Saturday, July 30, 2005

Why people don't have to care about my blogs

Something has just occurred to me. I could write something just for the heck of it, because I find it interesting, and put it up for everyone to see, and whether or not anyone else actually checks it out or finds it interesting doesn't matter in the slightest.

And this isn't some antisocial "I don't care what anyone thinks" rant, by the way. What has occurred to me is that historically it's been pretty important that when you take the time to create something, somebody, and preferably a bunch of people, care that you've done so. It's been important because it's been ridiculously expensive to create things, and ridiculously expensive to spread thoughts around. This blog, for example, is going to take me a bit of effort to create. But historically, if I wanted people to see it, that would take a whole whopping load more effort. I'd have to get it printed, then take it around to people, or find someone who would give me space to post it up on a wall somewhere forpeople to read. And then the prints would fade, or get lost, or get put in a corner somewhere, and nobody would ever be able to find them again, even if they thoght what I wrote was neat and worth sharing.

Millions have been made on the idea that it costs more to publish content than it does to create it, and that even creating it is too expensive for most people to bother. Huge publishing companies have taken advantage of economies of scale and reputation to make money off of getting content to people, and then funding the creators to create more content. Now, publishing is not entirely free, but is so cheap that companies can offer it for free. Similarly, E-mail isn't free, but storage space and processing speed has become so cheap that E-mail accounts offered for free have as much space as a hard drive I once owned that probably cost about $500, in dollars that were worth more than today's.

Of course, many people have had these ideas before, and if anyone reads this they're probably going to wonder when I'm going to say something original. Thing is, very little is truly original content, and maybe to someone who will read this it will sound original. I'm thinking of writing another entry musing on why people always want to know who had an idea first, but that's for another day.

Thing is, we're always taught that you have to do things that are "important", or of interest to the wider society. Our economy is based on finding things, ideas, and artifacts that large groups are interested in, and then producing millions of those things, and charging a little bit for each one and making a ton of money to cover the huge investments required to produce stuff. The entire multibillion dollar telemarketing, survey and market research industry exists largely to reduce the risk that somebody will produce something that only 5 people want, because under our current set of taken-for-granted assumptions that would be disasterous. But now for information we have a situation where you can just produce stuff because it feels nice, and if people like it they can read it and share it and print it and modify it and maybe even turn it into something millions of people will want. Or not, but either way the cost is basically the same, and is small enough that it can be given away for free. I just read an article that says 60% of the content on the internet (quoted as 800 billion web pages, or over 100 per living person on the planet) is created for free, just because people want to. It also said that nobody predicted this would happen 10 years ago, when the internet was getting started. All the market research said the audience would never get involved in making content, or organizing content (think ebay seller reviews, or item reviews on Amazon and hundreds of other online shopping sites).

So my question for whoever reads this (if anyone) is this: What happens when things besides information are so cheap they can safely be given away for free, like this blog and my E-mail account? We're already getting there. Before mechanization, it took about 100 hours of human labour to make a t-shirt. Now, with robotic manufacturing, if a company feels like giving away a t-shirt to get you in a store, or to get you accept a credit card (and then cut it up and throw it away and enjoy your new shirt) they can do it. Universities can charge $20 for a pub crawl, pay $17 to bar owners for cover, and give everyone a T-shirt to spill beer on. I give my shirts for free to second hand stores when I'm done with them. There are hundreds of thousands of people in the world today who are millionaires, and for whom the necessities of life are as good as free. And every year, productivity in the US, which produces 25% of the world's goods (about $11 trillion) goes up by about 3% per person because we are producing more stuff with less human labour. Now, granted, almost none of this goes to the general population, whose standard of living has gone down by a lot of measures since the 1970's (when one person's typical income could support a family). This is a problem that is addressed elsewhere. If I could remember the address, I'd link to Marshall Brain's Concentration of Wealth blog. I'll do that later. But my point is that we are rapidly approaching (and will see within our lifetimes) the point where the basic necessities of life CAN (not to say WILL) be free for all, in just the same way that this blog is right now. The internet has turned the economics of producing and distributing ideas on its head. What happens when increasing mechanization turns the idea that everyone has to work in order to live on its head?

Something to think about. And not by any means an original idea. Google "Basic Income Guarantee". But to me it's interesting, and nobody else has to care.