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Real Value

Posted by degroof 
Real Value
April 30, 2008 11:41AM
This thread [forums.reprap.org] got me thinking about what actually has value. Imagine some future world where nanotech is ubiquitous. What would be worth anything? It really comes down to three commodities: matter, energy and information.

Now, matter's easy, you can't turn around without bumping into it. I can go into my back yard and scoop up a handful of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, silicon, aluminum, sulfur.

Energy? Well, despite the evidence at the fuel pumps, there's actually quite a lot of it. There's this great big yellow fusion reactor parked 93 million miles from here that would provide plenty of energy if we could just convert it to a more usable form.

Information. Now here's the fun bit. If you've got the right information, you can take all that matter and energy, fiddle with some molecular bonds and turn out all sorts of interesting things.

Of the three, information is the odd one out. First, it's intangible. It's really just a pattern imposed on matter and/or energy. Second, it can be created, destroyed and copied. Third, while it's easy to store, it's almost impossible to contain, mainly due to point #2. Sure, there are intellectual property laws but, at the level of the individual, they're nearly unenforceable.

So, where does that leave us? What sort of economy would you have if a pound of Beluga caviar has exactly the same value as a pound of dog poo?
Re: Real Value
April 30, 2008 12:37PM
"What sort of economy would you have if a pound of Beluga caviar has exactly the same value as a pound of dog poo?"

too much information. eye popping smiley
Re: Real Value
April 30, 2008 04:05PM
There is one big problem with that big yellow fusion reactor, you need space to capture it's energy. Trees in a forest often compete for a limited amount of sunlight.
Re: Real Value
April 30, 2008 04:49PM
Yeah. Solar panels would be almost useless on my roof. Too much shade. F@$#*ing trees. :-)
Re: Real Value
April 30, 2008 05:07PM
Forgetting about the economy, what happens to all the people who need never work another day in their lives?

What do you do with 5 billion people sitting around, bored, that doesn't involve them making another 2.5 billion people? That would be the real problem with a post-scarcity economy, I reckon... it would start getting mighty crowded winking smiley
Re: Real Value
April 30, 2008 05:49PM
Couple of quick points:

1. Plants are really bad solar energy converters. They're about 3% efficient. You can get 10% out of a solar panel from your local Radio Shack. "Hang on. I thought evolution was an optimising process..." Sure - but the 3% is a local optimum. Because plants' solar collectors are - wait for it - self-replicating, the 3% is actually fine: being able to increase your area easily gives you all the energy you need, and (just as importantly) it shades your competitors. Of course, if a mutation gave some plant 6% it'd have a radical advantage. But that's about as likely as a mutation moving your children's optic nerves from your front to the back of their retina.

2. 7 billion people with nothing to do but play tennis. No - never. Wealth creates employment, not the other way round. I'm old enough to remember when people said the widespread use of computers was going to create mass unemployment. Amazingly, rather the reverse has happened :-) As wealth grows, more and more trivia become essentials. Try asking someone from 1950 what they think of the job of composing phone ring tones. Of course, there's nothing to say that employment needs to involve money...

best wishes


Re: Real Value
April 30, 2008 06:55PM
Ru Wrote:
> Forgetting about the economy, what happens to all
> the people who need never work another day in
> their lives?
> What do you do with 5 billion people sitting
> around, bored, that doesn't involve them making
> another 2.5 billion people? That would be the real
> problem with a post-scarcity economy, I reckon...
> it would start getting mighty crowded winking smiley

Hopefully we will have managed to leave the planet by that point. People will still be able to work but in a very different way. If we have machines that can create food, shelter, medicine etc for us, then all that needs to be done by people (AI aside) is the intellectual design of things that we want. At a point where the basic requirements of life are provided for all then all current theories of economics fall out the window and you get a situation much like it would be if everyone was free to spend all their time working on open source projects like reprap and wouldn't have to have to divert their time to a 'job' smiling smiley
Re: Real Value
May 01, 2008 04:26AM
So first, a pound of caviar is never likely to have the same VALUE as a pound of poo, unless you REALLY need fertilizer. They might have the same cost of production, but value is a judgement. I value many of my books more than my TV but the TV costs more. Similarly with my children vs. my house.
Assuming technology makes the production costs of all objects uniform people will simply find value in other aspects of their lives; among the obvious places:
Things would come to be valuable merely for not being fabricated, that is for being produced by natural processes, or for being old (pre-fab as it were) or being handmade or modified or otherwise rendered unique.
Value would be perceived in personal service (as in of a person by a person).
Value would accrue to people by virtue of their activities, such as designing things to be fabbed, playing basketball or composing music. The better the performance the higher the value.
There is plenty of post-scarcity sci-fi out there that addresses this. My favorites are: Down and out in the Magic Kingdom, Holy Fire, Diamond Age, A is for Anything.

So second, all of the above, and indeed any system which traffics in value, will provide plenty of ways to utilize human energy. The idea that people will only work to avoid privation is as silly as it is common. Consider the fact that whenever this idea is posited it is always described as a problem with OTHER people. Nobody ever says " Well if I had access to plenitude I would just sit around all day being fat and stupid." No, we superior people would use our freedom wisely and well- it is the stupid, lazy, bad, the OTHERS who we are concerned will screw up our utopia. In the same way history is full of sub-cultures in which the business of providing for oneself was a non issue. The various aristocracies are certainly not universally praiseworthy, but they are not uniformly flaccid, feeble and forgettable. People will make of themselves what they will, either from scarcity or from plenty.

So third, I would say Steve has neglected the fourth source of value, which is relatedness. Infinitesimally few people would choose vast wealth at the price of total isolation, and those who do are regarded as freaks (see Howard Hughes). Value comes from our relationships with others, from the approval or opprobrium of our peers. This is why people throw parties, give to charities, go to work, and so on.

Oh Yeah, that solar energy thing is a distribution problem not a collection problem.
Re: Real Value
May 01, 2008 07:16AM
I suspect one problem will be persuading people to do the really nasty jobs that really need doing, when there is little economic incentive for them to do so. But this sort of thing is likely to happen in the mid-term future, when all those countries we rely upon to make cheap stuff for us become a little wealthier and suddenly our cost of living is rising to cope with theirs winking smiley

I presume the unwritten corollary to 'effectively limitless energy and material resources and manufacturing capability' is 'highly capable robots and autonomous systems'.
Anonymous User
Re: Real Value
May 01, 2008 10:50AM
With such a profound change to one of the pillars of society as we are proposing it would follow that other profound changes would have to take place too.

A caste type system would have to be used to get those nasty jobs done I think. It would have to become accepted that someone is a sewer scrubber because his father was a sewer scrubber. That way society would simply not allow for the ambition to do anything else.

That or perhaps slavery.

I can think of little more than monetary or material gain that motivates people reliably enough and can still be considered a "positive" force.

In a world without scarcity what IS the carrot?
Re: Real Value
May 01, 2008 11:31AM
IIRC, dog poo used to command quite a respectable price from tanneries that used it in the curing processes for leather. Probably not as much per pound as Beluga caviar, but a respectable price all the same. smiling bouncing smiley
Re: Real Value
May 01, 2008 11:54AM
Wait plants are 3% efficient? Your kidding me! We might not be too far from 80% efficiency solar cells:

Only problem with them right now is that they only put out ultra-high-frequency AC current. Very easy to make, no exotic elements
Re: Real Value
May 01, 2008 01:10PM
Here's some fun figures. Take an acre of land and work out the amount of energy produced with a) beef b) solar panels. Hope I got the numbers right...

1 acre will support 1 cow
lifetime of cow is 2 years
1 cow yields 500lb of beef
1 lb of beef yields 600 kcal of energy
Annual energy output = 500 x 600 / 2 = 150000 kcal per year = 627.6 megajoules per year

Solar panel
200W solar panel is 2000 sq in (Sanyo HIP-200BA3)
200W solar panel yields 6000 kW-h per year (used Kansas as location)
1 acre is 6272640 sq in
Annual energy output = 6000 * 6272640 / 2000 = 18817920 kW-h per year = 67744512 megajoules per year

If I did this right, it means that solar panels are 100000 times as efficient as beef. Of course, you can't eat electricity and beef is probably one of the least energy-efficient foods. Still, there's a huge difference in energy yield. And that's with 17% efficiency panels.

By the way, while I was looking up numbers, I found that solar panels are 1000 times as efficient as soy biodiesel and 100 times as efficient as corn ethanol.
Re: Real Value
May 01, 2008 05:31PM
Always with the slaves! Why is it that people, when trying to imagine a world outside of the known always fall back on emphasizing the worst of human nature when the best, or at least the better, is what normally prevails? (By the way, there are good reasons why altruism and cooperation prevail; call it system dynamics, game theory, coevolution, sociobiology or the golden rule, in social situations it is almost always better to treat others well enough that they would rather cooperate with you than opt out. Attempts to impose involuntary cooperation quickly lead to paradox and inefficiency.)

As I said in my last post, the absence of want does not mean the end of value. If handicrafts are valued, perhaps garbage mens uniforms will be covered in custom hand embroidery. More to the point many bad, smelly or dangerous jobs (firefighters, police and soldiers) are rewarded, even today, with respect and esteem as much as with money. Similarly, people who work for non-profit orgs are likely to find their jobs more respected than the same job at XYZ corp. In a reputation economy such jobs would be vastly more rewarding than say, tax law.

Of course automation will, in the future, as in the past, decrease the prevalence of bad jobs. We no longer pay many people to shovel coal into boilers, or for that matter,to buss tables in restaurants. Mowing the lawn is no harder than washing the dishes and there is no reason a robot cannot do either with minimal human setup/supervision.

Lastly, rather than enslaving 5% of the population for life, democracies have traditionally drafted 100% of the population for 5% of their life. Temporary conscription is widely understood as an appropriate way to spread the burden of duties which society requires but are too onerous to be fairly assigned to individuals.

Another good book about this sort of thing is The Dispossessed.
Anonymous User
Re: Real Value
May 01, 2008 10:36PM
I was discussing this issue with a buddy at work today. He expressed a similar sentiment: essentially that society defines the value of particular jobs. So, much like firefighters, sewer scrubbers would simply be "elevated" by society so that the job is rewarded and desired.

The problem is that there is no way to "elevate" all the jobs that must be done. So, even if sewer scrubber is highly elevated then some other essential job will then go undone.

I agree that automation and technology will reduce the number of "bad" jobs but, because the elevation of any given job must result in some other job being less desirable, it can never eliminate the problem.

Note that true democracies have never worked on very large scales. In my opinion a great contributing factor is because the sense of community that is required for the "100% for %5 of the time" plan dissipates once the society gets too large.

One thing that I had to point out to my friend was that the majority of people working to keep the wheels of society turning do not actually enjoy their jobs! My friend and I, and I imagine most of the folks involved here, have creative jobs. Since creativity can't happen without inspiration it is necessary, in general, that we actually enjoy our jobs. I think this tends to skew our perspectives a bit on the optimistic side.

I wasn't intending to play the slavery card as a cheap shot! I really arrived at that conclusion logically.

The temporary conscription thing is probably the answer though, isn't it used in some fairly large modern societies currently? I'm thinking military service primarily.
Re: Real Value
May 02, 2008 12:59AM
For "elevate" substitute "pay" and your problem is solved.
Money is just a way for people to easily negotiate for what they want. If you call it wuffie or prestige or semolians doesn't matter as long as everyone agrees to trust it as having consistent value. Even in Europe where basic sustenance is treated as a right some people are still garbage collectors and sewer muckers. People take jobs for all sorts of reasons. Many "bad" jobs have the advantage of staying at work (at 5pm you're done with it) in a way that many better jobs do not. There is a guy I heard about on NPR who works with skunks because he is genetically unable to smell them. He gets paid well too. Perhaps folks who are not creatively gifted will be willing to put up with x in order to be highly "paid", just as they do now.
I wasn't really slamming you for the slavery thing, I was more amused than annoyed, Slavery is a hugely inefficient and unstable institution, more common in fiction than society once engine power becomes available. But everyone has said "You couldn't pay me enough to do that!", so force seems to be the only solution. But it's not. Economics works better. Even post-scarcity economics.
Conscription is well tolerated in open societies as long as the end served is widely supported and the process is seen as fair. Israel and Switzerland both use universal conscription for their armed forces in peacetime. Also relevant are the "soft" or "voluntary" conscriptions such as student service projects or church mission trips where high proportions of the group in question go, and often pay to go, do just the kind of work we are discussing here. Two or three weeks a year covers 5% as much as 4 years a life does.
Whether "democracies" can get "large" or last "long" depends on how you define those terms. And I don't have enough electrons to get into that now.
Re: Real Value
May 02, 2008 05:43AM
Farming animals is of course a terribly inefficient thing to do. But you can grow animals in places where it is not possible (or merely not practical) to grow food crops (first thing that springs to mind are sheep on moorlands and highlands).

Short of nice, industrial scale protein and sugar synthesis, things will probably stay this way, though you may find yourself becoming increasingly vegetarian in the event of global farming issues...
Re: Real Value
May 02, 2008 07:01AM
Interestingly, I've heard about people defining energy as instead of "kw used by a person" on average into "slaves per person" Which is essentially how many slaves you would need to do all the work we currently use machines and electricity etc to do. ie if I was to go around with as much lighting as I need, get hot water and do my washing with very little work from me and all the other stuff that would otherwise need lots and lots of slaves to do I'd run out of space to keep them (moral issues of slavery aside)

People can argue about whether the 3rd world factories are virtual slavery, but in reality, the reprap would simply be continuing the virtual equivalence but minus the slaves just as it now takes far fewer 3rd world people to make a single toy than it used to, thanks to technology that has made manufactor less labor intensive. As well, you don't need slaves to clean your floor when you can build a machine which does it for you and all it takes is a few hundred cubic cm of plastic, metal and motors(or you saved enough money from repraping stuff that you can buy a roomba 9000 instead)
Anonymous User
Re: Real Value
May 02, 2008 08:10AM
"For "elevate" substitute "pay" and your problem is solved."

I need to grok that a bit more... It seems that you are saying simply that "there will be SOMETHING that entices SOMEONE to do the bad jobs." I have to assume I'm not getting what you are saying all the way though, since that seems like a rather thin argument! smiling smiley It seems to me that even coupled with other benefits there must still be jobs that are only done today because they are the only job someone could get and they have to eat...

Take, for instance, abuse of Social Security, Food Stamps, and MedicAid here in the States. (and I apologize for my limited experience, I will have to stay "American-centric".) Generally speaking the people "riding" on those programs are un-educated, non-creative folks who, now that their basic needs are met (post-scarcity) see no reason to contribute back to society.

Around here in Georgia, the majority of the workers in the chicken butchering plants (a particularly unpleasant job) seem to be migrant Mexicans who, due to the value of the Dollar vs. the Peso, receive enough benefit that they are willing to put up with the unpleasantness. The value proposition just isn't there for folks who could just get on Food Stamps rather than put up with the chicken guts.

"...Even post-scarcity economics."

The idea that post-scarcity economics will still work is precisely the question we are exploring here isn't it? I agree, though, that economics has worked better to date than any other method of "societal people management". (Is there an actual word for this concept? It escapes me.)

"Conscription is well tolerated in open societies as long as the end served is widely supported and the process is seen as fair."

Again, this is the avenue by which I'm hoping the issue will be solved. How would/do the same type of people who ride on Social Security interact with this sort of conscription though? Does anyone have experience with this in Israel or Switzerland who can chime in? From my experience the people volunteering for missionary work etc. are not the problem segment.


I suppose that's not really an important point to pursue anyway. I was thinking of the Greek city-states. (I was also thinking of religious communes, although not democracies, the sense of community driving people to do whatever it takes to keep the community going is still relevant.)

[[DISCLAIMER: I realize I'm touching on a couple of politically incorrect subjects here. I'm really not all that bigoted though! For the sake of keeping the thread clear, please flame via PM.]]
Re: Real Value
May 02, 2008 09:39AM
It's all academic anyway. The robots will've taken over long before we get to that point. The only thing we can hope for is that they don't sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 05/02/2008 10:43AM by Steve DeGroof.
Anonymous User
Re: Real Value
May 02, 2008 10:53AM
True enough. How was this addressed in Star Trek? They had a world with replicators...
Re: Real Value
May 02, 2008 12:05PM
The replicators on Star Trek couldn't replicate themselves (for some complicated, poorly-explained and convenient reason). The closest they came to that was the Exocomp, which had built-in replicators to create tools as needed. Chaos ensues when it's discovered that their replication technology has caused the Exocomps to become sentient. But, in typical Star Trek fashion, it's all resolved in the nick of time (i.e. after the last commercial break) and the technology was completely forgotten by the next episode.
Re: Real Value
May 02, 2008 03:58PM
The energy/matter/information economy will be the means by which we will hone our living here and allow us to travel beyond the earth.. Imagine an incoming near earth object being processed on it's way to us, arriving as a fully functional spacecraft that falls into earth's orbit waiting to take us to other planets where we can manipulate energy/matter/information to do what we want.

I plan on listening to a lot of music, doing yoga, skateboarding, getting shiatsu, making love to my wife, gardening. There's a lot more to life than my job.
Re: Real Value
May 03, 2008 01:42AM

You seem to be conflating two distinct things:
1. There are some people who are not motivated enough by social rewards to work after their survival needs have been met.
2. There are some nasty jobs that are done by people who have little in the way of skills or talents to offer.

The first problem is true, and is true, as you point out, in a money/scarcity economy as as well as a post scarcity economy. Any society which wishes to avoid corpses in the street will have to tolerate a small percentage of free riders. Today these are hobos, criminals and welfare/charity cheaters. In a post scarcity society they would still exist but they would be regarded as unpleasant, damaged individuals even more than they are today. Most would continue to be unhappy and isolated as they are today. I can tell you from experience however that most of the poor are in the second category.

Members of the second category, will continue to exist for a long time and will probably continue to do less desirable jobs in order to continue to participate in society. Which I guess is perhaps a better statement of why I believe people will still be motivated in a post scarcity environment. To restate: I believe that the vast majority of the work done in the world is not done for personal survival, but for the opportunity to participate in society. A person can live for free by sleeping in a squat, dumpster diving , etc. Very little more is required to eat beans and rice and rent a bed. Most of us work to support lifestyles far beyond survival and the rewards we seek ("nice" stuff, free time, self respect, family and good friends) are in fact distributed by society as it sees fit. Money is simply the marker we most often use to play the game in question.

I notice you give the example of a chicken factory as a terrible job, and by all accounts you are right; but I also notice that, like most terrible jobs it does not exist of necessity, it is an artifact of the way this society does things ( in this case supporting large corporations by selling huge amounts of prepackaged meat to squeamish consumers) When I was growing up one of my suburban neighbors kept chickens for eggs and meat, and it was the job of my friend (his son) to kill and clean three chickens every 2 weeks. It was a dirty job all right, but it was over in an hour and he preferred it to his nightly chore of handwashing the dishes. So remember that many of the really bad jobs in the world today exist for social and economic reasons which could disappear in a post scarcity world with a diverse, dispersed, information centric economy.
Re: Real Value
May 05, 2008 12:25PM
if life gets too good you can always have a successful war or two that should take care of the following problems:
over population
these other bastards
Re: Real Value
May 05, 2008 08:04PM
Okay. Four points.
First of all, haven't you noticed most people don't last long after retirement? Certainly, some of it is people tend to retire when they can no longer manage to work, but I believe slothful people quit living. If you're not doing anything to engage yourself, you age off faster. My belief.

Second of all. I'd probably be one of the less productive. I have no illusions. I work from 7 till 2, (I skip lunch most days,) but tend to sleep in until the afternoon on the weekends. Yes, in a post-scarcity economy, I'd probably sleep in until noon seven days a week. Edit. Six days a week. No one MAKES me go to church now.

Third of all. Define contribution, and while you're at it, define society. To a welfare cheat, they may actually accrue status by getting the most for the least personal effort. Oh, man. You managed to cheat uncle sam out of THAT MUCH? That's incredible! Also, one persons reasonable contribution is another persons waste of time. If I log on to EQII, I'm not contributing to my personal welfare, but among my associates there, I may be contributing toward the common good. A more grey area example would be a musician or other artisan producing their art. To someone, that is a waste of time, who wants to listen to that trash anyway? There hasn't been a decent thing played on the radio since about the time I graduated college, (insert year.)

Fourth of all, and finally. If you think about it, surgery is a dirty job. Do YOU want to spend twelve hours with your hands, up to your elbows, in someone else's guts? And yet, every year people graduate medical school. Sewer workers becoming respected figures isn't as outre as it seems.

As a fifth point, (then I'll post, I promise,) games may be the way some people spend their copious free time, if they actually get any from this. If the games are sufficiently engaging, people may opt to spend hours upon hours playing games over being productive, producing for the society just enough to afford to continue to play those games. Hmm. Sounds like now for many people.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 05/05/2008 08:06PM by Sean Roach.
Re: Real Value
May 05, 2008 11:48PM
We can already see where the future may lie by looking at how the affluent of today spend their money. As people make more money, they shift consumption from goods to services.

In the US, research shows that consumption of goods begins to level off sharply with people making a salary of 200k-300k USD/year. Beyond that, most of the spending goes into services, like trainers, gardeners, maids, nannies, tutors, chefs, personal assistants, medicine-men, etc.

This is why the economy of the future is a service economy. For those who think it's somehow demeaning to provide personal services to a wealthy individual, I would challenge them to clarify how it is different from, say, being a machinist for Gulfstream, building private jets for an even more rarefied group of peopele.

As for scarcity, dirty jobs pay well today, and will pay even better tomorrow. There is a price at which every one of us would fix sewer pipes or build highways.
Anonymous User
Re: Real Value
May 06, 2008 12:07AM

You are right, I have combined those two concepts/categories. But, are they really that separate or have I inappropriately combined them?

I have to agree with you if they are separate. However, if these attributes (lack of attributes?) tend to travel together I think there is a problem still.

I suppose my implied position was that, generally, those individuals without the skills or talents also tend to be those who are not motivated after their basic needs are met.

Now that I've stated that position succinctly I find myself rather embarrassed... That sort of assumption certainly doesn't seem very fair.


Point One: A mechanism of Natural Selection in a Post-Scarcity Society? smiling smiley

Point Three: Wow, that just made the dynamics more complicated...

Point Four: Interesting, but I rectify this by noticing that medicine generally takes a large amount of skill/talent and motivation... I'd put those folks in a rather opposite category from the "problem group" under question/examination.

Point Five: Perhaps a group that can be examined?
Re: Real Value
May 06, 2008 05:40AM
Surgery, and the larger parent field of medicine in general, may have rewards other than financial. Same for most public services, I'd say. One of my previous employers was a volunteer lifeboatman, when he wasn't doing his day-to-day IT consultancy stuff. I don't imagine he was risking drowning for a few extra bucks smiling smiley

In fact, in some areas you could well find emplyment increasing, as you can do the sort of things you want to do, rather than the sort of things you have to do. But saving lives is probably more rewarding than scooping poop.
Re: Real Value
May 08, 2008 01:00AM

You are correct about current consumption patterns, but these are distorted by the simple fact that eventually it becomes difficult to find things (short of potlatch) to spend a significant fraction of ones income on. Thus any car is a large part of my income, but no car is a significant part of Warren Buffets income. Aside from deliberate ostentation there is a limit to how many material goods one can consume. You can only drive one car at a time. Services on the other hand are ephemeral, if you pay a maid for today, you have nothing tomorrow unless you pay her again. Thus services are not actually more desired than than goods, they are just easier to spend money on.

One possible outcome of widespread fabrication (wealth without money) is a flattening of the wealth curve as it becomes harder to make money by mass production of commodity goods and hence by supplying capital services to the purveyors of commodity goods. Not that personal service will disappear, but it is unlikely to approach the levels associated with Louis X!V (65 servants/resident at Versailles).

My personal theory is that people will just work fewer hours and focus more on things they enjoy doing or feel need to be done.

It is possible to be gratified by the work one does (whether on a Gulfstream or a Chevy) for any number of reasons without regard to for who, what, or why the item was actually created. The person who makes a guitar does not need to care if the buyer plays it well, but she almost undoubtedly cares that it is the best guitar she can make. Service depends on the relation between two people, Craft upon the relation of a person and a thing (or the ideal expressed in the thing),
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