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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: Firstly, just want to touch on your point that the internet "freely replicates content". It doesn't. The online content had to get "online" in the first place, and there is a very real cost associated with that - the tangible costs of hosting a webpage, to the time commitment needed to research, type, post, upload, maintain,etc.

    Also, we have to question why it is we have the drive to acquire material wealth. It is independent from the economic model - it is human nature.
    We're animals. We live for the advancement of our species, procreate, have babies, whom we want to be better, stronger, healthier than us. To do so, we buy things or aim for a lifestyle that will help us acheive this. Better clothes, better car, better things, to attract better mates. Better education for a better job for more money. etc etc.

    There will always be a drive to accumulate and acquire "things", whether material or otherwise.
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      Jan 21 2012: True, there is no zero point module or perpetual motion device. However, compared to the usual method of copying and distributing material, the amount of energy expended (for example) by a peer to peer data transmission system like Bit Torrent is miniscule. You don't have to have material to make DVDs, DVD cases, DVD writing machines, and paper inserts. Nor do you have to ship anything except data through a well established network.

      I agree. The internet is not really free. Somebody buys the equipment on which the data of the internet is stored. it is all based on physical items that must be purchased and maintained.

      It is a standard economic concept that the cost of an item is the lowest price at which it can be purchased (withing a reasonable time frame and distance). But, copying information based products is theft. It doesn't fit in the construct of economics. It operates outside of the cost rule because it sets the cost to zero. Here we have a problem. The people who consume data based products generally copy (steal) them. They do this without even thinking about it. To them, it's just another piece of data, just like any other. To believe that the government will be able to stop this theft with a law is foolish at best. There is no way to actually stop data copying short of destroying the equipment on which it is done.

      Therefore, because we cannot get rid of this kind of theft, we are going to have to find a way to live with it.

      And probably within this century, we will be having this same conversation for many physical objects, and soon after, all products of all kinds. The normal economic principles don't work when most of the consumers steal the things they consume. We are going to have to come up with a new kind of economics. I'm just wondering what that will be.

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