Virginia Postrel has written an intriguing piece at Bloomberg that some dill-weed of an editor gave a really unfortunate, and misleading, headline. Her piece suggests that quality of life, in this instance measured by something as seemingly trivial as entertainment options, is increasing even as other standard economic markers of well-being stay flat or dip
What she is describing is the emergence of the post-scarcity economy. A couple of decades ago we saw the first wave of abundance; it came in the form of fairly simple information: chat rooms and html web pages. That’s all still with us, though more highly structured and broadly distributed through smart phones and social media apps. Meanwhile, the digital revolution has transformed the delivery of not just TV shows and movies, but music and books as well.
Everybody has access to a lot more information than they used to. Ray Kurzweil points out that today an African kid with a smart phone has access to more information than was available to the President of the United States 20 years ago. The fact that I have thousands of instant movies to choose from on Netflix and Amazon is a quality-of-life improvement for me. The fact that that kid can access Khan academy and tens of thousands of other learning resources that didn’t use to exist is a much bigger deal.
The next wave of abundance is the production of physical goods, which will also be completely transformed by digital technology. In fact, this is already happening, which is why that kid has a smart phone to begin with, and why so many of us have such high-quality TVs and other access devices. But that’s just the beginning.
There is currently a lot of interest in 3D printing, but the 3D printing technology available to us today is very rudimentary. It isn’t even analogous to the chat rooms and static web pages of 20 years ago. The 3D printers we have now are more like the old text-based bulletin board systems that people used to access via analog modem connection. What’s coming is the ability to produce just about anything you might want or need with a few clicks of the mouse, or more likely a simple verbal command. Amazon wants to fill the skies with delivery drones, and that may happen — for a while. But eventually we will no more need little helicopters bringing stuff to our homes than we currently need railroad tracks leading up to our front door. We will be able to download and print out local copies of just about anything.
And this may well all occur while the workforce continues to dwindle and wages continue to flatline or even slide. Nobody wants wages to go down, but if costs fall even more sharply, our relative economic health can remain the same or even improve. This is why everybody has a better TV even though wages have been flat for some time. The potentially bigger problem is all of those people being out of work. Even if costs go down, having a roof over your head, an internet connection, electricity, and feedstock to put into your 3D printer are all going to have some price associated with them. On the other hand, while the workforce is the smallest it’s been in 30 years, quality of life has over that time improved distinctly by many measures. The smart money says it’s going to continue to improve. Substantially.
(TV photo by Zaphod.)