The Internet is transforming the world more rapidly and radically than you may realise. Online shopping, international communications, global finance – these are all overtures to a far greater shift in the way humans live and act, and are all heading towards one destination – the end of information scarcity.
Scarcity. It’s defined human interaction since time immemorial. Food scarcity, territory scarcity, energy scarcity, information scarcity. To be in a post-scarcity age is for there to be effectively no limitations on an individual’s access to the given resource. A post-scarcity age for energy would involve unlimited access for all to free energy, the only limitation being the individual’s capability to consume, a paradigm shift from the traditional scarcity model in which an individual’s access is limited by both their ability to acquire energy and the capability of others to create it. This is a state of superabundance.
Now, we haven’t quite reached information superabundance yet – but we’re hurtling towards it at an ever-faster rate. Back in 1965, Computer Scientist Gordon Moore predicted that for at least the next decade, the number of transistors that could be fitted on an integrated circuit would double every other year.
47 years on, this accelerating rate of improvement, known as “Moore’s Law”, shows no signs of abating. A 2tb hard drive is available for less than £60 (capable of storing the text of the King James Bible in its entirety 227, 262 times over), and the 27% of the UK that doesn’t use the internet is only set to decrease. In China you’re more likely to have a mobile phone than a credit card, a perfect example of the growing ubiquity of free information access.
Alongside this ever-increasing access to data is a quasicommunistic-cum-libertarian intellectual culture never imagined before. Its most public face is probably Wikipedia, the non-profit online encyclopaedia born out of the principles of the open internet, hundreds of thousands of people editing it with no goal beyond aiding others in their search for information. There’s also the Open Source movement, dedicated to creating and distributing free alternatives to commercial software, while providing source code so users can modify it freely.
Accompanying this is the flagrant disregard for traditional copyright law. Intellectual property (IP) has been overwhelmed, with 40 million albums and singles illegally shared online in the UK during the first half of 2012. Some have experimented with new methods of content dissemination. For example, in 2007 Radiohead offered their album In Rainbows for whatever figure their fans wished to pay (including nothing). Yet the IP industries’ response has typically been to prosecute prolific file sharers while pushing their content through their own channels.
Attempts to clamp down on distribution have employed methods ranging from the Draconian to the ridiculous. In 2009 a US Jury hit mother-of-four Jammie Thomas-Rassett with a fine of $1.9 million dollars for the heinous act of downloading 24 songs for personal use. Such behaviour on the behalf of the industries cannot help but reduce any tolerance that we might have for their growing unsustainability.
Whereas previously there was mere opportunism in file-sharing motivations, now there’s ideology. The inability of the copyright Old Guard to recognise the changing face of the intellectual property landscape has led to a legitimate political movement, revering freedom of information as a sacred right, of which
the “Wiki’s” and Open Source are part of. Any doubt that there is a serious movement emerging is dispelled when one turns to the Pirate Party, an umbrella term referring to a myriad of loosely-associated political parties in dozens of countries across the world with the common aim of reforming intellectual property law. In Germany, the Piratenpartei Deutschland has 45 parliamentary seats; the Swedish Piratpartiet got 7% of the popular vote in European Elections, and Besti flokkurinn won the mayorship of Reykjavik in Iceland.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt has noted that, from the dawn of man to 2003, roughly 5 Exabytes (which, by the way, is 5,000,000,000 gigabytes) of total information was created. “That much information is now created every 2 days, and the pace is increasing”. Access to superabundant information is in sight, and accompanying it is a paradigm shift in our approach to intellectual property that the established industries are yet incapable of grasping.
Any financial barrier to accessing data ultimately proves an artificial imposition of scarcity where it need not exist, a deliberate degradation of the wealth of knowledge available to man, and something to be deplored. But this is just the start. Once we reach effective energy superabundance – or yet further off, resource superabundance (e.g. Asteroid Mining*) – that’s when things will get really interesting.