New Technologies Won’t Reduce Scarcity, but Here’s Something That Might

Vasilis Kostakis and Andreas Roos at the Harvard Business Review: “In a book titled Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?, MIT scientists Henry Lieberman and Christopher Fry discuss why we have wars, mass poverty, and other social ills. They argue that we cannot cooperate with each other to solve our major problems because our institutions and businesses are saturated with a competitive spirit. But Lieberman and Fry have some good news: modern technology can address the root of the problem. They believe that we compete when there is scarcity, and that recent technological advances, such as 3D printing and artificial intelligence, will end widespread scarcity. Thus, a post-scarcity world, premised on cooperation, would emerge.

But can we really end scarcity?

We believe that the post-scarcity vision of the future is problematic because it reflects an understanding of technology and the economy that could worsen the problems it seeks to address. This is the bad news. Here’s why:

New technologies come to consumers as finished products that can be exchanged for money. What consumers often don’t understand is that the monetary exchange hides the fact that many of these technologies exist at the expense of other humans and local environments elsewhere in the global economy….

The good news is that there are alternatives. The wide availability of networked computers has allowed new community-driven and open-source business models to emerge. For example, consider Wikipedia, a free and open encyclopedia that has displaced the Encyclopedia Britannica and Microsoft Encarta. Wikipedia is produced and maintained by a community of dispersed enthusiasts primarily driven by other motives than profit maximization.  Furthermore, in the realm of software, see the case of GNU/Linux on which the top 500 supercomputers and the majority of websites run, or the example of the Apache Web Server, the leading software in the web-server market. Wikipedia, Apache and GNU/Linux demonstrate how non-coercive cooperation around globally-shared resources (i.e. a commons) can produce artifacts as innovative, if not more, as those produced by industrial capitalism.

In the same way, the emergence of networked micro-factories are giving rise to new open-source business models in the realm of design and manufacturing. Such spaces can either be makerspaces, fab labs, or other co-working spaces, equipped with local manufacturing technologies, such as 3D printing and CNC machines or traditional low-tech tools and crafts. Moreover, such spaces often offer collaborative environments where people can meet in person, socialize and co-create.

This is the context in which a new mode of production is emerging. This mode builds on the confluence of the digital commons of knowledge, software, and design with local manufacturing technologies.  It can be codified as “design global, manufacture local” following the logic that what is light (knowledge, design) becomes global, while what is heavy (machinery) is local, and ideally shared. Design global, manufacture local (DGML) demonstrates how a technology project can leverage the digital commons to engage the global community in its development, celebrating new forms of cooperation. Unlike large-scale industrial manufacturing, the DGML model emphasizes application that is small-scale, decentralized, resilient, and locally controlled. DGML could recognize the scarcities posed by finite resources and organize material activities accordingly. First, it minimizes the need to ship materials over long distances, because a considerable part of the manufacturing takes place locally. Local manufacturing also makes maintenance easier, and also encourages manufacturers to design products to last as long as possible. Last, DGML optimizes the sharing of knowledge and design as there are no patent costs to pay for….(More)”