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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 25 2012: Wonderful topic! Thank you for that!

    I think the problem is that our society functions on acquisition.

    Yes, to acquire is a natural instinct due to self-preservation. However, selfishness is only one of many motivators of human behavior - and we now see that it is a rather precarious one as the ethos of a society.

    What if, instead, a society functions on giving?

    Human social evolution researchers theorize that it is due to an advancement in our ancestors' evolved ability to collaborate in larger numbers that the first large societies emerged. Perhaps we must transcend our primeval instincts once more to accommodate ourselves to our evermore connected society. In the context of intellectual property and the internet, the application of this is to rid of copyright altogether. All information will then become necessarily unshackled from "acquisition" motivated behavior.

    Practical considerations:
    1) Will there still be motivation to produce goods?
    2) What will the producers eat?
    3) What about quality?

    1) There are many nonprofit producers of goods/services on the net (10,000,000 soundcloud artists, 80,000 Wikipedia editors, Linux, deviantart, etc). Here is a study by Heyman and TEDster Dan Ariely on how monetary motivation does not trump social motivation: http://bit.ly/3xzhna
    2) This answer requires a bit of rosy optimism. Ideally, the users of goods/services will support the producers voluntarily, altruistically. The only example of success in this area is Wikipedia, and yet they are still supported by volunteers. However, there is evidence that by participating in a profit-driven system, we are robbed of our motivation to give. Study on how once money is introduced, social norms disappear: http://bit.ly/m8tSsc. Study on how even the concept of money reduces collaborative behavior: http://bit.ly/cHwdD
    3) If there is motivation to produce, competition will ensure quality. Here is Dan Pink on intrinsic > extrinsic(monetary) motivation: http://bit.ly/t5WEsL

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