And What If Tangible Goods Become More Abundant?
from the a-thought-experiment dept
Over the years, I’ve written plenty about the economics of infinite vs. scarce goods. Too often (and I do this on occasion as well) people default into thinking of “tangible” goods as being the scarce ones, and digital goods or information goods as being the infinite ones. But the definitions can certainly expand beyond that — and there’s also the possibility that material, tangible goods could one day lose much of their scarcity. Economist Arnold Kling, riffing on a post by Will Wilkinson about why energy isn’t really scarce points out that, if energy isn’t scarce, matter isn’t scarce either.
In theory, as you solve “the energy problem” and figure out how to create energy cheaply, then you can make any material you want as it’s needed cheaply as well. Then you’re in a bit of the Star Trek replicator universe where even tangible products become much more abundant. We’re still a ways off from that point, but it’s worth thinking about as a thought experiment (especially as 3D printer technology improves rapidly). Indeed, Chris Anderson is also thinking along these lines, noting that technology is likely to solve both of the big “shortage” problems we’re facing these days: energy and food — if only government regulations would let them.
For those who think that copyright holders should try to artificially maintain scarcity, this may be a scary situation. After all, then the same “problem” facing copyright holders, will also face makers of tangible goods. But the truth is even if you switch tangible goods from scarce to abundant, it doesn’t mean that you run out of scarcities to sell. Music is more abundant thanks to digital technologies, and there are still plenty of scarcities to sell for the music industry. There are always scarcities — it’s just that they’re no longer tangible goods. Instead, business models will start to revolve around those non-tangible scarcities as well, such as time, attention and reputation. But these changes could create a rather radical shift in how economies function. So, even if it’s pretty far out, it’s worth considering the possibilities already.