So they emailed a wrench up to the International Space Station a couple of weeks ago. It’s a small thing, sort of nerdy-cool if you follow that sort of stuff, which I do. But so much that goes on in the space program seems to have little application here on Earth: “Astronauts on the International Space Station attempted to determine how waffles accept syrup in microgravity…” You get the feeling they are just sort of looking for shit to do up there.
The wrench thing, however, is going to rock all of our worlds: the ability to create the object you need when you need it the way you want it far from any supply chain. We’ve talked about that before and I can be proud to say Gloucester students are getting an excellent intro in that world with our 3D printing lab.
But maybe you’ve noticed something else disconcerting, that seems like a good thing but everyone is kind of weird about- on my way to the office this morning gas was $2.50 a gallon. That’s good right? You’d think the economy would be on a cheap-fuel drunk as everybody who manufactures, delivers, drives and ships just wound up with a few extra sacks of cash. Instead we’re all looking around going, “Huh?” Weren’t we just running out gas a couple of years ago? Wasn’t it going to five bucks a gallon on the way to ten?
There are a lot of explanations, but the biggest one is in category after category we’re transcending scarcity and it’s fucking everything up.
Our whole economic system, nay our billion-plus years of evolved instincts as living creatures in individual habitats is all about managing scarcity. Supply and demand, energy transfers, efficiency, Adams Smith and The Wealth of Nations, even Marx and his whole ‘surplus labor value’ insight, all of it depends on there not being enough of a particular thing and the folks who provide it to you getting paid for it. Even Marxism breaks down without scarcity. Seriously.
In category after category the driving forces we depend on to run our economy the way in which we are accustomed are evaporating. Is music scarce? The very computer I’m typing on right now can play pretty much any song ever written without me paying a dime. This is becoming increasingly true across the board. Movies will be next, but soon enough complex physical objects and electronics. There are kids playing with robotic sets that would have made engineers weep with joy to have access just ten years ago. Ideas that were pipe dreams in the recent past are rolling out not as products, but as playthings for open-source communities. No one is getting paid but amazing work is being done.
That is kind of a problem, actually.
Everyone know what Instagram is? Photo sharing app, just bought by Facebook and was recently valued at 35 billion dollars, which is amazing. Until you think that Kodak, the company that essentially created modern photography and film, was at its peak only every worth 15 billion. That’s everything: real estate, manufacturing equipment, distribution networks, it had operations in every state and more than 30 countries. There were 140 thousand direct employees not to mention all the ancillary suppliers and the careers their technology made possible.
Instagram has 80 employees. It had 15 when it was purchased. Not enough to make for a crowd at the Rhumb Line on a Monday night. A 35 billion dollar company has fewer people than came to my daughters Bat Mitzvah.
More of that is coming. So much more. I’ve talked in this space about fusion. Since then Lockheed has applied for patents on components in something called a “high-beta fusion reactor” which it turns out a lot of groups have been working on. This is a device that can produce enough energy for 40 thousand homes and is about the size of a tractor trailer box, according to the current plans. It generates zero radiation out past 15 meters (you shield it within that) and can’t melt down like the reactors we have now, the fuel is abundant and easily derived from seawater. It’s essentially the PC of the energy category- computers were big infrastructure things back in the 70s but then small machines with incredible power blew the entire industry apart. It was great, but also incredibly disruptive but the good thing was technology people had other places to go, as the PC technology was essentially the same as the big washing-machine sized computers that filled up rooms back then..
It won’t be the same with fusion. Over a million people work directly in petroleum in the United States. And if these reactors are real, they will be built in a factory somewhere and shipped to sites for use. Today as we speak there are about a thousand dudes (for the non-gender specific value of ‘dude’) getting ready to start work on the new power plant in Salem. Plumbers, electricians, pipe fitters, crane operators, the guy who sells coffee, donuts and weed out of the roach coach truck that shows up for 11:00 break. When this tech comes on line all those people and their families and the people who sell them mortgages, cars and grow lights are all going to be screwed as well. And they won’t be able to all go work in the fusion industry as it will be a single plant making these things somewhere in California, most likely. And is the guy who welds steel going to be able to go work on the fusion reactor line anyway? Don’t think so, it will be highly robotic and specialized. Those jobs will just be lost.
But it probably won’t be here for another 30 years, right? Wrong. Five at the earliest if their approach is valid (and it might not be) then ten at the outside. Great, now everyone who works in every component energy production is going to be fucked.
So petroleum is fucked, energy is fucked, if the 3D printing thing or it’s cousin-on-steroids ‘atomic scale manufacturing’ gets off the ground then China is oh-so-very fucked but so are a lot of industries here (medical devices and defense come to mind. Why make missiles or aircraft parts now if you can just produce them as needed?).
We’re so good at creating abundance that the scarcity needed for our economic model is going away. Shit.
The point is this: We make technologies come to life. It’s what Americans do. We are hands-down off-the-hook awesome at it and it really is our “thing.” I was working on a messaging campaign for a new aircraft a few years ago when an irate person of the foreign persuasion once pissily asked why English is the international language of Aviation, even outside the English-speaking world. The engineer looked at him and said, “If the Wright Brothers had been French, we’d speak that.” Simple enough.
But in our own culture we have to get better at making sure those displaced by the awesome shit we create are not excluded from the technological progress. We don’t and shouldn’t share the spoils of innovation and entrepreneurship equally, but there has to be some kind of better way to respond to someone who’s worked their whole life in the service of an industry and finds that it’s gone away essentially overnight. The disparities created are bad for our economy because fewer and fewer can take advantage of all the great stuff, which is sort of the point of making it in the first place. It’s bad for our culture as more and more folks are getting left behind making for class distinctions that are distinctly un-American. We’re not equal economically, but we’ve always been equal socially and that has to continue for us to be us. We don’t do aristocracy, it was sort of the point of the country to begin with. Here, in America, you get a fair shot and more and more that shot has to be applied in the middle of a life rather than at the start of one.
We also need to be better at managing change for communities, as the example of our own city of Gloucester shows. We let the rust belt go because it was no longer useful, we’re doing the same to Detroit. This always comes back and bites us in the ass when the social ills of poverty start spreading around.
This isn’t a liberal argument, it’s an economic one. Humans are not disposable. You cannot throw them ‘away” because there is no ‘away.’ They will be around, so lets make sure everyone has the opportunity not just to be a service lackey to the new oligarchy, but to be really useful and rewarded for it.
President Obama’s free community college idea is a start in that direction as is universal health care. But we need to do more. Famous economist KT Toomey once said that we need a social safety ‘trampoline’ not a safety ‘net.’ Our culture should be all about helping you bounce back from a changing industry in a positive and optimistic way, not mire you in a web of bullshit and scorn. I loved all the economic geniuses who said that we should have not given unemployment compensation to people out of work in the past five years, but instead send them to North Dakota where the oil fields were in desperate need of workers. Yeah, well now those fields are laying people off in the thousands as the price of crude plummets from $100 a barrel down to $30 so pretty good we didn’t do that, huh?
We need to think bigger than just the next move. We need to rethink the game.