Torrenting the Future

Posted by on June 16th, 2010

I recently came to the chilling conclusion that we are watching the battle for the human species play out today, and not on the eve of the Grim Meathook Future or the Singularity as I’d hoped.  Something with stakes that big, you’d think would involve at least a few lasers or robot gladiators battling it out for the survival of the future.   Instead, what I found myself watching was the P2P downloads scene.

And, if my initial realization held any water – it wasn’t looking good for Team Humans.

I don’t think it’d surprise or offend anyone if I suggested that we’re enmeshed in many systems that trade off long term survivability for short term prosperity.  It’s pretty clear that if non-renewable resources are continually stripped and burnt through and the rate of consumption of renewable resources  surpasses the renewal rate that we’re kind of screwed in a long-term scenario.    Capitalism (as it is currently expressed) and religious faith in market forces have brought us to a point where if there are not drastic changes in resource management, alternative fuels and materials and distribution of wealth soon (the sooner the better) then the long-term future is looking pretty grim.

(I say “as it is currently expressed” because honestly I don’t have any better, workable ideas than Capitalism.  As far as I’m concerned, Capitalism is that trashy bar right across the county line in a dry county in the US.  It may not be where I’d like to be; the drinks are watered down, and sometimes there are fights, but they’re the only game in town.  Until it stops being a dry county, at least.)

And, as I often point out, its not a good sign that we haven’t figured out how to distribute water, food and shelter in anything resembling an efficient or civilized fashion.

Like a lot of wannabe utopianists or futurists, the hope that I’ve always held out for in the hopes that factors would change and make civilization not just profitable and expansive but sustainable and workable in the human long-game is the creation of a post-scarcity economy.

It could be a by-product of the Singularity or perhaps the Singularity itself, a by-product of a shift up in humanity’s Kardashev level, or just a result of people deciding that this long term survival thing is actually pretty important; but the post-scarcity economy has been my holy grail for a long time now. My thinking has always been that while post-scarcity won’t be a panacea by any means, it would certainly give people ample chances to solve the problems of this world, get out to new worlds, and fall prey to a lot less of the petty squabbling that leads to  continued cycles of human on human violence in the here and now.   I’m by far not the first or last person to think that way; even Marxisim’s endgame was arguably the creation of a post-scarcity environment.

Except, I look at the extant examples of post-scarcity in action and… well…  that’s not going too well, is it?  I’m talking about P2P technology of course.  (I’ll make this quick, without turning this into a rant about piracy.)

Way back when, a Thing was a Thing;  an object occupying physical space, requiring resources to produce and distribute.  It was limited.  To take one Thing and make another of it required equal amounts of resources.  But digital Things (or Things that could be digitally reconstructed) require only a minute fraction of resources of the original to reproduce and distribute.  The question becomes, not “What is the worth of an item factoring in factoring in the limitations of resources?” but “What is the worth of an item that can be copied near-infinitely with minimal expense?”

The answer to that question isn’t clear cut – nor should it be.  It’s probably somewhere between “absolutely nothing!” and the $382 trillion in losses the Pirate Bay is supposedly responsible for, alone.   Instead of lawsuits, you’d think the logical thing to do would be to really sit down and look at the questions P2P and digital media raises about the nature of Things.  And there are some people doing that, but they tend to not be the ones with the giant legal teams.  In fact, let’s look at the resistance the emergence of a post-scarcity economy in the middle of a Capitalist scarcity economy generates:

And that’s all from just a very quick glance at my RSS feed.  There is a lot more demonizing of “non-infringing” p2p for the sake of stopping piracy or pedophiles, companies turning to draconian DRM (DRM itself being a form of artificial scarcity) and it is only going to get worse.   But this isn’t just about piracy.

This is about what happens next.

A friend of mine who collects action figures shows me a custom mod of an Optimus Prime Transformer figure.  I asked him how much it bugged him to dismantle a classic figure and he smiles and tells me he just scanned the parts he needed of his old one with a 3D scanner and built most of the new one with a 3D Printer.   And that’s just one example of how 3D printing is slipping into my everyday life.  We’re rapidly approaching the point where duplicating Things for a fraction of the original resources is easy - and by “rapidly approaching” I mean people you know are rapid prototyping and cloning items as we speak.   It’s not too much of a jump to think we’re not that far from something resembling nano-assembling – rendering ideas like “original” meaningless.  We’re exceedingly close the age where “remix culture” can remix Things with nearly the ease it can remix digital media.

But how will we react?   Will we put DRM on food so it can’t be mass produced?  Will we attempt to limit access to production engines?  Will we allow “market forces” to keep the poor needy while the top 1% don’t even have a concept of need?  Will we rush out to buy iMakers that scan the net to ensure anything you’re producing isn’t a component of a copyrighted product or recipe – or that only produce “family safe” products?

The P2P scene and the legal and legislative battles around it worldwide is not just about Piracy.  Piracy is part of it of course, but this is also where the post-scarcity future is being test-bedded.  What should be a conversation about the nature of Things and how we assign value to them becomes a war to ensure the new technologies become all but illegal, even for “non-infringing uses.”

There is a story about Nikola Tesla and J.P. Morgan.   The story claims that Tesla – who was being backed by Morgan at the time – went to Morgan and demonstrated that he had figured out how to generate free electricity on a large scale.  Tesla, the story says, had discovered how to eliminate scarcity from power distribution.  Morgan pulled his backing immediately, because, as we can easily imagine, his fortune and his vision of a future with himself and his ilk at the top of the food chain required only one thing in abundance: scarcity.  True or not, the tale is a good mirror of how things stand now.  Those systems and people and companies and governments that rely on scarcity to maintain wealth and power want the promise of P2P technologies to die on the vine – and that doesn’t bode well for what’s next.  (And let’s stop for a moment and consider how many institutions rely on people not having enough of what they need to maintain their existence.  Would it be going too far to suggest that any institution that relies on scarcity for its income and power is in fact an Enemy of the Future?)

Now I hope this is just what change looks like when you’re immersed in it, and that on the other side of this is a real post-scarcity economy so humanity can get to work on being better instead of keeping everyone in the mud.  But when, like me, you’re preaching the gospel of better living through technology and you watch the technology that could help make that life better continually get burnt down by people anxious to protect their wealth, it makes you worry just a bit.  And the whole mess is just another reminder that the Future isn’t a place further up the timeline, it is the thing we are building right now.