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Russell Richard

Piping Stress Analyst, Piping Stress Inc.

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How would an economic system not based on the acquisition of material wealth work?

The internet is essentially a machine that duplicates products without expending resources. It is a literal cornucopia of content products. The SOPA discussions are demonstrating that the old style economics of one-way distribution will not work for content companies in the present and future. But, what about everything else?

As we gather knowledge about the universe, we are able to create things with greater and greater ease. In the case of just about all content, we have gathered enough information to create a system that effectively generates product for no cost. There is also, usually, no profit - people make things because they want to.

Physical objects are more difficult to generate in this manner. We know this because it still takes effort and resources to make them. However, there may come a time when physical objects are created just as easily as content is created through the internet. What happens then?

What happens when we can no longer rely on profit from making things? How do we create an economic system that isn't based on acquiring material wealth?


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    Jan 20 2012: As a start to the conversation, Gene Roddenberry envisioned an idyllic future for humanity in Star Trek. One of the concepts visited in Star Trek was that human society no longer used money. To quote captain Jean-Luc Picard, "The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives." With the invention of the replicator, I can understand why physical wealth would be considered irrelevant.

    We have invented a very powerful replicator for information and content called the internet. In fact, it is so powerful that it replicates content whether we want it to or not. It also is even more powerful in that it freely generates content.

    What happens when we are able to generate all things - physical items included - as easily as we can generate content on the internet? The economics of the world would break down if everything suddenly became free.

    It would be my hope that the driving force in our lives would shift to become the acquisition of spiritual wealth, wisdom, and knowledge. How would such a society work? What would it look like? Would we stagnate because there is no incentive? How would we transition from this economy to the other, understanding that the technology to get us there will not suddenly appear?
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      Jan 21 2012: I think we would immediately begin playing "keep up with the Jones" if replicators become a reality.
      I will replicate 4 Ferraris to top your three! It's about human nature. Acquiring wealth is just how we keep score. Some people want to be 1 percenters.
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        Jan 22 2012: I think you have nailed a very cogent factor. Can I call it "advantage"?
        Why do we seek advantage?
        To me it seems pretty obvious - to survive.
        Do we need all the advantage we have gained to survive the natural environment?
        Obviously not.
        Do we need so much advantage to survive the social environment?
        Why is this?
        Because we fear each other.
        This is the mechanics of greed - we hoard advantage to match the advantage of our neighbor.
        How did this come about?
        The fear started somewhere .. territorial needs perhaps .. uneven advantage perhaps .. the behaviour of sociopaths/psychopaths/alpha males.
        Is all this fear desirable?
        Obviously not.
        SO what do we do about it?
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          Jan 22 2012: How did this come about you ask? It is the very nature of fallen Man. QUOTE: "The avaricious man is like the barren sandy ground of the desert which sucks in all the rain and dew with greediness, but yields no fruitful herbs or plants for the benefit of others." (Zeno)
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        Jan 23 2012: Hmmm .. I don't think dogma is very helpful.
        I think addressing the basic fear would go further.
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          Jan 23 2012: Ah well, you say human fear, I say human nature. I guess we are both saying an economic system not based on the accumulation of wealth will not work unless ,as you say, people stop being motivated by fear; or, as I say, people stop being ruled by their natural propensity for avarice and greed. Thanks Mr. Smith.
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        Jan 23 2012: Thanks also to you Mr Long - This helps clarify the basic conceptual framework.
        It is true, that I have observed massive greed and avarice in humans. But I have also observed great goodwill and selfless sacrifice. Personal advantage cannot be the only rule as it is not universally observed.
        If the propensity to personal advantage is natural - what is the mechanism? Can it be adjusted?
        I would not even bother to ask this except that I have seen whole communities thrive on the practice of goodwill .. For much of my life I thought this an impossiblity, it came as a complete surprise.
        From that, I suspect that we become overly accustomed to unfinished understanding of concepts we hold to be indivisible .. (call it "fashion"?) and that subsequent experience reveals that these "basics" are indeed divisible! But that fashion prevents acceptance.
        In this I am supported by the new understandings of networked systems - and their danger of falling into "local minima" which prevents them finding the absolute minimum.
        I suspect that all human exploitation is based on local minima, with the exploiter being in secret posession of the absolute minimum. I suspect that we are well skilled at this.
        So if fear is a necessary signal to enable survival - that some degree of personal advantage is mandated as a default, perhaps greed and avarice are the unbalanced extension of personal advantage. If this is so, then perhaps we should look to the laws of diminished-return to find our balance?
        What are your thoughts?
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          Jan 24 2012: You have provoked several thoughts. My diminished faculties demand that I choose just one, so here goes: I paraphrase, "Can the mechanism be adjusted?" The love of self is natural and healthy. The abuse and exploitation of others for one's own gain is also natural, but not healthy. The mechanism driving greed and avarice in mankind is his disregard for, and disobedience of, his Maker.The onl;y effective adjustment of the mechanisn is to become a new creature, to be born again. Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance are the evidences of a born-again person. Absence of this evidence reveals a pretending, false christian. Man's fallen condition is the problem. Being born again is the solution for the individual. Where sin reigns there is adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like.
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        Jan 24 2012: @Mitch:
        "Why do we seek advantage?
        Because we fear each other."

        I think this line of thought misses the central driver behind what we see as greed today. When we look at our closest evolutionary relatives, we see that the alpha male in the group can have reproductive access to all the females, particularly the most desirable. Today, for us, the striving male that has climbed past survival and comfort next seeks mating with highly desirable females. Current first world culture draws the most attractive females into the class known as Supermodels and readily pays them dollars by the million. The aspiring alpha male of today has to compete his way into the billions if they aspire to a harem of such women. Yachts, helicopters and phallic office buildings aren't enough anymore. One needs to buy whole governments, command slave armies, start private space programs, etc.

        Fear in the sense of insecurity is likely to be a component of such drive, but imagine the perks of such wealth with today's technologies: Buying people for replacement organs, breakfast in Paris and dinner in Tokyo, ordering assassinations, converting any outrageous whim into physical reality...

        Today's top monkey gets closer to a god all the time, and soon immortality will be on the auction block. Not much incentive to share it all.
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        Jan 24 2012: @Edward: "I think we would immediately begin playing "keep up with the Jones" if replicators become a reality.
        I will replicate 4 Ferraris to top your three! "

        I would imagine that to go from here and now to there and then, that would be a common occurrence. But I also imagine that it would soon be recognized as a sort of mental illness or at least childish behavior.

        In my mind, there is no question that technology will get there, including virtually unlimited matter and energy to feed such manufacturing at our whim.

        The bigger problem that I see is that with our current economic organization, that such capability will be achieved by the few and used to keep the many enslaved. If you think about it, we are well past halfway toward this dream of replication. A small minority of humans are involved in making all of the really hot manufactured goods: computers, smartphones and automobiles. Largely, this manufacturing has moved from the U.S. to the other side of the Pacific to a labor force that is far more compliant than union-spoiled Yankees. The world has millions of small farmers that can scarcely compete with just a few highly automated agribusinesses.

        It seems obvious that the trend is toward manufacture without human labor and ever more concentrated ownership and profit from that production.
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          Jan 24 2012: Man-hours cost money, so do machine-hours. Are these replicators you envision free to operate? I doubt it. The pieces may change but the game is still Monopoly and you win by accumulating more and bankrupting everyone else. If human nature is in the equation the only workable solution is always the same. . . a new nature. Thanks Mr. Tao.
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          Jan 24 2012: On the monkey thing - have you seen this? http://killerstress.stanford.edu/
          The cogent bit is what happens to a primate colony when all the alpha males are removed.
          I agree that there is carrot as well as stick in the personal advantage equation.
          I also agree that a kind of rebirth is required. Although I do not ascribe to the anthropomorphic god model, I see the universal outgrowth as something that sits in harmony with religions - certainly enough to not criticise the basis of ancient wisdom.
          If I was to call my central dogma "god" then it is a(the?) god that invites me to explore his mystery - to split the assumptions and move closer to the advancing wave of "truth" (for want of a better word).
          Once again - I point to the laws of diminished return to regulate balance. No water is bad - you die of thirst, enough water is good - you are hydrated, too much water is bad - you drown in it.
          Many instances of diminished return are much harder to detect. For instance, when I had way too much money, I started to suffer from "lifestyle diseases" - it was certainly fun, but I am glad to have gotten out of that before having to feed all my wealth into medical postponement of the inevitable end.
          As for Harems .. I had one of those as a pennyless itinerate musician .. no need for even one Ferrari .. and as the game theorists demonstrate - going for the top prise results in no one getting it.
          And then there's the local minima .. the untested assumptions. They seem like the rocks we walk on, but until you actually try things, they are perpetually ghosts - we assume they have truth, but they don't. And let's face it - it is our very capacity to assume that allows us such quick adaptation. I am the happy man who fell through the ghosts. Inspiration and hardship have taught me much. I can site the events if asked. THere are other things I could talk about that sound like sheer mysticism, but the language of sciience will do for now.
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        Jan 24 2012: @Edward:
        Man-hours and machine-hours only cost money because people imagine it that way. I believe that we have to get past that thinking. Just like your Monopoly metaphor, it's a game and we can make up new and better games to play.

        Reading your other posts leads me to the assumption that you may be a Christian. I don't claim to be one myself nor can I believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.

        I do however think that "Love thy enemy" and the Sermon on the Mount are pure genius. Add the Golden Rule and you can leave the rest to historians and anthropologists.

        To be "born again" is perhaps a psychological trick that may work for some and perhaps they can feel forgiven and proceed on a more virtuous life with added peace of mind. Others will not be able to accept enough of the story to get anywhere near that activity.

        I do believe that most, if not all children, when raised well with kindness, love and gentle, wise guidance, could go through life without a word of Gospel or any other religion and still be as ethical and virtuous as the most pious parishioner.

        I respect someone striving to be a good person, but communication is difficult with those who take biblical teaching as literal truth. As the metaphors put forth by ancient writers in an attempt to reach toward answers to life's mysteries, scripture offers much to ponder and a starting point for all the ethics and philosophy that has been written since.

        In my understanding, the only time Christ displayed anger was toward the moneychangers at the temple. I can't help but think he would be an equal-rights, gay-friendly, pacifist hippie socialist if he were around today.
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          Jan 24 2012: Thanks for your benevolent assessment of the teachings of the Bible. Most unbelievers do not recognize the intrinsic worth of the Biblical standard for decent, moral conduct. I do not see how the high cost of labor is a result of people imagining it that way, as you say. No mattter how people imagine it, it costs $60 per square foot to build a house.Becoming born again is not a psychological trick. It is an act of God, a spiritual act involving physical change. And you are right, most people stay far away from it.We agree that ethical, virtuous behaviour can be inculcated without using the Bible. The point is that from infancy we tend toward rebellion and selfishness and must be constantly reminded to do right and good. There is a New Testament model of an economy not based on the accumulation of wealth. (Acts chapter 4, verses 33 through 37). I try not to be difficult to communicate with but believing in the Word of God, the Bible, does not foster acceptance in an agnostic/atheistic environment. Thanks for sharing, Mr. Tao.
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          Jan 24 2012: @Zaz - I tend to agree with Mr Long on the rebirth principle. One actually has to emerge from one's egg of conflict to rejoin with the wave of truth which is driven by that thing which is not-nothing - the "!" that gave rise to the multiverse. I could also call it "realigning with ones life-wave". It's not an easy thing to do. The Christian "rebirth" thing is a vary powerful way of getting on the lifewave and remaining there (more consistently) .. otherwise you just get "flashes" of it. One very powerful evidence that you are nearing your "lifewave" is that you begin seeing insights that resolve all your conflicts .. paradoxically, once you are on your lifewave, there is no real incentive to broadcast all those insights .. you just live them. I suspect Mr Long is sharing his insights becasue he has been asked.
          Right now, I am operating from my "egg" - I feel the need to broadcast. Injustice and the struggles of humans draw us here, it's fun, but there is no real answer in it.
          @MR Long. My experience with raising an Autistic child has given me massive insight into the process of selfishness and rebellion .. the tendency towards these things comes from the social environment - not from the child. THis environment lays close-in to what we perceive as the child .. it's an illusion that exists in the adult, not the child.
          The economy of the "holy spirit" (unified life wave) works well for those in it .. but one must first be in it. But the good of the "holy spirit" radiates outwards to good and bad alike - we cannot deny our fellows, lost or found - if it is asked, then it is given.
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        Jan 24 2012: @Mitch: No, I haven't, but now I have. Many thanks for the link!
        Robert Sapolsky is one highly enlightened and dedicated scientist, and apparently pretty badass with a blowgun! Everybody should give a listen to anything and everything that man has to say. He has a TED talk by the way:
        and features prominently in this video:
        which although an excruciatingly long video, is right in line with this overall conversation.

        As for all that "law of diminishing return" stuff, well, the Buddhists are much better at talking about balance then economists, who cooked up said "law."

        In my opinion, (which is not usually humble,) 99% of economic theory is utter nonsense. I place the validity of current economic theory significantly below the validity of psychology at the time when it was leaving Sigmund Freud's pen. Here and there might be a half-truth or a roughly sensible supposition like "supply and demand," but people make up economic rules, then break them immediately after. Economists seem to have little grasp of new inventions and their impact, and aren't likely to wrap their heads around the Internet and what it means to ... just about everything.
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          Jan 24 2012: Yes .. the Sapolski observation is a thunderclap - a great part of assumption concerning "human nature" is blown to bits in a stroke.
          I have long questioned on the role of the sociopath and psychopath - and had the privelidge to speak to a PHD who studied them (the real "silence of the lambs" psych). THe sociopath is an environmentally made defect, the psychopath is hereditary. It is possible that both these conditions can be fixed. But it probably won't be until we abandon repect for the "alpha male" principle in our society and make it obvious who needs healing.
          It is from these defects that all the destructive dominance behaviours arise. I have not conceived a satisfactory method to detect and deal with them without wrecking civil society in the process. Evolution is the only way I can see.
          Be careful not to dis the economists so easily - many of these have been brilliant mathematicians and philosophers - the theory they delivered is quite powerful. THe ones you refer to are just the psychophantic clones who occupy the void that currency creates - they, for the most part, haven't a clue about how money operates.
          As I indicate - the laws of diminished return are missing from the eqations - I observed it starkly as a supply chain forcasting expert - my contribution to the market statistics world was to identify methods to separate natural and induced demand so that supermarkets could forecast underlying demand and the effects of promotion (to 95% accuracy). My other contributions were to identify natural efficiencies in warehouse input/output and to identify the market-identified unit consumed in fashion items (mobile phone handsets).
          These statistical forecasting systems DO identify diminished returns in questions of supply/.demand, but they do not identify it in so much else that makes up economy (ROI for instance or labor efficiency or company size morale or extraction of natural wealth).
          Also significantly missing from economy is the REAL bank - the Earth.

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