managing the transition – academia in a post-scarcity knowledge economy

Post-scarcity economics is an imaginary concept more usually found in “hard” science fiction than in contemporary public policy. It describes a situation where resources are near unlimited, and able to match the near unlimited range of human needs and desires comfortably. In some formulations of the hypothetical situation, automation has meant that human labour is based on interest and pleasure (creativity) rather than required to be exchanged for resources needed (or wanted) in order to survive. It’s not a new idea, by any means – Stallman was all over it in 1985!

Simply put: in a post-scarcity system there are no barriers (financial or pure availability) preventing us from having what we want. You can politicise this from either dominant perspective, as it demonstrates either the final triumph of the free market, or it’s inevitable destruction. Possibly both.

It is usually imagined across the entire range of an economy – a post-scarcity situation regarding all (food, medicine, technology, information…) human needs – deliberately not using the Mazlow hierarchy as it doesn’t mention information (and more generally because it is flawed, which is maybe a post for another time.).

However, my suspicion is that we are facing a situation currently where certain elements of human needs are scarce, and others are post-scarce.

Information is now post-scarcity. If knowledge exists, we can easily and near-instantaneously gain access to it. If openness really is the enemy of knowledge, with enemies like these, who needs friends? 

Digital media, meaning the digital objects themselves and their distribution, is also post-scarcity. This one gets a lot of people into a lot of trouble.

The problem we face as a culture arises because a lot of the other stuff we need to live is very definitely running on a scarcity model, which leads us to want to make a post-scarity system act as if it was a scarcity system in order to derive value from it that can be exchanged in other places.

This has led, via the growth of Digital Rights Management and restrictive licensing online, to a corporate- and government-backed attempt to import an artificial scarcity into a post-scarcity economy. Unsurprisingly, this has failed and will continue to fail. DRM and licenses are routinely broken and ignored, both knowingly and unknowingly, in day-to-day online life.  

People point to the likes of amazon and itunes (yeah, they don’t need the hits…) as examples of successful business models in this area, but really what they are selling is a user experience – specifically friendly and accurate search. If it was as trivial to find, download and listen to an album on a torrent as it is to find one on iTunes, there would be no business model for iTunes (I’m not counting insidious ecosystem lock-in…). It’s even possible to suggest that UI is the one thing that people will (indirectly) pay for online.  (as an aside, it’s worth noting just how steep the technical hurdles are – torrenting, usenet, drm removal – that people routinely negotiate to access digital content. I’d love to hear more about this in the digital literacies space…]
The digital economy has it’s own currency already – reputation. Yes, like “down and out in the magic kingdom“. (or “Accelerando“, if you’d rather. And, yes, I would). However, until the (unlikely) emergence of a reputation-$ exchange rate, it will remain as a parallel economy with only second-order impact on participation in the non-scarcity economy via stuff like “professional reputation” and “credibility” impacting on earning potential.

In the education world we are seeing a huge tension between the ideals of academic openness, and the “reality” of the market-driven exploitation of academic labour. Neither of these are going to make anyone any money. And happily, neither describe how academics generate income. Getting paid for having done something once is an exception, getting paid for having the ability to keep doing things – or to keep do things to order – is the rule. We have (or had) a system for the employment of creative people that supported this, which naive links to the monetised exploitation of content artifacts can only undermine.

This, as I’ve outlined above, is a massive global cultural issue. It’s not that we urgently need to find a means of financially sustaining academic online sharing. It’s that we can’t, because the business models that worked in tangible-object publishing for the 300 years since the enlightenment simply don’t work in this universe. The fix for this isn’t going to be micro-payments, or usage tracking. It’s going to be a wholesale reorganisation of our cultural concepts. And academia should seriously be at the cutting edge of that.

What we do is one of the few things that is – and will likely remain – scarce. The development and training of highly optimised and highly adaptable human mind – capable of drawing links and parallels from a variety of sources in to a coherent whole, that provides an insight into something interesting and important. As above, the insights aren’t the point, the point is we are set up to keep doing them. And there’s no short-cuts to being able to do this. Just years of training and experimentation. These skills work in a post-scarcity world. We just need to manage the transition.
This post represents my personal opinions only, and not those of my employer or colleagues. It is available under a CC-BY license.

2 thoughts on “managing the transition – academia in a post-scarcity knowledge economy

  1. Another monster post, you treat the Followers well. I’ve been immersed in the issue of Canadian copyright and payment for authors lately (not so much academic authors, but others) due to a conflict between some universities (including mine) and a copyright collective. It’s raised a dizzying set of divergent impulses for me. “It’s going to be a wholesale reorganisation of our cultural concepts. And academia should seriously be at the cutting edge of that.” Hell yeah. But I really don’t know if we are up for that… Had a long conversation with a reformist copyright lawyer yesterday, and somewhere we hacked out to a vision of a broader investgation that might begin to re-create these cultural concepts… But in the light of this Vancouver morning, looking at my copyright-related email, and imagining first steps toward that investigation… it all seems as remote as one of those sci-fi novels you refer to.On another note, have you encountered anything that adequately reconciles the post-scarce commodities (like information) and the ones likely to become even more scarce (energy, food, freedom)?

  2. Something that reconciles scarce and post-scarce ecosystems? That's Nobel Prize stuff I think, so no – I don't have an answer to that. I wish I had.Richard Hall likes to quote that "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism" – I guess imagining the end of copyright (and thus of the ownership of intellectual property) is a similar difficult leap. I'm reading with real interest what you guys are up to in Canada – you're at the cutting edge!

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