sea water as they like (which isn't very good for you either, of course).
Or, almost anyone with an internet connection can now surf to as many web pages as they like (which is not good for you either in excess).
Relative to individual human needs, the atmosphere, or the ocean, or free-to-the-user web page views are effectively infinite. Of course we may be polluting each of those three commons via industry, but that is a different issue.
What happens to society when most physical things ranging from automobiles to bicycles to computers to dentures to energy to food and so on to zirconia all become essentially free-to-the-user?
What if everything was so cheap that who was to pay for it all stopped being an interesting question?
From Wikipedia ():
Post scarcity or post-scarcity describes a hypothetical form of economy or society, often explored in science fiction, in which things such as goods, services and information are free, or practically free. This would be due to an abundance of fundamental resources (matter, energy and intelligence), in conjunction with sophisticated automated systems capable of converting raw materials into finished goods, allowing manufacturing to be as easy as duplicating software.
Note that "Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia" is itself a great example of the post-scarcity trend.
A history lesson: pre-scarcity times (Eden), then scarcity times (Dickens), then post-scarcity times (real soon now)
Humanity used to live in relative abundance with a few people with limited wants living on a big planet.
"The Original Affluent Society" by Marshall Sahlins
Hunter-gatherers consume less energy per capita per year than any other group of human beings. Yet when you come to examine it the original affluent society was none other than the hunter's - in which all the people's material wants were easily satisfied. To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognise that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times.
Let us call this time "pre-scarcity". Because of the very success of hunter-gatherers,
their populations grew, and they got harder to feed.
That was the beginning of scarcity. In desperation, people turned to agriculture. But it had problems.
Humanity had to suffer the resulting worse nutrition from less
diversity of sources. Human skeletons actually were shorter from the advent
of agriculture until only reaching hunter-gatherer stature about this century.
For instance, the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago has commonly been seen as a major advancement in the course of human evolution. However, as Larsen provocatively shows, this change may not have been so positive. Compared to their hunter-gatherer ancestors, many early farmers suffered more disease, had to work harder, and endured a poorer quality of life due to poorer diets and more marginal living conditions. Moreover, the past 10,000 years have seen dramatic changes in the human physiognomy as a result of alterations in our diet and lifestyle. Some modern health problems, including obesity and chronic disease, may also have their roots in these earlier changes.
Populations grew even further and militaristic bureaucracies arose like hurricanes on a warming ocean.
As Marshall Sahlins suggests, then comes along "Modern Times":
Modern Times is a 1936 comedy film by Charlie Chaplin that has his famous Little Tramp character struggling to survive in the modern, industrialized world. The film is a comment on the desperate employment and fiscal conditions many people faced during the Great Depression, conditions created, in Chaplin's view, by the efficiencies of modern industrialization.
Let's call this time "scarcity" times. Those are what our recent ancestors lived through, and to an extent we are still living in now.
All the things you have read about how certain things have gotten better from the 1800s and early industrialization are probably true.
But, they miss the big picture of the phase change transition from pre-scarcity hunter-gatherers (like the Hmong or Iroquois in older times) to a more scarcity-dominated agricultural and industrial way of life today for most people.
The Genesis story in the Christian Bible can be interpreted that way as well, as the story of rising populations resulting in part
from hunter-gatherer success and increasing technical knowledge and social bureaucracy ending the happy hunter-gatherer days:
God forms Adam "from the dust of the ground...and man became a living being." God sets the man in the Garden of Eden and permits him to eat of all the fruit within it, except that of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, "for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." God makes "every beast of the field and every bird of the air, ... and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name ... but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him." God causes the man to sleep, and makes a woman from one of his ribs, and the man awakes and names his companion Woman, "because she was taken out of Man." "And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed." The serpent tells the woman that she will not die if she eats the fruit of the tree: "When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So the woman eats and gives to the man who also eats. "Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons." God curses the serpent: "upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life;" the woman he punishes with pain in childbirth and with subordination to man: "your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you;" and the man he punishes with a life of toil: "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground." The man names his wife Eve, "because she was the mother of all living." "Behold," says God, "the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil," and expels the couple from Eden, "lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever." The gate of Eden is sealed by a cherub and a flaming sword "to guard the way to the tree of life."
(I thank one of my homeschooling friends for reminding me of this Genesis parallel.)
What went before Genesis is apparently lost. But some of those older peoples still have more detailed stories about what life used to be like and in detail how awful that transition was from the freedom of hunting and gathering to the bondage of agriculture, or as Chaplin suggests, to industry. There were even rough times when agriculture finally started working well and populations grew and people invented industrialization. So it was worse than now in the time of Dickens, but if you go way, way back, to the times Sahlins talks about, certain aspects of life might have been better that they even are now (not all aspects, of course). For example, art, music, story-telling, poetry, dance, conversation, gift-giving, and child-rearing had a more central role in some of those hunter-gatherer societies than in many of the industrialized societies of today. Those are the kind of things people tend to do when they have idle time. :-)
Trends towards increasing per capita production relative to wants still continue, made possible by the very
success of industrialization and the growth of shared knowledge, like by the internet.
People are also developing robots and 3D printing, plus all sorts of other new things like easy-to-make solar panels.
Those systems are potentially so productive that only a few people might be able to provide much for all.
Or everyone might only have to labor just a little to get a lot. At some point, industrialized
goods, including cars, electricity, computers, and even eventually food may become so easy to get they are no longer scarce.
Someday, people will not have to spend much time thinking about them or spend much effort to get them. Essentially,
we return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but instead of picking fruit off the trees, we pick it
from our robotically-stocked refrigerator. Instead of making tools from stones, we might print them using a 3D printer.
All those trends are happening now, from how Amazon ships books now or soon:
"Filling Amazon's Tall Orders"
"Smart Warehouse Technology - Automatic Guided Vehicles"
"Warehouse & Distribution Systems"
to how WoW custom figurines get made:
"WOW 3D Printer Application - FigurePrints"
"How 3-D Printing Figures To Turn Web Worlds Real"
Here are links to today's early 3D printers, both commercial/proprietary and F/OSS:
And here is a blog about them:
And here is a a related but broader "Fab Lab" approach:
Fab Lab is an abbreviation for Fabrication Laboratory. It is a group of off-the-shelf, industrial-grade fabrication and electronics tools, wrapped in open source software and programs written by researchers at the Center for Bits and Atoms. Currently the labs include a laser cutter that makes 2D and 3D structures, a sign cutter that plots in copper to make antennas and flex circuits, a high-resolution milling machine that makes circuit boards and precision parts, and a suite of electronic components and programming tools for low-cost, high-speed microcontrollers. MIT has additionally written a Computer-Aided Machinery (CAM) program that can read all of the different kinds of ways that people describe things digitally and turn them into tool paths for all of the different ways it's possible to make them. Researchers have written another program for Fab Labs which helps users share their files and experiences as they work, so that users can teach each other rather than relying on a fixed curriculum: http://fab.cba.mit.edu. Fab Labs are evolving as our research evolves. A full Fab Lab currently costs about $25,000 in equipment and materials without MIT's involvement. It is a rapid prototyping platform, and as such is meant to encourage local entrepreneurs to take their own ideas from the drawing board to prototypes to starting local micro businesses, Fab Lab also teaches users critical skills in computing, electronics, programming, and CAD/CAM fabrication techniques--a set of internationally recognized skills. It is additionally a platform from which a community's technical challenges can be shared with an international roster of engineers, who can help problem solve and design solutions for the community. In return for the involvement of trained engineers with the community, engineers have an opportunity to work on real life design problems faced by large, under-served communities at the lower end of the consumer market.
All are just the beginning of a "personal fabrication" revolution. This is what prospective Princeton students might have access to *now*. What will they have access to twenty years from now when that prospective is in the middle of his or her career? Consider, for example, the difference in quality between the output of a 1980s dot matrix printer and a color inkjet printer of today (2008). There are huge differences in output resolution, color availability, quietness, ease-of-use, non-fanfold paper handling, and so on. And they are cheaper now, or even come free with computers. So, we might expect that with continued innovation that MIT's "fab lab" capabilities may be nearly free in twenty to thirty years too.
What is coming could be termed "post-scarcity" as it is the time after scarcity issues dominate our thinking and our politics. Not everyone agrees on the meaning of the term 100%, but the general outline of abundance for all with little "work" is clear, as in the Wikipedia article above. At that point, "money", which is mainly used to ration access to goods and services, ceases to have much meaning.
Making the whole world into Princeton University, or how Princeton locally stands in the way of Princeton globally :-)
So, the question becomes, how do we
go about getting the whole world both accepted into Princeton and also with full tenured Professorships
(researchy ones without teaching duties except as desired? :-)
And maybe with robots to do anything people did not want to do?
This is just intended as a humorous example, of course. I'm not suggesting Princeton would run the world of the future or that
everyone would really have Princeton faculty ID cards and parking stickers. Still, that's a thought. :-)
That motel for scholars, The Institute For Advanced Study, is already a bit like this (no required teaching duties), so it's an even better model. :-)
But you might object, who will run the kitchens, repair the roofs, plant Prospect Garden, and so forth? Essentially, who will be
the Morlocks to support and maybe eat the Eloi on staff? :-)
Well, that's where this analogy breaks down, although one could perhaps imagine robots as the Morlocks (maybe without the whole eating PU staff for fuel thing).
A prototype robot capable of hunting down over 100 slugs an hour and using their rotting bodies to generate electricity is being developed by engineers at the University of West England's Intelligent Autonomous Systems Laboratory.
So, for the rest of this essay, I'll assume the "scarcity" world (at least in the USA) currently works more like, say, G. William Domhoff suggests:
Q: So, who does rule America? A: The owners and managers of large income-producing properties; i.e., corporations, banks, and agri-businesses. But they have plenty of help from the managers and experts they hire. ... I will try to demonstrate how rule by the wealthy few is possible despite free speech, regular elections, and organized opposition:
* "The rich" coalesce into a social upper class that has developed institutions by which the children of its members are socialized into an upper-class worldview, and newly wealthy people are assimilated.
* Members of this upper class control corporations, which have been the primary mechanisms for generating and holding wealth in the United States for upwards of 150 years now.
* There exists a network of nonprofit organizations through which members of the upper class and hired corporate leaders not yet in the upper class shape policy debates in the United States.
* Members of the upper class, with the help of their high-level employees in profit and nonprofit institutions, are able to dominate the federal government in Washington.
* The rich, and corporate leaders, nonetheless claim to be relatively powerless.
* Working people have less power than in many other democratic countries.
And what is the current result of that system of social organization? We create a self-fulfilling prophecy of scarcity in part through fearing it, and then acting on that fear. (And the only antidotes to fear are things like joy and humor. :-) Consider, say the US military and Iraq. The USA invades Iraq and produces terrorists that now justify having invaded as well as now devoting more money to the military. :-( Now people are saying the Iraq war, promised as a "cakewalk" will cost about three trillion US dollars before it is done. So, now we need to cut back on US social programs like R&D and nursing homes and also reduce aid to poorer countries (which might have truly helped prevent more problems). Thus we ensure more scarcity at home and abroad.
How much of the US monetarized economy goes into managing "scarcity" in
terms of person-hours of work?
* A big chunk of the prison system,
* A big chunk of the legal system,
* A big chunk of the military and police,
* Most guards,
* Most of the management chain,
* Most of the banking system,
* Most sales people,
* Most of the insurance industry,
* Most of the Welfare and Medicaid government program staff (eligibility and oversight),
* Most lawyers and related proceedings,
* Much of the schooling and grading system, and
* Most of the government.
Add it all up, and maybe it is 90% of the person-hours consumed by the money economy by now? That's just a wild guess, of course. :-) I'm sure someone else better with numbers could refute or affirm that. But it is loosely based on a study mentioned in the essay linked below.
If you consider that a lot of service work is unnecessary if people had more free time (babysitting, restaurants, teaching, home construction, entertainment) then even less hours in the money economy are really needed in a society with a lot of leisure to raise children, cook meals, putter around the house, take on apprentices or educate neighbors on demand, and sing their own songs or make up their own stories.
And of course, child-rearing and day-to-day housekeeping and volunteering probably represents many more person-hours than the 10% or so of the total person-hours that the money economy uses for real production (actual work on factory goods, actual labor in agriculture, actual work making energy etc.). So clearly people will do important tasks for intrinsic benefits.
Things may have been different 100 years ago when most US Americans still lived on somewhat subsistence farms, and so most work was local and for one's own family and business. But somewhere during the past century, I'd speculate a shift happened where the amount of hours spent guarding exceeded the amount of effort spent producing. And then it probably just got worse from there, to the current situation where most work was related to guarding, even though work that is mostly guarding may also euphemistically be called "cashiering", "teaching", "managing", and so on. Pick almost any job and take most of the guarding out of it and it becomes more enjoyable.
It's important to look at the hours people work on various tasks, not the money value assigned to the tasks. If all those person hours are going into guarding functions, then of course there is little time left over for playful productive work.
And note, this estimate is without even giving a long hard look to rethinking how things could be done to be easier or more fun. Down the road, once tasks are redesigned to ignore the guarding aspects, they might be more efficiently done. For example, think of all the time people waste waiting in supermarket checkout lines or at toll booths. Or the time educators devote to attendance and grading.
The above is all an echo of this essay by Bob Black :
"The Abolition of Work" (written as I graduated in 1985, but I only saw it a couple years ago through the internet)
Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you'd care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.
How might a "post-scarcity" society really work?
So, how might a "post-scarcity" society really work? How could a "post-scarcity" society emerge at all, given this (obsolete) elite social deadlock Domhoff outlines?
What if some people get some "free" stuff somehow, and they use it, and in the process of using it they make more free stuff than they got? Let's assume these people then freely give this extra stuff away for free to others who use it to make even more free stuff. If everyone starts doing this, soon there could be an enormous amount of free stuff going around. A chain reaction (but a good one). Of course, as with any exponential process, with ever more free stuff on the way from more and more people, the problem becomes, where to find the space to put it all? (Hint: maybe "Space". :-)
Can't happen you say? Well, to keep us humble, consider:
"10 impossibilities conquered by science"
The number of scientists and engineers who confidently stated that heavier-than-air flight was impossible in the run-up to the Wright brothers' flight is too large to count. Lord Kelvin is probably the best-known. In 1895 he stated that "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible", only to be proved definitively wrong just eight years later. Even when Kelvin made his infamous statement, scientists and engineers were closing rapidly on the goal of heavier-than-air flight. People had been flying in balloons since the late eighteenth century, and by the late 1800s these were controllable. Several designs, such as Félix du Temple's Monoplane, had also taken to the skies, if only briefly. So why the scepticism about heavier-than-air flight? The problem was set out in 1716 by the scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg in an article describing a design for a flying machine. Swedenborg wrote: "It seems easier to talk of such a machine than to put it into actuality, for it requires greater force and less weight than exists in a human body." Swedenborg's design, like so many, was based on a flapping-wing mechanism. Two things had to happen before heavier-than-air flight became possible. First, flapping wings had to be ditched and replaced by a gliding mechanism. And secondly, engineers had to be able to call on a better power supply – the internal combustion engine. Ironically, Nicolaus Otto had already patented this in 1877.
In a sense, this is what has already happened with GNU/Linux.
With the productivity of modern technology and the internet,
just a few hundred serious maintainers of the Debian GNU/Linux distribution
can provide plenty of free stuff for hundreds of millions of users:
Imagine if things started to work that way for physical objects too. Things like cars or toolboxes. Or even non-physical services like educations. :-)
This is an organization trying to do something like that with livestock in materially-poor communities:
A fundamental part of their assistance is the notion of "passing on the gift" which both helps others and lets the previous aid recipient feel more self-respect as they are now a philanthropist and not a needy recipient.
But what about all the "slackers" who will consume without giving back? The answer is just, "So what?" Why not have pity on such people who are stuck in such an embarrassingly juvenile state of mind? My mom, a hard worker, dreamed of being a slacker in a big house with servants. You know where she found her dream? A nursing home. :-( So, be careful what you wish for, slacker wannabees. :-)
If a few can supply the many, then, so what of the slackers? Who cares? Why build a whole mythology around slackers? And surprisingly, there may be less slackers than one might expect, because when you have the freedom to make things your way, without a "boss", there is often a lot of fun to be had in making things. Just look at all the kids making free music for the internet these days. Or people writing web pages. :-)
Examples like the Israeli Kibbutzim have already shown in the past that even with hard manual labor,
there are always a bunch of schmucks (like maybe even myself and my wife, or many others already working in non-profits :-)
who are willing to work hard even with apparent slackers in their face. Sure, Kibbutzim had problems with slackers, but modern automated robotic technology changes the nature of that situation:
(and without bringing in migrant laborers to exploit and expose to pesticides). And how hard can it be to sit in your GPS-driven air-conditioned tractor and listen to free music? Or even make some more music of your own in between keeping an eye on how the robots are doing?
This is the world the prospective Princeton student is probably imagining these days as in their future -- or will be soon. :-) Robot tractors. Free music. GNU/Linux everywhere. Slackers who only take stuff and don't make stuff as being "so junior high" or "so nursing home". Essentially, these kids are imagining (or will soon) a John Lennon "Imagine" sort of world -- with abundance and security for all. With robot tractors able to get higher yields from less land and less water through precision farming, why fight so much about the agricultural fields or river water? With nanotech solar panels and nanotech near-perfect insulation, why fight about the oil fields?
I'm not talking about the market apologist version of "post-scarcity" at, say, Stanford:
"Post-Scarcity Prophet: Economist Paul Romer on growth, technological change, and an unlimited human future."
If you read that carefully, that supposed "Post-Scarcity Prophet" seems more obsessed with ensuring an abundance of ... scarcity. :-) There is not much talk of "free" or "cheap" for *everybody* as much as an obsession with more patents and more copyrights and more secrets -- which are all ways to create artificial scarcity in a market economy. So, a supposedly brilliant economist presumably would promote even more artificial scarcity through draconian copyright and such. This person (shortlisted for the Nobel Prize, the article says) can't understand that if *all* the basics are essentially "free" to the user through the miracles of improving F/OSS technology and a healthy natural world, then people's personal time for more desktop innovative R&D is mostly "free" too. :-) An example where he misses that is when he says: "If you're going to be giving things away for free, you're going to have to find some system to finance them, and that's where government support typically comes in." Maybe that is true now, but it is less and less true with each passing day. And no charge for this "free" essay, by the way. :-) A typical related problem is to confuse or ignore free as in "freedom" and free as in "price" by the way. This essay is free as in both (see the license at the end. :-)
Here is part of a sci-fi story about the flip side of that "Imagine" world kids are thinking about, where it all goes horribly wrong,
say, with a Stanford-led elite unable to let go of a fear of scarcity,
and instead using the robots to guard most of the world who are kept in "welfare" prison camps:
"Time to turn around Jacob Lewis105. There is construction in the next zone and, for your safety, we cannot allow you to proceed." There were a hundred reasons the robots gave for making you turn around. Construction, blasting, contamination, flash flooding, train derailments, possible thunder storms, animal migrations and so on. They could be quite creative in their reasons. It was all part of their politeness. If you turned around you were fine. If you made any move in any direction other than the one suggested, you were immediately injected and woke up back in your room. I had only tried it twice.
To me, "post-scarcity" means the end of rationing the basics for everybody, where what is defined as "the basics" grows and grows over time. :-) And one of those basics is unrationed access to important information. Ration units went out of use with World War II, you might object. But what is a US Federal Reserve Note (commonly called a fiat dollar) if not essentially a "ration unit"? So, in that sense, to quote Iain Banks, "Money is a sign of poverty", meaning that money's presence in a society indicates the society believes (as part of its mythology) that there is not enough stuff to go around.
I suggest Princeton economists start ignoring the next Nobel Prize sure bet listed above, who is claiming to be "post-scarcity" while taking us down the road to Marshall Brain's scarcity dystopia linked above (though read to the end of Marshall Brain's story for some hope).
The Debian community (which puts together a distribution of GNU/Linux) is an example of the true post-scarcity mythology in action:
(which is an idea represented in that last link both by the contents of the article and also by Wikipedia itself.) So, I also suggest the Princeton community think really hard about the really good post-scarcity stuff like is happening at Debian:
"Study Reports On Debian Governance, Social Organization"
That report above essentially defines an approaching iceberg of an emerging post-scarcity society. Is Princeton University ready for it? :-) Because, frankly, Princeton can't hold it back any longer, even if it wanted to. Though it could probably make the future turn really bad for most people if it tried hard -- producing the dystopia linked above, run through polite military robots.
More about moving beyond money
In any case, fortunately, and seriously, at least a very few academics and others are on the job working hard at moving beyond money, even if their "Santa Claus Machine" (a term coined by Ted Taylor as he tried to atone for nuclear bomb designing)
may not fix all social or psychological problems (as above), and will no doubt even create some new ones. For one example, see:
RepRap is short for Replicating Rapid-prototyper. It is the practical self-copying 3D printer shown on the right - a self-replicating machine. ... [RepRap] has been called the invention that will bring down global capitalism, start a second industrial revolution and save the environment...
And RepRap is just one of many related projects; some are commercial products:
Now you can print 3D color models so quickly and affordably, you'll do it every day. Introducing the ZPrinter®450. The ZPrinter 450 makes color 3D printing accessible to everyone. The lowest priced color 3D printer available, it outputs brilliant color models with time-saving automation and an easy printing process. (About US$45K)
Remember how much laser printers used to cost in the 1980s? They literally cost tens of thousands of US dollars. Now you get laser printers for *free* with computers. Think what that will mean as we print more and more in 3D. And when you can print more printers, like RepRap works towards, the economy as we currently know it with long supply chains will implode. (Remember those collapsed scaffold pictures? It's coming.) Money in many areas of life will cease to be as significant, especially once these printers can disassemble ("unprint" or "recycle") as well as print.
And things don't need to be entirely free for profound changes to happen -- even very cheap things will make for big social changes.
Banks' Observation on Money: "Money is a sign of poverty."
Fernhout's Corollary to Banks' Observation on Money: "The degree to which money needs to be handled in a society is inversely proportional to the abundance of imagination, skill, freedom, effort, and community present."
M = 1 / I * S * F * E * C
Any mathematician inspecting that formula might easily tell you, say, that as the amount of freedom or imagination in a society goes to zero, the amount of money goes to infinity. But is that a good thing to thus have so much money lying around?
But how can we ensure the collapse of money as scaffolding for society happens in a more orderly and safer way than a catastrophe? Even just the catastrophe of avoidable suffering through ignorance and poverty for some extra years for many people on the planet? As someone suggested on slashdot.org a while back, the year the food replicator is invented by capitalism, everyone will starve from economic forces. :-(
That's the sort of problem that will challenge prospective Princeton students down the road in their careers. And not just in some distant future, but in the next ten to twenty years, perhaps even before someone starting PU next year can get tenure -- or maybe a third post-doc. :-( And such a prospective Princeton student has to ask themselves, is Princeton University (the current flagship of global capitalism) the right place to find or make answers to those sort of problems? I frankly do not know, having been out of the physical university community for so long -- but based on the current issue of PAW alone, I suspect the answer is still, "Not yet". :-(
We seemingly rush headlong to a technological singularity
that is otherwise in some ways just a mirror of our own choice of virtues.
And academia has a big part to play in this -- but it is conflicted as to where it stands and what virtues it will emphasize in years to come.
The need for balance even with a new mythology of abundance
As is suggested here, I personally feel life and society need a balance of meshwork and hierarchy:
Indeed, one must resist the temptation to make hierarchies into villains and meshworks into heroes, not only because, as I said, they are constantly turning into one another, but because in real life we find only mixtures and hybrids, and the properties of these cannot be established through theory alone but demand concrete experimentation.
As well as a balance of selfishness and altruism:
If Marxism is the delusion that one can run society purely on altruism and collectivism, then libertarianism is the mirror-image delusion that one can run it purely on selfishness and individualism. Society in fact requires both individualism and collectivism, both selfishness and altruism, to function.
But it has to be a balance of those things in a mythology of abundance, not
a mythology of scarcity that the current Princeton University is the flagship for. I used to think "exclusive" meant "high quality" -- now, thanks to the academic work of George A. Miller and others, I understand it just means:
"not divided or shared with others" among other senses. And frankly, I don't think the world really cares if they are excluded from PU Reunions, but everybody cares if they are excluded from the very basics of life -- including a conception of "mutual security" which Donald Rumsfeld '54 seems not to be able to understand in setting the tone for military doctrine (before "resigning").
A Proposal, the Lewis Center for Post-Scarcity Studies and Economic Transcendence
To focus on "restorative justice" of action, instead of "punitive justice" of dissolution,
how can the punishment of Princeton be made to fit the crime of creating a hyper-competitive Donald Rumsfeld?
As a start, that the Princeton community could at least more than redouble its efforts
to promote a post-scarcity mythology globally, rather than still implicitly promoting the myths
of scarcity and the value of competition (including through the PhD process) that help justify war. See, also:
"War is a racket"
Here is one approach to "reboot" Princeton for a post-scarcity world. This is just an example. No doubt the creative minds on campus can come up with better proposals once they turn their attention to the matter. Should these be followed, it's a lot more likely I might encourage my own child to apply in a dozen years or so. :-)
Or, I might then maybe encourage somebody, like, say, this 18 year old person of my recent internet acquaintance to apply: :-)
Hey, my name is Bryan, I am 18 years old and living just south of Austin in Buda, Texas, enrolled in the local high school. Will be attending the University of Texas at Austin starting August 2008 (in chemical engineering). You should see my (outdated) roadmap to see my projects, such as free + open source automated manufacturing, in vitro meat, asteroid mining, open source do-it-yourself genetic engineering and 'biohacking' kit, AutoScholar software, synthetic biology research, etc. I also run a blog called Transapient Musings.Obviously, this is not meant to approve of everything on his site. :-) Or to say that less intense people might not also make great prospectives -- since a healthy society takes all kinds of people. Some others hang out, say, here:
Even within one person, it is often the balance of ethics and action that make the difference. But why should someone like "Bryan" choose PU over anyplace else (like University of Texas at Austin)? Yeah, PU's got a lot of labs and resources, but so do lots of other universities. The issue is, does PU have the post-scarcity "spirit" a prospective like Bryan might be looking for? And can it do a convincing job of arguing PU's strengths in the humanities will play an important role in helping someone like Bryan become a boon to humanity and not a bane? Even within the world of "free", there is still yin and yang, light and shadow. What are, say, the ethics of ideas he mentions like "brain augmentation" (Google and email archives? :-) or "transhuman tech" (eyeglasses, hearing aids, pacemakers, prosthetics, cosmetic surgery, and cellphones? :-)? I know he means more than those, of course, but these show our world is already engaged in those trends. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) already approves of the "in vitro" meat idea Bryan is interested in, so maybe not too many ethical issues there? :-)
"Where’s the beef? Try the lab. Researchers attempt to make meat without killing livestock. [PETA offers prize]"
Although PU is behind the times even on just that:
Your search - "in vitro meat" site:www.princeton.edu - did not match any documents.Lab grown (shark? :-) meat is one of the biggest upcoming revolutions in our society and PU has nothing to say about it? Bryan does.
What can PU do down the road to help assure any future similar prospective's parents or guardians that PU helps such students sort through all their dreams and ethics to set priorities, and to help them see what makes sense for a humane world and a happy life, and what does not? What sort of skills can PU help someone like that learn to be an even better collaborator on free projects? As happened with Linus Torvalds in Finland, how can PU help ethics and poetry come together with science and engineering in such a young person's life? How can PU become a more compelling alternative than such a person working on his or her own or just collaborating through the internet? In short, how can we make PU the number one choice of both Bryan *and* his parents? :-) (Even if PU is not now? :-( ) Sure Bryan may be off to other things, but there no doubt will be more people like him down the road. Many more as these ideas become more and more mainstream. While every person is unique, based on SourceForge having almost two million registered users making free software and free content, I have no doubt there are tens of thousands of high school seniors who might have related general interests in developing free software. And, there might be similar numbers in the areas of free music and free movies and free hardware and free content. It's often said that every (quasi-)military organization prepares to fight the last war. Is PU busy looking for the next military/political Donald Rumsfeld or market-driven/corporate Jeff Bezos, when it should be looking for the next free-as-in-freedom "Bryan"?
To that end, here is an alternative proposal to the modest one above.
It is in some ways perhaps inspired by the book "Ecocity Berkeley" by Richard Register.
But it approaches reforming Princeton from a "post-scarcity" point-of-view, taking an interest in ecological sustainability now for granted. So, maybe it is like "Ecocity Berkeley" crossed with Murray Bookchin's writings? :-)
And beyond, of course.
Rather than move books into a new "Lewis Science Library" (as if even just today's usual prospectives would care about that in the internet age with Google Books and so forth accessible from their dorm desktops or from networked laptops anywhere), the building could be renamed the "Lewis Center for Post-Scarcity Studies and Economic Transcendence".
Use the space to house offices for related faculty and visitors.
Some non-profits like the Buckminster Fuller Institute could be encouraged to take up residence for free.
Same to with making facilities available to "professional amateurs":
The 20th century witnessed the rise of many new professionals in fields such as medicine, science, education and politics. Amateurs and their sometimes ramshackle organizations were driven out by people who knew what they were doing and had certificates to prove it. This historic shift is now reversing with Pro-Ams: people who pursue amateur activities to professional standards are increasingly an important part of the society and economy of developed nations. Their leisure is not passive but active and participatory. Their contribution involves the deployment of publicly accredited knowledge and skills, and is often built up over a long career involving sacrifices and frustrations.
Put in a big server farm to serve free content. Or collaborate with archive.org on that.
All the books over 20 years old slated to be moved there could be digitized and served to the world, with the originals shipped to an English speaking poor place like New Delhi, India to be given away for free. When Princeton gets sued for this, the alumni lawyers could rally to its defense, either winning in court or changing the copyright laws. Then *all* the books at PU could be digitized, served to the world, and shipped for "disposal" to India, perhaps with notarized copies of original cover pages kept in a vault somewhere as proof of purchase, and the books stamped "intended for disposal; may not be resold, only given away". The URL where the book can be found at princeton.edu should also be stamped onto the inside cover. (Obviously "rare" books might be excepted from being shipped to India, and now there would be a lot more space for more of them.) The space freed in Firestone could be converted to indoor squash courts as well as office and lab space for free projects. When PU gets sued again for making its whole collection available to the public for free, tap into the alumni lawyer network to deal with it, or even tap into the endowment to solve this some way with money which would soon be near worthless anyway as more and more of the economy goes free.
The university could free all the patents and copyrights it controls, as well as make new contracts for faculty, staff, and students, that all published work done using university resources must be freely licensed.
PU could resist RIAA's FUD campaign not by using their licensed content but by becoming, like archive.org, a hub for free music.
Encourage alumni of the PU singing groups and students and staff
to record new free stuff of their own creation by adding a few recording studios for that purpose.
Again, for classic tunes, maybe get alumni lawyers involved in freeing any music over twenty years old,
perhaps by getting copyright laws passed to restore the original term of copyright.
Similarly, there could be improved support for creating free movies by PU's Triangle Club.
WPRB could commit to playing only free music:
Project '55 might help alumni raise a billion dollars from tech alumni to saturate
the airwaves about the crazieness of the current music copyright policies and the "NET Act" in the internet age.
Why let the multi-billion dollar entertainment industry tail wag the multi-trillion dollar IT industry dog? Project '55 might help reverse the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act that has kept immense amounts of copyrighted material from the public.
It might get the USA to end its involvement with the Berne convention or have the Berne convention altered to a maximum twenty year copyright term with notice required. Project '55 might get revenue raising laws passed by Congress to tax all copyrights annually at a 3% of a self-assessed public domain buyout value (where anyone can pay the rightsholder the self-assessed value to buy the copyright into the public domain). See my post:
"Copyright Tax for the Privilege of the Monopoly"
Copyrights were originally monopolies granted "for a limited time" with the notion that the costs they imposed on society would be repaid by the work moving into the public domain after that limited time. That bargain has effectively been broken because the terms are so long (and likely will be in perpetuity in the U.S.A. given the recent Supreme Court decision). Yet, copyrights still pose a cost on society. There must be courts to dispute them, police to enforce them. There must be prisons to hold the millions of copyright offenders. Like no one in the 1960s would imagine a million U.S. citizens behind bars for non-violent drug offenses in the 1990s, it is possible that there may be a million U.S. citizens behind bars in the 2010s for copyright violations as the "War on Those Who Share" gets underway. There must be an information superhighway to transport these works, and standards for disseminating them. Authors of derivative works must spend time researching whether a work is already in the public domain, or locating all the related rights holders if it is not. Extensions of the principle of copyright to cover the ideas in the work such as characters or plot lines or other structures make it ever more costly to create new non-infringing works. Many new or derived works are not created because of these chilling effects, which is a hidden cost of copyrights. People in developing nations or others who cannot pay use fees for copyrighted works are deprived of education or enjoyment when such a deprivation does not directly benefit anyone. So, given all these indirect costs of granting copyright monopolies, society is justified in imposing a financial cost on copyright holders to rebalance the copyright bargain.
Princeton University no doubt contains a vast knowledgebase related to getting alumni to volunteer and donate resources, whether through volunteering their time interviewing prospectives, contributing to Annual Giving, or making a few really big donations. Rather than continue to hoard that knowledge and use it for selfish sharkish ends to feed on alumni to support the old Princeton, take that knowledge and generalize it for the world, to encourage a world wide gift economy. That's an example of how Princeton's knowledge in practice is completely different from the theoretical knowledge pushed by the economics department.
Princeton could follow Penn's lead and make a center for "Positive Psychology", so as to improve on this:
"Results 1 - 7 of 7 from www.princeton.edu for "positive psychology"
The two PU profs (one emiritus) who have pages that mention it could be asked to set one up:
Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The Positive Psychology Center promotes research, training, education, and the dissemination of Positive Psychology. This field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.And from:
Is positive psychology an abandoning or rejection of the rest of psychology?
In a word, no. Since World War II, psychology has focused its efforts on psychological problems and how to remedy them. These efforts have reaped large dividends. Great strides have been made in understanding and treating psychological disorders. Effective treatments now exist for more than a dozen disorders that were once seen as intractable. ... One consequence of this focus on psychological problems, however, is that psychology has little to say about what makes life most worth living. Positive psychology proposes to correct this imbalance by focusing on strengths as well as weaknesses, on building the best things in life as well as repairing the worst. It asserts that human goodness and excellence is just as authentic as distress and disorder, that life entails more than the undoing of problems. Psychology's concern with remedying human problems is understandable and should certainly not be abandoned. Human suffering demands scientifically informed solutions. Suffering and well being, however, are both part of the human condition, and psychologists should be concerned with both.
All the university's courses and research could be rethought along post-scarcity lines as to content.
All letter grading could be abolished as well and replaced with portfolios, and so on.
If any students need to work at PU, then *all* students should be required to work the same hours per week. Ideally though, work around campus would be arranged to be done on a voluntary basis and that would be disconnected from money. Let the trash pile up for a few weeks and see how soon students start taking these issues seriously and figuring out novel solutions. :-)
OK, I know that last idea may not sit well with the New Jersey Health Department. So, separate out the foodscraps and compost them first then. :-)
Maybe ask this other internet acquaintance of mine and high school senior, "Mike", to help with that:
Hmm. 80,000 dollars over four years at the University of Colorado paying for a major that I'm not even sure I like could buy 800 lap tops and educate 4000 children. Double that after masters and PhD. I have some thinking to do. I've always wanted to make a living off of plants, own a nursery and grow bonsai, maybe set up some city composting projects and live simply, with time for educating myself on the side. My parents would say that still requires a degree in horticulture with a minor in business, and it probably would, not because the knowledge would be useful (it wouldn't be, it would be mostly theoretical or filler, what I need to know could be learned free online) but because employees, loans, and investors all require having a degree.A Post-Scarcity Princeton could make Mike's dream come true right now, to learn important trade skills on campus, without a degree -- as a student or not. :-) Maybe a "Mike" (or a "Michelle") might already be at Princeton, working in Prospect Garden,
and secretly laughing (both in joy for themselves and sorrow for others) at all the other young people at PU who are heading for lives on both real treadmills and career treadmills, when he or she gets to be in the sun and rain and work with plants and think about what he or she wants to think about right now? And get paid to do it, too. :-) You can also see that high school seniors are beginning to wise up to the racket that is higher education. Granted, he had some help. :-) And I'm sure, again, that while every individual is unique, that there will be more and more high school seniors who share Mike's sentiments, especially with talk of food shortages in the paper (even if those shortages are mostly from speculation, not a real lack of enough to go around). Or also water shortages. And Mike's heartfelt email shows that all that doom and gloom in the papers is a farce with people like Mike around who are being prevented from learning and doing by the very social systems that claim to be set up to "help" him.
Even Socrates, that executed "corruptor of youth", probably made his living from a trade:
It is unclear how Socrates earned a living. According to Timon of Phlius and later sources, Socrates took over the profession of stonemasonry from his father. There was a tradition in antiquity, not credited by modern scholarship, that Socrates crafted the statues of the Three Graces, which stood near the Acropolis until the second century AD.Fortunately, nobody these days except someone like Mike is likely to learn the difference between "hemlock trees" and other similarly named things. :-( But before even he learns, should not we have an integrated, life affirming culture for people like him to be part of, rather than him having to second guess social processes that are in many ways working against him, causing him to sacrifice his youth for some undefined future reward by "investors" who likely as not won't care about his dreams anyway? As Mike might be learning, it's hard to cheat an honest person, even just out of his or her youth:
"Honest Business" by Michael Phillips
I purchased this book in 1987 just before starting my business. "Honest Business" affirmed every belief I had about how business should and could be practiced. Even concepts such as a business' responsibility to the community it conducts business in is discussed in depth. "Honest Business" gave me the courage and the steps for conducting business without foresaking my personal principles, morals, and objective. Even today this book is my constant companion; my business bible.
And how many philosophical people like "Socrates" work at PU as janitors, masons, security guards, or running the physical plant? :-)
Mr. Boothby was the curmudgeonly groundskeeper at Starfleet Academy in San Francisco on Earth. He was born about the 2260s. (TNG: "The First Duty") He worked at Starfleet Academy from about 2321 and saw many promising young cadets come and go, often offering up helpful advice and kind words, among them such prominent Starfleet captains as Picard, Janeway, Richardson, and Lopez.As an undergrad, I learned a lot about a good thankful spirit for life from Anthony "Tony" Cifelli, in charge of the the Princeton Inn Residential College's cleaning and maintenance. Thanks for your cheerfulness, even needing to work three jobs to support your family, Tony. As you were grateful, I am learning to be.
Say, wasn't even Charles Darwin interested is soil and compost and earthworms at the end (as far as writing his last book about that)?
Maybe there is more to an interest in dirt than meets the eye? :-)
For the record, my (unappreciated at the time) staff job at PU in the CE department doing robotics and 3D graphics was the best job I ever had (as "jobs" go) -- again, one can be best in the world at something even as it is going out of style. :-)
Why not make the entire university a laboratory for experiments in abolishing "work" and turning it into "play"?
Or maybe even think deeply about re-engineering "work" away altogether
via rethinking what truly needs to get done or by automating it if no one likes to do that:
Mike raises another point in his email:
It seems to me like greed is no longer good, but for a bad reason, because kids are spoiled by parents who have everything. Whether that's to our advantage or not is arguable. On one hand they are getting used to the idea of "maybe I really don't need to work when everything is so easily obtained" but on the other they get in the habit of spending their free time on persistent browser based mini games (myself included) and developing excessive social dependencies with cell phones and the dark side of the internet (chat rooms, the corrupted Y! A, social mmos). Whether people can mature to the point where they enjoy improving society and do it on their own free will is the big issue.
I don't have a great answer to that issue of "spoiling". But it could be a good topic for research at PU.
University research could be encouraged along more post-scarcity ends, by establishing related research centers. For example, Princeton could position itself as the world leader in free software for self-driving vehicles. (See, I said I'd solve the traffic problem. These networked cars could coordinate their movements better. :-) Or the world leader in free software for mammalian genetic simulation.
This would all make Princeton and the newly renamed Lewis Center for Post-Scarcity Studies and Economic Transcendence the *unique* destination in the Ivy league for any prospective interested in freedom and transcending a market economy to a gift economy.
Granted, it might be hard to catch up with someone like Paul Jones at UNC Chapel Hill, who
has spent decades creating freely accessible collections of free-to-the-user digital materials like SunSITE and Ibiblio.
But I am sure that he would just love to see Princeton try to compete; seriously, I'm sure he would even help PU be way better than anything he has ever done, and probably he would help mostly for "free". :-)
And don't be timid about this. I'm not talking a little center like the one for ethics smushed away somewhere. I'm talking burning a few billion dollars of the PU endowment to even *begin* such a transformation campus wide and turn such a big ship the flagship of capitalism. (See, I said I'd solve the issue of Congress' interest in mandating spending down the endowment. :-) Conferences. Speakers. Travel expenses. Lawsuits and legal fees. Space for free projects PU students help with. Robotic book scanners. Supercomputers for simulating free products that are easy to build. Raiding the faculty of institutions globally.
And I'm talking burning the money *fast* and burning it *now*. Because that post-scarcity iceberg is on its way, and it may be a lot closer and a lot bigger that one might think, even if it may just look like, at a first glance, that Wikipedia, GNU/Linux, WordNet, and Google might be all there is or will ever be. They won't. Even if I had to do it all myself, and thankfully I'm just small potatoes these days. Like any iceberg, most of the action is invisible, under the water. But that's what faith is for -- pick your best sources of information, think about them the best you can, and then take action, and as new things happen, revise plans and take more action.
And here is another suggestion that may seem totally counter to everything I said -- PU should *double* its tuition, maybe even *triple* it, for those who can easily pay, and otherwise make it free along the current lines for those who cannot pay. Seriously, if PU makes these transformations, or better ones, I predict the admissions department will have trouble keeping up with application processing even with tuition list price spiking $100K or $250K per year. :-) With six million millionaire families in just the USA, there are plenty of people who could afford to pay that as a gift to their child and the world. Maybe now you can see how hard it is to wrap your mind around the issues related to transcending to a post-scarcity society. And this also shows why rethinking the PU brand is so essential. All the Ivy League schools are like luxury cars and cost about a Lexus a year. Does PU want to stay in that market if that form of instruction is going the way of horse cart buggy whip manufacturers? Maybe PU might think about moving into the new industry related to flying through the internet? And then it could charge a whole lot more per plane, especially if money is going out of style.
My family couldn't afford that increased tuition of $250K/year, by the way, :-)
but then I've decided to burn any hope of a college fund now to spend time
with my kid when it most counts -- the early years. And hope that if I do that,
whet my child gets older, it will be possible from that early investment to build a happy life even if without college.
But that would be a whole other long essay to explain. :-) Essentially, and I know people will spin these words
against what else I say here, but why should I sacrifice my child's "now" for a mythical
future twenty years from now that assumes money and a PU degree will still be important?
Especially when everything I read suggests building a happy now for a young kid implies
building a happy tomorrow for a kid too? (And, yes, my kid already does chores -- I'm talking
happiness, not lack of responsibility.) So too might any parent of a prospective ask,
do I really want to spend $50K a year on the floundering brand of Princeton ground car
when I can spend, say, spend $250K a year on a post-scarcity Yale flying car and see my kid
be truly happy now as well as in the likely future?
Or spend $30K a year at UNC Chapel Hill (metaphorically a hot-air balloon by comparison to a $250K flying car?) to study with a post-scarcity-leaning Paul Jones if on a budget? :-)
Although often mistaken for other unreconstructed relics of the failed social policies of the Sixties, Paul Jones is the Director of ibiblio.org, a project that includes the Site Formerly Known as MetaLab and SunSITE, The Public's Library -- a large contributor-run digital library. Besides speaking at several conferences world-wide, Paul teaches on the faculties of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Information and Library Science. ... Paul is a founding board member of the American Open Technology Consortium, a member of the Board of Trustees of Chapel Hill Public Library, and a board member of the Linux Documentation Project. But he is most pleased to have been admitted into the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists and to have been selected in April 2003 as Best Geek in the Research Triangle by the Independent Weekly.
Of course there is one obvious flaw in all this -- how can Princeton continue to be selective if it makes a commitment to be inclusive?
That's the kind of question that should be keeping university administrators up at night, kind of like one of
the biggest issues Unitarian Universalist congregations wrestle with is how to be tolerant of intolerance?
And there likely is no easy answer. Maybe a lottery for applicants? But even that has obvious problems -- are people
commited to post-scarcity ideals? Or can they learn them? At what point does PU cease to exist going down the road
to inclusiveness as society transforms itself, and is that a bad thing? Hardly anyone bemoans, say, the relative decline of
monestaries as seats of learning and research in the Renaissance. And in a sense, that is what I am talking about here --
PU deciding to pull down the flag of global elite capitalism and put up the Jolly Roger of global common Renaissance.
As fun at PU replaced fear, and peace at PU replaced profit, the burst of creativity at Princeton University
might lead to all sorts of new ways to reinvent the university and the world.
Imagine if these students could, say, figure out a way to improve 50% on Princeton's already astoundingly efficient energy systems?
(See, I said I would address the sustainability/greening issue. :-)
That would free up more money for more scholarships. Then more students might do even more. And so on, until
Princeton was able to afford to accept all who wanted to come and give them the best residential educational experience in the world
(except for Yale, of course, where those copycats might be trying the same thing. :-) Remember:
"Studies Find Reward Often No Motivator: Creativity and intrinsic interest diminish if [a] task is done for gain"
(See, I said I'd resolve the issue of the changing landscape for financial aid. :-) One can expect that as more universities follow Princeton's lead that they will form some sort of loose network expanding to cover the globe. A bit like this idea I had as a grad student at PU:
(which is an idea I was developing from reading widely the books at Firestone Library and elsewhere on campus).
And, as with the colors on this site, maybe as a symbol of Princeton's "Self Renewal"
"Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society" by John W. Gardner
Princeton University could change its colors from "orange and black" to "orange and green"? "Orange and green" are the colors of the rising sun and the living things on which it shines. And that seems better than continuing to use the colors of the setting sun and the darkness to follow.
"Why are Princeton's colors orange and black?"
Of everything I propose, naturally, this change would be the hardest of all for the Princeton University community to make, as it has to do with the core of how Princeton explains itself to itself, or its mythology. A lot of songs would have to be rewritten too. :-)
"Going green, going green, it's the best blessed thing I've seen." :-)
And of course, ironically, everyone else in the world will think it is about Princeton finally admitting it is all about the other green stuff, money. :-) So, as with IBM, it might take burning another billion dollars or so of the endowment to let everyone know about its change of heart as a community. Does PU want to commit to a world of "shiny happy people holding hands"? Or does it want to continue to commit to something else? :-(
From John Gardner's 1971 book:
As I was browsing in a university bookstore recently, I heard an apple-cheeked girl say to her companion, "The truth is that our society and everything in it is in a state of decay." I studied her carefully and I must report that she did not seem even slightly decayed. But what of the society as a whole? Decay is hardly the word for what is happening to us. We are witnessing changes so profound and far-reaching that the mind can hardly grasp all the implications. ... Only the blind and complacent could fail to recognize the great tasks of renewal facing us -- in government, in education, ...John Gardner goes on to say that every generation faces the problem of renewing itself to meet new challenges emerging from the very success of the old ways of doing things. And he suggests that social values are not some drying up old reservoir, but rather a reservoir of variable capacity that must be recharged anew in every generation. Democracy -- use it or lose it. Free speech on the internet -- use it or lose it. Social capital -- use it or lose it?
The PU economics department, of course, should be abolished as part of this transition. :-)
OK, that will never happen, so it should be at least "strongly admonished" for past misbehavior. :-(
What misbehavior? Essentially, the PU Economics department has taken part in a global effort to build an
economic "psychofrakulator". How does a psychofrakulator work? Consider a paraphrase of something Doc Heller says in the movie Mystery Men:
Dr. Heller: It's a psychofrakulator. They used to say it couldn't be built. The equations were so complex that most of the scientists that worked on it wound up in the insane asylum [in Chicago]. ... It creates a cloud of [dollar denomiated] radically-fluctuating free-deviant chaotrons which penetrate the synaptic relays [via television]. It's concatenated with a synchronous transport switch [of values from long term seven generation life-affirming love of caring to short-term immediate profit and immediate gratification suicidal death-affirming love of money] that creates a virtual tributary [back to large corporations]. It's focused onto a biobolic reflector [of the elite controlled mass media] and what happens is that [economic] hallucinations become reality and the [global] brain [and global ecosystem] is literally fried from within.Or in other words:
"Screwed: What 30 Years of Conservative Economics Feels Like"
"Obituary: Conservative Economic Policy"
Conservative economic policy is dead. It committed suicide. Its allegiance to market solutions, tax cuts and spending cuts, supply-side nonsense, manipulative and corrosive ties to industry and the rich, have left it wholly unable to cope with the challenges we face. Its terribly limited toolbox simply cannot address the economic insecurities and opportunities generated by today's global, interconnected, polluted, insecure, dynamic, bubble-prone economy. ...
And any economists who don't want to move to, say, Chicago should be asked to follow this twelve step program: :-)
"Confessions of a Recovering Economist" by Jim Stanford
Good evening. My name is Jim. And I am an economist. It is seventeen days since I last uttered the phrase "supply and demand." But the demon still lurks, untamed, within me. ...
Every other addiction has a Twelve Step program, laced with tough love and blunt self-honesty. Why not a Twelve Step program for economists? God knows, they've done enough damage with their arrogant, drunken prescriptions. Here's how each and every economist can face up to their inner demons, and make their own small contribution to setting things right.
Step 1: Admit you have a problem. Like they say at the AA meetings, this is half the solution. Where economists are concerned, however, it's easier said than done. Getting a substance abuser to face the facts of their addiction is nothing compared to convincing an economist that they're hooked on elegant but useless mathematical models, and authoritative but destructive policy advice. Where economists are concerned, we're talking denial with a capital 'D.'
Step 2: Accept that all your efforts to explain the world have failed. The 'market' is the holiest symbol in all of economics. It's magically automatic and efficient. And supply always equals demand. The whole profession of mainstream, 'neoclassical' economics is dedicated to the study of markets and how they can be perfected. The problem, however, is that in real life these idealized 'markets' don't explain much at all. Powerful non-market forces determine most of what happens in the economy - things like tradition, demographics, class, gender and race, geography, and institutions. Indeed, what we call the 'market' is itself a complex, historically constructed social institution - not some autonomous, inanimate forum. Power and position are at least as important to economics, as supply and demand. ...
But I'm mainly using the PU economics department as a stand-in for the problems our world faces and past misdeeds
of all economists, which is not really fair, I know; I'm not in any way expert on their current research.
A few of the faculty, even twenty years ago, may well have been concerned about some of these issues.
The closest I came to the PU economics department was rooming with a PU Economics graduate student for a time during
the summer after I left the graduate college and he was one of the most
fun people I ever met and he was interested in global issues. We became friends. But, beyond the troubles I saw him have finding an advisor,
I saw this clever and witty fellow beaten down over the years as we stayed in touch, even to the point of divorce
as he was forced to sacrifice his marriage to a wonderful person for his PhD (though granted, he could have abandoned his degree).
To me, that sums up what the PU Economics department has really been about -- numbers and credentials instead of joy and family.
The department may well have improved some over the last two decades.
Still, at the very least, the PU Economics department faculty should be admonished
for not writing the post-scarcity part of this essay instead of me (with my baggage. :-)
Obviously, as with Paul Krugman, there are some partial exceptions who maybe should perhaps be admonished double for raising our hopes? :-)
To my knowledge, none of them look at the actual issue of the nature of work:
"Results 1 - 10 of about 19 from www.econ.princeton.edu for work nature. (0.12 seconds) [None relevant]"
"Your search - site:www.econ.princeton.edu "why work" - did not match any documents."
like Bob Black raises:
"Your search - site:www.econ.princeton.edu "bob black" - did not match any documents."
Again, from Bob Black:
Clearly these ideology-mongers have serious differences over how to divvy up the spoils of power. Just as clearly, none of them have any objection to power as such and all of them want to keep us working.
OK, maybe Bob Black is less known, but what about E.F. Schumacher and Buddhist Economics?
"Your search - site:www.econ.princeton.edu schumacher - did not match any documents."
Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are as free from "metaphysics" or "values" as the law of gravitation. We need not, however, get involved in arguments of methodology. Instead, let us take some fundamentals and see what they look like when viewed by a modern economist and a Buddhist economist.
Should the PU economics department wish to stay intact rather than move en masse to another university, the calculus of infinites mentioned at the start of this essay is one new direction for their research and teaching.
But, if PU economists still want to make charts and theories about finite things (they're good at that, obviously, and it is
labor that they seem to love to do, see Schumacher :-), then what they
need to start looking at and charting are physical concepts like Ray Kurzweil considers here:
"The Law of Accelerating Returns"
PU economists could graph historical trends over time like:
* increasing computation delivered per unit mass of silicon,
* the increasing amount of freely licensed software and other content,
* the increasing percentage of human attention devoted to free content,
* the increasing electrical energy captured per unit mass for windmills,
* the increasing incarceration rate per capita in the USA,
* the decreasing amount of time it takes a solar collector to repay the energy used in its manufacture,
* the decreasing ground crew size per space rocket launch,
* the decreasing topsoil depth per capita,
* the decreasing global biodiversity, and so on.
Obviously, they'd also want to look at other things at websites like this for more ideas:
"Redefining Progress: Shifting public policy to achieve a sustainable economy, a healthy environment and a just society"
Like Kurzweil, PU economists could start applying their skills to charting trends in the real basis of prosperity. They need to move beyond charting derived trends that are social constructions like fluctuations in fiat currency. They need to start admitting that as a fiat currency system breaks down with a transition to the emerging post-scarcity economy, dollars are no longer a very good way to measure things (if they ever were). They need to remember that currency is as arbitrary system related to a current economic control system which is rapidly becoming obsolete. Fiat dollars are essentially ration units, and rationing is becoming obsolete as part of the emerging post-scarcity society. For example, personal internet bandwidth use and server disk space are now so cheap as to be effectively "too cheap to matter" except in the most extreme cases for some small number of individuals. So, PU economists need to get back to basics and start charting real physically measurable (or estimateable) things. And then they need to think about the interrelations of those real things. Essentially, they can still use a lot of their old skills at analysis, but rather than apply them to one thing, money, they need to apply them to thousands of individual measurements of aspects of life-support and production. And the challenge will be in seeing how to make predictions about systems where these thousands of factors are difficult to interchange for each other (for example, topsoil depth versus sewing machine production).
The historic focus of PU economists on charting changes in social constructions (fiat dollars) instead of changes in technological capacity
that is one cause of PU economists failing to predict a post-scarcity society. It is no surprise it took someone like Ray Kurzweil
to be able to handle both the mathematical content and the technological content to provide his analysis of the timing
of a post-scarcity transition (or even broader singularity). However, just because Kurzweil is good at seeing the trends
leading up to a singularity in our society, does not mean that he can see beyond it (and he admits this). So it is important
to understand that the policy proposals Kurzweil suggests come out of his own longstanding conservative/libertarian financial
perspective as a self-made technology millionaire. The exact shape of a future society in terms of what core
priorities and values it reflects is still up in the air, and may well be very different then the
propertarian approach Kurzweil assumes:
as opposed to, say, libertarian socialism:
or something else much broader as a gift economy:
or something much narrower as an internet mediated central planning like Chile's Cybersyn pioneered in the 1970s:
There could be a fruitful interdisciplinary collaboration between PU economists with their charting skills for historical trends and PU engineers with their technical knowledge of what physical characteristics of systems are important to production.
In general, economists need to look at what are major sources of *real* cost as opposed to *fiat* cost in producing anything. Only then can one make a complete control system to manage resources within those real limits, perhaps using arbitrary fiat dollars as part of a rationing process to keep within the real limits and meet social objectives (or perhaps not, if the cost of enforcing rationing for some things like, say, home energy use or internet bandwidth exceeds the benefits).
Here is a sample meta-theoretical framework PU economists no doubt could vastly improve on if they turned their minds to it. Consider three levels of nested perspectives on the same economic reality -- physical items, decision makers, and emergent properties of decision maker interactions. (Three levels of being or consciousness is a common theme in philosophical writings, usually rock, plant, and animal, or plant, animal, and human.)
At a first level of perspective, the world we live in at any point in time can be considered to have physical content like land or tools or fusion reactors like the sun, energy flows like photons from the sun or electrons from lightning or in circuits, informational patterns like web page content or distributed language knowledge, and active regulating processes (including triggers, amplifiers, and feedback loops) built on the previous three types of things (physicality, energy flow, and informational patterns) embodied in living creatures, bi-metallic strip thermostats, or computer programs running on computer hardware.
One can think of a second perspective on the first comprehensive one by picking out only the decision makers like bi-metallic strips in thermostats, computer programs running on computers, and personalities embodied in people and maybe someday robots or supercomputers, and looking at their characteristics as individual decision makers.
One can then think of a third level of perspective on the second where decision makers may invent theories about how to control each other using various approaches like internet communication standards, ration unit tokens like fiat dollars, physical kanban tokens, narratives in emails, and so on. What the most useful theories are for controlling groups of decision makers is an interesting question, but I will not explore it in depth. But I will pointing out that complex system dynamics at this third level of perspective can emerge whether control involves fiat dollars, "kanban" tokens, centralized or distributed optimization based on perceived or predicted demand patterns, human-to-human discussions, something else entirely, or a diverse collection of all these things. And I will also point out that one should never confuse the reality of the physical system being controlled for the control signals (money, spoken words, kanban cards, internet packet contents, etc.) being passed around in the control system.
The above is somewhat inspired by "cybernetics".
So, I'd suggest, should the PU Economics Department faculty be kept on, the department should be renamed the "Princeton University Cybernetics Department" with there being an "historical economics" subsection all the current economics faculty are assigned to, and one faculty member each from the PU Department of Religion, the PU Department of History, and the PU department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering be put in as an acting team triumvirate leadership of the larger department. :-) As economics faculty broaden their research, then they could move into other new Cybernetics department sections. See also:
"The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society" by Norbert Wiener
What is more pressing in understanding a post-scarcity economy is seeing what real physical limits exist currently and how they could change over time. This requires examining physical production from first principles, since only when one understands the physical limits of a system does a discussion of various control systems and their strengths and weaknesses make sense.
The essentials to producing anything in general are:
* Human time (or other decision making time)
* Raw Materials
Plus there is maybe the effort involved in cleaning up environmental or social damage. In classical economics there is also "rent" for access to money or land or copyrights or patents and so on, but for the sake of a physical analysis we can ignore that because rent is an arbitrary social construction related to rationing, and so is a higher level concept.
On replacing human time with computers and automation in a couple decades, see, for background:
"Kurzweil says, by the 2020s we'll be ... building machines as smart as ourselves."
And to see what is happening right now:
"Supercomputer Simulates Human Visual System"
What cool things can be done with the 100,000+ cores of the first petaflop supercomputer, the Roadrunner, that were impossible to do before? Because our brain is massively parallel, with a relatively small amount of communication over long distances, and is made of unreliable, imprecise components, it's quite easy to simulate large chunks of it on supercomputers. The Roadrunner has been up only for about a week, and researchers from Los Alamos National Lab are already reporting inaugural simulations of the human visual system, aiming to produce a machine that can see and interpret as well as a human. After examining the results, the researchers 'believe they can study in real time the entire human visual cortex.' How long until we can simulate the entire brain?
It's amazing to me how quickly sci-fi supposedly set in the 24th century is becoming reality:
"Star Trek TNG: The Game (episode)"
Wesley and Robin investigate the [video game] device in sickbay, [using a computer simulation of the human visual system and other brain systems] and determine that it has a psychotropically addictive side-effect, and that it stimulates increased serotonin production. Most worryingly, it also stimulates the brain's higher reasoning area.
And it doesn't take human level AI or vision to do the kind of things ants can do -- gather materials and process them chemically. So we will see big changes before human AI, even if human level AI for some reason was impossible or undesirable.
Looking at things from this perspective, how can everything become free as computer costs decrease?
Well, if you use robotics and automation, the human time goes away as a necessity.
If human-equivalent time is free, then there is no human time cost to the other items
as well. So, say for energy, with free labor, you only need the other
categories to make more energy producing equipment, at which point you have
all the free energy you want. So, with free labor and free energy, to get
free raw materials all you need is tooling and transportation. And with free
labor, energy, and raw materials, you get tooling if you you have
transportation, But with free labor, energy, raw materials, and tooling,
then you have the ingredients for free transportation. And with free
everything else, the robots and computers are free too.
Ultimately, there are only two costs to anything -- labor and rent (ignoring
the destruction of environmental capital). Since rent is societally
determined, if labor is free (via computer driven robots) then everything
can be free eventually. Granted, there are *physical* limits involving how fast you can do something
with the robots or 3D printers on hand. Those physical time limits and their interdependencies
are well worth studying by a new breed of post-scarcity economists.
But in practice, if you look at
nature, the long term limits are more like incident sunlight and our planet has
tens of thousands times more incident sunlight then our current society
would need if it was all electric. Most materials can be recycled and so do no pose limits. So as
computing replaces labor, everything can eventually be "free", as long as physical capital is
produced faster than it wears out or is consumed. No doubt many of the mathematical techniques
economists have developed for thinking about imaginary things like fiat dollar return on investment
may have some applicability to more complex models considering energy return on an investment of energy,
or computational return on an investment of mass, or the sustainable yield of consumer product mass
from a productive physical system with a certain target growth rate of mass and energy converted into robots
given tooling wear, and so on. Here is a paper prototype of such an analysis system which considers
tool wear in relation to expanding industrial capacity:
Princeton University Freecycle Transportation Network -- an internet of physical packages
Here is just one more example of changes to PU's infrastructure and operations from a Post-Scarcity point of view. These might take burning another billion dollars of the PU endowment or so, but you will see soon another reason why money is going out of style anyway, whether PU does this or someone else. :-) But, there may well be reasonable objections to it, so consider it first mainly as a thought experiment in understanding Post-Scarcity style issues. Maybe it is both possible and worth doing, maybe it is neither.
A big problem
in a post-scarcity society is not so much how to make abundance, but how to get rid of it. :-)
The Freecycle network mentioned at the start is an example of that:
Or, from Wikipedia:
The Freecycle Network (often abbreviated TFN or just known as Freecycle) is a non-profit organization ... that organizes a worldwide network of "gifting" groups, aiming to divert reusable goods from landfill. It provides a worldwide online registry, and coordinates the creation of local groups and forums for individuals and non-profits to offer and receive free items for reuse or recycling, promoting gift economics as a motivating cultural outlook. "Changing the world one gift at a time" is The Freecycle Network's official tagline.(Note that "Freecycle" is a trademark, so if PU used it, it would need permission.)
Obviously, long term the solution in a few decades might be general purpose nanotech 3D printers that can both "print" (or "compile") and "unprint" (or "decompile").
Perhaps you don't believe that kind of 3D printing and unprinting is possible or even desirable (perhaps due to energy costs of disassembly). Or maybe you think 3D printing might be possible, but would take a long time. Or perhaps you expect much production and disposal may still be centralized at least at the neighborhood level. Or maybe you expect that people will still have sentimental attachments to specific items they wish to store and retrieve. So, until all those issues are resolved for 3D printing, how can PU handle the embarrasment of material riches it has now and will soon have more of? And how can it make it *easy* to do the same as "The Freecycle Network" does -- give away items to people who want them instead of sending them to a landfill?
Material transportation and storage systems (like Amazon uses) could play a big role here.
As could interactive computer information systems on material goods (like eBay pioneered).
How might these be used together?
Princeton University could put in place a system of kiosks around campus which had what looked like Star Trek matter replicators.
These would all be connected underground to one or more warehouses. Whenever anyone needed anything on campus,
they would go to a kiosk and flip through the display to find what they wanted in the warehouse.
Then, using their university ID card, or something else, or nothing at all :-),
they would request the item (say, a specific soccer ball they like) be delivered to the kiosk.
Presumably, using fast robots, and maybe pneumatic tubes (perhaps in old steam tunnels), within minutes the item would be delivered
into the kiosk's reception area. But here is the important point -- when the person was done with the item,
rather than worry about storing the item in their dorm room, they could walk up to any kiosk and
just put the ball back into a waiting container, where it would be scanned, identified,
and moved back to a warehouse. See also the idea of "spimes":
"When Blobjects Rule the Earth"
Think of this as a sort of "interlibrary loan" for any physical object.
"Material Handling System"
"Han-Tek, Inc. Automated Conveyor, Palletizer, Wrapper"
"The Art of Sortation in the Conveyor Industry"
Books could of course be put into the system too. Here is a video of automated handling of books:
"Automated Materials Handling (AMH) system for books"
An automated system can even handle huge shipping container sized objects. like here:
(Well, maybe not exactly like in that picture of collapsed containers. :-)
(Also, I'm not affiliated with any of these places; I'm just picking examples from the web.)
I like this title and the first part of this article which also applies to this idea:
"How shipping containers shortened the life span of petro-civilization"
In 2005, roughly 18 million containers worldwide made over 200 million trips (wikipedia). Containers come in many sizes, an average one is 40 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8 feet high, the size of three 10 by 10 foot bedrooms. There are 1,300 foot-long ships now that can carry 7,250 of them. It's mind boggling to think about how different the world is now. My grandparents ate what was in season, an orange was a precious Christmas gift. Today, the Japanese are eating Wyoming beef and we're driving Japanese cars. Before containers were used to move cargo, port cities had long piers where boxes and bales were moved by sweat and muscle onto ships. Longshoremen lived within two miles of the docks in cheap housing. Now the piers are gone and the only sweat comes from yuppies on treadmills in luxury apartments. The cost of moving products by any means, whether truck, train, or ship, was often so high most goods were made locally. Factories were often located near ports to shorten the distance of getting products to ships. The idea of containerization was around for a long time, and a few companies experimented with doing this and failed for various reasons. It took Malcolm McLean, the founder of Sea-Land, and standardization, to make containerization really take off. The cost of shipping goods, whether the container was on land or water, dropped so drastically, that suddenly it made more economic sense for a factory to be located wherever land, labor, and electricity were inexpensive. Millions of high-paying factory jobs were lost as containerization made it possible for factories to move overseas.
My father, a merchant mariner for about a quarter century around WWII, saw the rise of container ships. He liked the idea, even though some of his liveliehood for a time depended on knowing how to operate things like steam-powered cranes (when no one else around knew anymore). Still, that article misses the big post-scarcity picture and assumes a lasting energy crisis. :-( Guess they don't know about Nanosolar and similar renewable energy initiatives -- or the ones PU might make soon. :-)
There are several variations on the idea that are easy to make. The kiosks could be dispensed with (as well
as ripping up parts of campus yet again :-) and the system could respond to requests made anywhere on campus from
a wired or wireless computer (or even a cell phone). Delivery robots could bring the object to where it was requested,
or even to where the person was as they moved to around campus, perhaps tracked via their cell phone or some other way (Star Trek TNG
"Willow Garage - RoboDevelopment 2007"
Or one could make hybrids of kiosks that were serviced by above ground deliver robots. Or, one could even dispense with the delivery infrastructure, and just expect people to go to a fully automated warehouse directly. Or even a partially automated one. Items could be moved between various warehouses on campus or put in delivery robots near expected needs to increase response time. Likely a few standard metal or plastic container sizes would be selected and used. Items in the warehouse would either be stored in the transport container or transferred to shelving. One container might have lots of room if occupied with, say, half-used pencils, and so other things could be added, with the expectation that if a container shows up with a half dozen unrelated things -- a tennis racket, at unused bra still in the original packaging, some marbles, a CD of Grover Washington's music, and a saxophone, the person getting the delivery would just take *whatever* they wanted in addition to what was requested, and the delivery system would rescan (laser 3D imaging? RFID? stereo vision? Smell sensors?) and put the rest back into inventory. One of the things you could request from the system is empty containers to put things in -- these might come directly or bundled inside other containers.
Here are some further twists. Everything a student or alumnus put into the system could perhaps (check with the tax lawyers) be considered a "donation" to Princeton University, same as given to Good Will or the Salvation Army. The university could supply the student or his or her parents or guardians with a detailed receipt of everything put into the system for tax deduction purposes. No more situations like my wife encounters at some such places, where high quality donated items get left out in the rain from lack of room or staff. Note that groups like the Salvation Army could make use of this system, scanning the system's inventory for worn things that could be fixed up with a little effort.
When people put things into the system, like any donor, they might attach conditions.
They might say anyone can order up the object. Or they might say only Princetonians
could order the object forever. Or maybe for three years. Or they could say
that if the object was unrequested for a few years by Princetonians,
it could then be distributed off campus. There is an issue here
of whether the original donor's license follows the object forever (the Spime idea)
or just until the next person gets the object. There are all sorts
of licensing combinations. All sorts of restrictions. But ideally,
rather than have a lot of licenses, our society might
settle on a few basic approaches -- like three years for PU then OK for anybody.
Or something like that. Part of the problem here is that we are involved in a *transition*
to post-scarcity. So, things that might work differently in the future when everyone moves
objects around as easily as data packets on the internet (through container boxes that are
the physical analogy of digital packets), and when
everyone trusts in the abundance of the system enough not to feel a compulsion to hoard
or not feeling they have to take things out of the system just to sell things.
So, some aspects of setting licenses (the GPL is an example) have to do with
managing that transition in a way that makes something work now, and makes future progress possible.
Obviously, PU doesn't want crowds on Nassau Street sucking out all its office supplies for resale the first day.
So, maybe one has to think about a plan with stages of licenses. As well as related social norms.
This book has some related ideas:
"The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia" by Ursula K. Le Guin
Obviously, a variation on this is also that in some cases only the person who put the object into the system could get it back out -- or someone he or she allows (for a fee or not). But what would be the fun of that? :-) But yes, perhaps there would be some of that -- people hoarding using the system. But, one could look at reports of that, and then perhaps give these people help in overcoming their need to hoard. The good news for hoarding is that if a hoarder decides to become a sharer, the change only requires a few mouse clicks. :-) Maybe to discourage hoarding, a storage fee could be charged for such hoarded items stored with restricted delivery instructions? And I would expect any commercial use of the system would also slowly decline over time as a relative percentage of use, after perhaps an initial relative flurry of commerce, same as with the digital internet after it went beyond academia.
Eventually a lot of junk might accumulate in the system -- old shoes, broken balloons,
obsolete one-Google-equivalent laptops, :-) stuff like that. So how to get rid of it all?
One possibility is to just set up a Kiosk on Nassau Street and let anyone in the world
pick what they want and just take it away. Or the materials could be listed
on eBay as free (except for shipping or handling). Or, the system could be interlinked
with a similar one at Yale, and presumably the old shoes and last year's dresses would flow that way. :-) Or, let's call it, "vintage clothing". :-)
And if they did not, PU could set up terminals in materially poor places like, say, the country of Malawi
or the city of Trenton, NJ
or wherever and periodically ship out whatever was asked for via containers. People in materially poor countries would have to be patient to get their used shoes or worn glasses, but many of them already are very good at patience. Eventually this entire system could be used globally. Imagine, say, you leave stuff you don't want in containers on the street. As the Postal Service or UPS comes by to drop things off, they also pick up those containers to put into the system. Essentially, at that point this Freecycle-ish material goods version of the internet might begin to dominate global trade. And people might also use it for business needs as well as sending gifts to family and friends. Fees for business use might cover all the costs of operating it, like craigslist only charges for certain ads. But, eventually, I would expect this would all diminish the value of money to the point where people would just maintain this system for the same reason people operate their local garbage collection systems or mail delivery system. Also, if you're like me you're tired of all those empty leftover Amazon boxes piling up, so if the containers used were sturdier, the empties even could just be left at the curb to be picked up and put into use elsewhere, perhaps for years and thousands of trips around the world.
The system might have an aspect that allows people globally to submit requests of things they might like. Maybe they want them for free (preferred) or maybe they would be willing to pay for them (or bid for them) or maybe they might by willing to trade other items for them. Amazon has "wish lists"; this system could also have "wishes". If you live in a materially poor country, you might put in a "wish" for, say, a good pair of boots, size 9. Maybe someday someone at Princeton who is having a bad day might decide to cheer themselves up by giving you their used pair, or might buy you a new set and put it in the system for delivery -- or even buy you a new one entirely through the system. Physical stores would likely of course decline as this system was widely adopted -- many would become virtual stores, their inventory just store securely in some part of the system. (This might free up a lot of space on Nassau Street for the university to use for expansion. :-) In general, one would want this system to be designed to make it easy to give gifts. Maybe it might be tied in with a way that people could blog about their lives or make video diaries, making this idea similar in some ways to "microcredit" but typically as a gift. As with Heifer, maybe you might ask the recipient to pass on a similar gift someday to someone (or a similar gift in proportion to their wealth, since a pair of boots might be a trivial gift for the donor but most of the recipient's wealth).
The containers to use in this system would be the subject of a lot of study themselves. Maybe they even might expand and contract some as needed. Perhaps they would have some kind of auto-expanding cushioning material for preventing damage during shipment or storage. Some might even be self-guiding. Many might have open tops or be pallets with standard attachment systems. Boxes might come in a variety of material or formats (cardboard, plastic, metal, wood, etc.) each with their own international standards governing bar code placement or label format or robotic attachment handle or RFID locator or wireless network hardware or sensors or whatever other aspects were important. Some box styles might have active climate control (to stay hot or cold for a time).
There might be standards for opening and closing boxes, so you might have the house robots or receiving automation open boxes for you in advance and inspect and repack the contents, if you were nervous about the delivery. Routing hardware on routes within the system might do that as well for suspicious packages. Some boxes might be sealed with tape, but I'd expect many would have alternative ways of opening and closing, perhaps with electronic locks (active or passive).
I'm expecting most of these container boxes might be in the range of sizes of typical Amazon boxes.
That is, about from shoe box sized to microwave sized. But some might be smaller
and some might be huge -- like for storing your car when you arrive on campus. (See, I said I'd solve the parking problem. :-)
"Amazing Parking System"
But if you don't like that solution, just use the self-driving automobile software PU will develop as above and have the cars park themselves at a distant lot and return on demand. :-)
Parking your car in the system brings up security. You might only want your car or other item to be released back to you or someone you authorize. You might only want it stored in particular secure places and only handled by certain secure processes. You might want it only contained in containers meeting certain requirements or standards, or only transferred to similar containers or only inspected by certain processes you agree to. You might want the container to keep a visual record of whoever accesses it. If you allow others to use your car, you might want to have the container scan your car before someone else takes it out as well as when someone puts it back in storage (like rental companies do). This way you can see if someone did not take good care of it. In the transition period from a scarcity world view to a post scarcity world view, people might use these features to run rental businesses for any kind of equipment or products -- cars, lawnmowers, jewelery, tuxedos, and so on. There are a lot of things to think about there when looking at the system from the stand point of use for only transient storage (the service like a parcel locker at an airport supplies).
When I was at IBM Research about ten years ago (contracting), IBM held a future-oriented brainstorming session with high school students. One of the sessions related to the future of packaging. They talked about things like having a GPS in every package. And maybe digital paper as the display on the package (run by a limited computer, and in thirty years a "limited" cheap computer might be more powerful then one of today's supercomputers :-). Add in a solar panel or inductor or isotope generator (or even cold fusion :-) to the package, along with a wireless network link, and you have essentially a complete OLPC computer system. Imagine a world so wealthy that anybody who even got a discarded Amazon box had access to all the world's knowledge for "free to the user". :-) Maybe working towards such a future might help justify Princeton's continued existence as a going concern, instead of a "going out of business sale" dissolution to provide $100 networked computers to every poor family on the planet right now? Or maybe not. It might still depend on who you ask which appears better.
Maybe it's time again to ask high school students what the future could be like?
And here is another place to start, as well:
"Google search on reuseable/reusable containers"
Or people could ask Historical Societies (or old alumni) what life was like back with a "milkman" and horse cart. :-)
Some styles of boxes might have cameras or microphones or other sensors too, enabling them to directly scan the materials put in them or identify the person closing or opening them. Other boxes might use services at kiosks or delivery trucks to scan their contents as they were opened and closed. The design of kiosks, deliver trucks, delivery robots, and delivery points outside homes would itself take some thought -- sensors, security, privacy, climate control like refrigeration, and so on.
Of course, one can also imagine doing this without the containers. Robots of various types (humanoid or cart-like)
with dexterous manipulators could carry items and put them on shelves -- like human
slaves once did and in some places still do. :-(
But as with people, if we develop sentient robots to help with this task, then we have to start thinking about rights for them too.
"Robots could one day demand the same citizen's rights as humans, according to a study by the British government."
Also, as it might be fun to help out others, somehow this system, like the one in "The Skills of Xanadu", might make it easy for people to know when something needed to be moved from near where they are to somewhere else they are thinking of going, so they can deliver it just for the fun of it and the joy of service. So, while the robots are cool to me, there are ways to look at this system that might avoid them. Imagine people might even load a few boxes into their car or truck to carry along as hitchhikers to move a little closer to their destination. This used to be how letters were delivered before centralized post offices. You'd write a letter and give it to someone going in the general direction, and they might later pass it on to someone else going even closer. There are aspects of that in the internet routing of today.
Once one sees this internet of things in standard containers as an analogy to the internet of bits in standard packets,
then a lot more analogies flow from that. You can have public repositories of objects and private ones. Some
services might start off as free, some an paid. Some packets might be free, some expensive. People might
bid on items, or they might bid to get rid of them. :-) Or there might be fixed prices, user varying prices, or no prices at all.
You might cache things you might want soon locally, in local storage systems,
which are like local networks (LANS) but gatewayed to this larger "Internet of things".
You might have firewalls or packet sniffing tools. :-)
Packages might be periodically opened and the contents transferred to new containers to interface with different
networks (UPS, the post office, etc.).
And the contents of open-top on-campus containers or pallets might be transferred to closed containers as
the objects crossed the campus "firewall" or vice-versa.
Some packages might be split up into multiple packets; some might be condensed together into one package.
Packets might arrive at a location and have the contents processed (by people or robots) with the result put back into another packet.
Perhaps cardboard containers that arrive on campus might be opened in a "firewall" like
mail room and repackaged into more sophisticated containers (or not) for storage and delivery
on campus. Similarly, when materials were to go off campus, they might be transferred
to other types of containers (or not).
And so on.
This twelve minute movie visualizes digital packets as real ones, so look at it for inspiration:
"Warriors of the Net"
I saw that movie a few months ago and perhaps it unconsciously inspired this overall idea.
One might also think about the way materials stream in cells.
To be extra clear, this idea is not exactly the same as the "Internet of Things" currently described here:
That focuses more on putting "things" on the internet in the sense of interacting with them remotely, as well as tagging them to track their movements. Those may well be part of the future. What I talk about here is more about moving real things around in a standardized way typically with standardized physical containers or standard ways of manipulating and tracking most objects by people, robots, or automation. That web page description does not yet encompass standard ways of routing items, such as any post office or package delivery service already does. So, the proposal here is a little closer to spirit to what those Yalies are up to:
In 1962, Smith entered Yale University. While attending Yale, he wrote a paper for an economics class, outlining overnight delivery service in a computer information age. Folklore suggests he received a C for this paper although in a later interview he claims that when asked he told a reporter "I dont know what grade, probably made my usual C". The paper became the idea of FedEx (for years, the sample package displayed in the company's print advertisements featured a return address at Yale). Smith became a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and Skull and Bones. He received his Bachelor's degree in economics in 1966. In his college years, he was a friend of George W. Bush. Smith was also friends with John Kerry and shared an enthusiasm for aviation with Kerry and was a flying partner with him.
Note that all sorts of things might be put into the system, even bottles of dangerous chemicals, refrigeration-required biohazards like yesterday's chili, or the inevitable guns that campus security will end up with. :-( So, one might start thinking about limited access to some items, perhaps based on some personal record of certification. However, I'd expect *most* items would not need to be restricted. Kind of like on Star Trek -- you might expect that if a five year old asks a matter replicator for a "Hand Phaser" that at worst they get a toy version. But if they ask for a soccer ball or a telescope, why not oblige with a real one?
Here is an example of a delivery robot for dangerous things, especially biohazards:
"Secure and efficient transportation of lab specimens throughout a healthcare facility"
Certainly working on those seems better to me than all the time and money the USA is now putting into developing this:
But in general, the carriers would not need to be secure, since while it might be OK to grab something going by (the system could just fetch something similar), causing another user an extra delay would probably be seen as very rude.
Since people might put *anything* into the system, including bombs like yesterday's dining hall mystery meat dish,
the system might need smell sensors as well as advanced vision software to detect such situations.
Obviously, the NSA would get their paws into such a system, so why no just invite them
in at the start to help fund it all and make it "secure"? :-)
As long as, with "Security-Enhanced Linux", the results should be F/OSS.
As part of its Information Assurance mission, the National Security Agency has long been involved with the computer security research community in investigating a wide range of computer security topics including operating system security. Recognizing the critical role of operating system security mechanisms in supporting security at higher levels, researchers from NSA's National Information Assurance Research Laboratory have been investigating an architecture that can provide the necessary security functionality in a manner that can meet the security needs of a wide range of computing environments.
Naturally, such a system could also be used to route unused food to a composting facility, or
obvious garbage to a waste disposal or recycling center. PU people have good ideas; I'm sure they
will think of completely unexpected uses for the system. :-) Also, "interdisciplinary" studies as Professor Tilghman seems fond of
may help here. I used to be more interested in engineering self-reliant systems until I came, through studying ecology, to read
about Island Biogeography, and see the interplay of self-reliant and networked systems in maximizing diversity.
No doubt, even in expansion into space, the future will entail networks of otherwise self-replicating space habitats, making some things locally, and exchanging others (even if just information and people and genetic materials and some hard to make goods). That's the way bacteria work on Earth today -- they are self-replicating but still part of a vast network exchanging genetic material by various means.
More motivation for PU to move towards Freecycling and openness and post-scarcity ideals
I outline the above in part as a disclosure to prevent some patents. Although, as people have been handling containers and transferring objects with and without barcodes, RFID, machine vision, automation and robots for decades, chances are all (or almost all) of the key related patents have been filed and have expired already. :-)
And, after I wrote this, I came across this short essay and I am sure there are many such examples if you look:
"Automatic Delivery Systems" by John McCarthy, Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Stanford University
An automatic delivery system is a system for the transmission of material objects between homes, stores, offices etc. with as much as possible of the convenience of the telephone system used for the transmission of information. First we shall discuss how such a system might look to a user. Then we shall discuss the advantages of such as system and what it might be worth. Finally, we shall propose some ways of implementing the system and try to estimate how much it might cost. (Except for specifically designated 1995-96 notes, this essay was written in the 1970s.)Althought, while that and many other "techonogical cornucopian" notions on John McCarthy's site make a lot of sense to me, without some notion of social equity or a gift economy, he risks the distopia Marshall Brain outlines in his story "Manna", where all these services are just for the rich and the poor are literally swept aside by robots.
And sorry if this idea eventually forces Amazon and eBay out of business, or at least, their current businesses. A bit of a conflict of interest there of course -- does PU move in a way that may be seen as working directly against the short term interests of their richest alums, who may even be trustees at some point? And it even treads directly on Yalie "Skull and Bones" turf of FedEx. This echoes themes in the Domhoff book previously mentioned on why things don't change. Still, there are thousands of other universities that might start experimenting along these lines, so does PU want to get left behind? You see why I don't name my graduate advisor. What a pickle. :-)
--Paul Fernhout, Princeton '85 *88
Revised October 2008 shortened from "Reading between the lines"
Copyright 2008 Paul D. Fernhout
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Last update: October 4. 2008