Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Capitalism's war against scarcity

Jeff Tucker has an insightful article on the shift from physical to digital over the last decade. He cleaned out his office recently for the first time in ten years. He writes:
Here's some of what I found: video tapes of short clips of ideas and events that are now all on YouTube; a printout of contacts generated by my own Palm Pilot, all of which are now back on a handheld device that syncs through cyberspace with any online device; my ancient Palm Pilot itself, which is about as useful as a pet rock; first print runs of legislation before Congress, now all on the Internet and searchable; two big plastic trays, one labeled "in box" and one labeled "out box," now replaced by a gargantuan archive of emails that I can access in seconds; photographs of this and that, easily scanned and posted and shared with the world; scholarly journals (say no more); pile after pile of weekly magazines and newspaper clippings, all long ago digitized; cassette recorders for doing interviews; once-treasured software packages that now seem as sophisticated as cave drawings; a "world clock"; a thermometer with a wire you stick outside the window. . . .

Somehow, the change from physical to digital strikes me as more significant than the move from iron to steel, from horses to internal combustion, or from land travel to air travel. In all other cases, the technological shift went from less- to more-efficient ways of accomplishing tasks by the use of things. But these things were still scarce. To make another book required felling another tree. To get from here to there still required fuel and everything that is associated with making it. My pile of paper could not simultaneously be your pile of paper. The space on the land on which I was driving could not be shared without causing a wreck and endangering life itself.
Eliminating scarcity in things people need and value is a good thing. Eliminating scarcity in money, another product of the central bank and the digital age, is disastrous.

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