Little Dutchboys

I wanted to post a little synthetic idea connecting something I observed watching Wanted this weekend with Tai Chi boxing and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

Since Jenni’s copy of Blink is in Baltimore, I figured I’d just go on Fictionwise and buy a copy so I could just cut and paste from the ebook. They’ve got it, but I can’t read it though. The DRM they use to keep people from sharing it isn’t supported on my Ubuntu desktop.

I probably wouldn’t buy the DRMed version anyway. So long as someone else controls my ability to control access to my media, I risk ending up like folks who bought from MSN Music. Once the service went belly-up they turned off the computers allowing people to access their music. Not a problem unless you do something crazy like get a new computer.

After I gave up on Fictionwise, I thought perhaps Amazon might be able to help me out, but you can only buy Kindle books if you have purchased a Kindle from Amazon.

I eventually got tired of screwing around with it, looked at a page on Amazon’s preview, entered a sufficiently long sentence to be unique into Google, and just pirated the book. I really did try to buy the book but, ironically, they were so busy trying to keep me from stealing it that they wouldn’t take my money. (I guess I could go ahead and pay for it now, but I really don’t want to give the businesses the impression that what they’re doing satisfies me as a customer.)

Honestly, I’m very sympathetic to the position of the DRM makers. Matt and I talk from time to time about attempting to go the open-source route and not starve as a developer. Sun is investing heavily there as well. How does one make money making something that is free?

I see the question as akin to the same sort of issues that are affecting manufacturing. The amount of actual human labor required to do a variety of jobs is dropping as we get better and better skilled at automation. Similarly, the amount of human labor required to create software solutions for businesses is dropping as more and more good quality software is available for free.

In a world with awesome robots, or a world where open-source software has been widely adopted, how do people make money?

Both of these labor surpluses threaten to unbalance the somewhat delicate balance of our market economy. For the software world, we can keep pushing new technological boundaries to maintain a need for new work, but unless we stop progressing in our ability to automate tasks, other labor surpluses are just going to get worse.

I joke at times about the coming revolution, but in seriousness all the futurist people who talk about the technological wonderland where we are all going to live forever need to think about how exactly the sort of society we have now transitions into the paradise they envision. There seems to be this belief in simply creating surplus and there’s this magic moment when somehow utopia arrives.

If you look to the annals of history, large surpluses don’t generally tend to work this way. In international development one of the interesting trends is in oil exploitation. You would think that for a starving little country, little could be better than to discover that you have deposits of black gold hiding beneath your soil. You’d certainly probably not see it as likely holding the suffering and death of your people under the surface.

When the oil is extracted, however, where does the money go? Every person doesn’t suddenly get an oil check in the mail. It goes to the government and to a small number of investors. You might think that if we both make $10 one week and the next I make $100 and you make $10,000 that we’re still all better off because I still made 10 times as much. The trick is the overall amount of actual stuff hasn’t increased by ten times, so what largely ends up happening is my money is just worth less. Except, unlike before where you and I had roughly the same amount of money, you now have 100 times more.

This means that unless you are particularly nice, I end up having less actual stuff because you can afford to buy it all. Inflation goes through the roof and a significant percentage of countries that exploit oil holdings end up in a civil war within five years.

To think that these patterns have nothing to do with first world economies in the digital age is naive. People dismiss the recent economic slowdown as a natural economic cycle — simply the economy readjusting from a period of overambitious growth. Which is true. The top 20% of earners saw almost 9% growth over a three year period. Unfortunately, the bottom 75% say little, if any, growth. This slowdown is hitting the top the hardest, but it is hitting everyone enough that the overall income gap is widening to unprecedented levels.

I’ll go on record now as saying improvements in automation are going to cause major labor surpluses within my lifetime. That’s not really going out on a limb if you look at the state of mechatronics. The question is what is going to happen to our society as we deal with that human surplus? I personally would like to start asking these questions well in advance of the shit hitting the proverbial fan.

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