Freedom and abundance

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This essay is on Wikiversity to encourage a wide discussion of the issues it raises moderated by the Wikimedia rules that invite contributors to “be bold but not reckless,” contributing revisions written from a neutral point of view citing credible sources -- and raising other questions and concerns on the associated '“Discuss”' page.

Diamandis and Kotler (2012) Abundance predict rapid improvements in the coming decades in the quality of life for virtually all of humanity.[1] These predictions are based on rates of improvements in many technologies similar to that of the growth of computers over the past 60 years. Since at least the late 1940s and probably longer, the cost of virtually any electronic function has been cut in half roughly every 2 years. As a result, we can now buy for $1 the computational capability that would have cost $1,000 twenty years ago[2] and $1,000,000 another twenty years earlier. Computers do things routinely today that would not have been economically feasible a few years ago.

Examples[edit]

For a concrete example, compare smartphones available in 2014 with earlier mobile phones. The first car phone was offered for sale in St. Louis, MO, in 1946. It weighed 36 kg (80 pounds), and at most 3 people could use it at one time in the entire metropolitan area. The first handheld mobile phone came on the market 27 years later in 1973. It weighed 1.1 kg (2.4 pounds), measured 23 x 13 x 4.45 cm (9 x 5 x 1.8 inches), had a talk time of only 30 minutes and took 10 hours to charge. Between 1946 and 1973 the size had come down by a factor of 40. Data on price and performance are not readily available; however, suppose that the price had fallen by a factor of 5 while the quality of service (area of service and sound quality) had improved by another factor of 5: The product of 40 by 5 by 5 produces a factor of roughly 1,000 in mobile phones in a little over 20 years. A similar analysis suggests that improvements in size, price and performance of cell phones in the 41 years between 1973 and 2014 could plausibly produce a reduction of a factor of very roughly 10 in weight, 100 in the price and 1,000 in performance in the intervening 41 years, totaling overall improvements by a factor of 1,000,000.

Diamandis and Kotler forecast similar high rates of improvement for photovoltaic solar panels, potable water, food, health care, education, and many other things that could provide a modern standard of living for the poorest of the world's people.

Who will pay for the improvements?[edit]

However, this prediction of Abundance implicitly assumes that the poor and the middle class will be able to access these breakthrough technologies. The massive improvements in computer technology since the late 1940s is described by Moore's Law, which is a special case of more general experience curve effects. This is based on data from various fields indicating that the cost per unit of almost anything declines in a near constant percentage with every doubling of cumulative production (i.e., following a power law). For this to work, there must be sufficient demand in the market for cumulative production to double repeatedly.

Unfortunately, research by Thomas Piketty[3] and David Graeber[4] raises questions about whether the poor and the middle class will get the money required to create Diamandis and Kotler's forecasted Abundance: Piketty documents how the ultra-wealthy, especially in the US, have been extracting an ever increasing share of the wealth in the international economy. If this trend continues to expand, which seems likely without a major peasant revolt, the poor and the middle class will not be able to purchase the improved goods and services. This in turn means that cumulative production may not increase fast enough to drive down the unit costs as predicted by Diamandis and Kotler.

This is consistent with Graeber's review of the history and archeology of the past 5,000 years: He sees a pattern of long periods with wealth and power concentrated in fewer and fewer hands interrupted by peasant revolts. Then the cycle begins again.

To reverse the current trend towards increased concentration of wealth, Piketty wants the leading nations of the world to first create a mandatory system for compiling and sharing data on wealth, inheritance and income, and then to build a global taxation system based on that.[5] Piketty suggests this could be done while simultaneously increasing the rate of economic growth.

Achieving this may require a new international and democratic peasant rebellion. Without it, the poor and the middle class may never be able to purchase enough goods and services to create the abundance promised by Diamandis and Kotler. This view is further supported by the perspective of Nobel-prize economist Amartya Sen in Development as Freedom, that economic development is driven by people who do not accept the limits their leaders attempt to impose upon them. It is also supported by research suggesting that that the Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain, because the British were the first to sufficiently restrict the power of the king and other veto groups to prevent the spread of innovations they didn't like.[6]

Category:Freedom and abundance[edit]

This freedom and abundance project on Wikiversity attempts to crowdsource a full and open review of the relevant evidence for and against the claims cited above by Diamandis, Kotler, Piketty, and Graeber. Wikiversity is a natural home for a project like this for several reasons. First, Wikiversity is a Wikimedia Foundation project and benefits from a culture similar to what has made Wikipedia such a success. These include writing from a neutral point of view, citing credible sources, and assuming good faith on the part of others. Second, Wikiversity provides some support for original research, which is not allowed on Wikipedia.

Essays in this series include an analysis of the inverse relationship between a free press and political corruption (including problems with oligopolistic media as in the United States). They also include an analysis of the effectiveness of alternative defense strategies. This includes a review of all the major violent and nonviolent governmental change efforts of the twentieth century that found that nonviolence builds democracy while violence sustains tyranny, on average in the long run.

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. See also Brynjolffson and McAfee (2014).
  2. To see this, first note that twenty years would produce 10 doublings with each doubling requiring 2 years. The first doubling gives 2 times the original quantity. The second gives 4, and a third becomes 8. The fourth and fifth doublings give 16 and 32 times the original quantity. The sixth through nineth doublings produce 64, 128, 256, and 512. The tenth doubling is 1024 -- essentially 1,000.
  3. Piketty (2014)
  4. Graeber (2011)
  5. Piketty (2014, esp. Part Four)
  6. Vernon, Raymond (1989), Technological Development: The Historical Experience, World Bank, ISBN 0-8213-1162-X, http://www-wds.worldbank.org/servlet/WDSContentServer/IW3P/IB/1999/09/17/000178830_98101911181278/Rendered/PDF/multi_page.pdf 
  7. cited from McChesney, Robert (2014), Blowing the roof off the twenty-first century, Monthly Review Press, ISBN 978-1-58367-478-9