Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The New Subsistence

I've been watching a lot of talks by Jaron Lanier and Cory Doctrow in the last few days, both excellent thinkers who spend a lot of time worrying about the same effects of technology on society that I do.

Many of their comments have helped sharpen my own thinking, and I'm slowly coming to a new idea that might be a helpful way of looking at the problems of rising inequality and power disparity in our societies.

Actually it's mostly Queen Victoria's ideas, brought up to date. And that's because, frankly, the Victorian age has ours beaten hands down for the rate of technological progress, social progress, economic mobility, health, education, and in fact every measure that's in such decline today. Why?

My fundamental thesis is going to be that the Victorians had better access to raw materials and the means of processing them, for individual gain. Sure, we may have more personal capability (knowledge, tools) than your average Victorian, but we have less opportunity to use them.

Let's take one simple example - food, and the Commons.

Despite the "tragedy of the Commons" that came later, it's interesting to know that large chunks of the English countryside were "Common land", where anyone could graze their sheep. Pastoral citizens were literally surrounded by the raw material they could, with care, turn into food. They could extract a livelihood and value from the landscape around them.

This is a very human endeavor. Put a naked human on a desert island, and they will start building. Grass hats, grass huts, wooden spears, axes, wooden shelters, fires and forges. Play Minecraft if you've forgotten how that process works.

So here's the thing... we've lost access to all those resources. We now live in a pre-owned, pre-fabricated world where the opportunities for extracting value from our (physical) environment are gone. You can't dig up your backyard for the mineral content, you can't cut down trees in the local park for wood, and you can't own enough pigs and chickens to feed yourself without the council telling you to stop.

And, if you somehow do manage to luck onto a cache of resources, you're not allowed to make 'copies' of other people's products, which by now includes everything.

The explosion of prosperity in Victorian times happened because the "middle class" had access to resources, and were given new technological ways to apply them for direct personal benefit. Remember the first railroads were built on private property, from local steel, by blacksmiths. A manor wasn't complete without its workshops. And the ethos of that time we'd probably call "Open Source" today... it was fine to copy/reinvent someone else's machine, especially to make it better. In fact it was encouraged by the Queen herself.

They had copyright. They invented it. There are big books of textile designs, tartans and weaves, that once registered were the 'property' of the artist. "Argyle" being a case in point. But that was Art, created by pure human imagination. With engineering, it was all about attribution because you were 'discovering' something that was thought to already be there. It was a race for glory.

Yes, the world has moved on. No more sheep and commons, now we have media and internet. They are the new source of 'raw material' in our daily lives. But your average citizen can't avail themselves of those resources. Try, and criminal proceedings occur.

The new resources have different rules - sheep are hard to copy, but software is trivial. So 'manufacturers' get to 'produce' an infinite number of units for nearly zero cost, but the moment it reaches us, that valuable feature is removed. Its primary utility value is legally withheld from us.

(If you're wondering what I'm talking about, meditate on the koan: "How can software disappear?" And then ask the users of Final Cut Pro.)

That's the case with everything. There are no commons anymore. No 'free' resources that a capable human can use to bootstrap themselves to self-sufficiency. We are born into a controlled world where opportunities are restricted.

For example, in many places in the world, it's illegal to collect rainwater. In Oregon, a man was jailed for it. Water can fall out of the sky and onto your head and house, and if you collect it in a bucket or a dam you can go to jail.

I want you to think about that for a long, long moment. Really think about it.

Rain is no longer a "common resource". Someone else owns it, even as it falls on you.

And if you say, "Well, yes, but I'm sure it's for a good reason to do with water management" then that may be the case, but what about the small town where the local (private) water processing plant got a rainwater ban enacted? When large private companies have profit motive to restrict your access to 'competing' resources (or artificially deplete them) and collude with governments to do so, what options do you have?

If I were to pick up a fallen branch in the street, carve it into the likeness of a popular kids cartoon, and then sell the results of my work on eBay; I would be breaking about twenty laws. Thirty if I posted it overseas.

If I were to use my scientific knowledge to produce inexpensive chemotherapy drugs from Asprin and Cough Medicine, (drugs which are needed to save lives, so you'd think that would be cool) I would be breaking so many laws your head would spin.

You are not allowed to extract value from your environment. Physically, or intellectually. That right is reserved for people you have to swear fealty and service to, if you want to live comfortably. And the toll they charge is punitive, because they know we have no other option. They got there first, they own the rights, and it doesn't matter they did it before you were even born, before you had any opportunity.

This is why the Middle Class has been decimated. We're surrounded by valuable resources that we can't use as raw materials for our own creations. An iPhone isn't just a product, it could be a small component of a larger device or system,  just like the bolts and chips are components within the iPhone - that Apple didn't need special permission to resell, it was just assumed. But if you try that with their product, you get a visit from Apple's legal department. They visit if you make something that looks like their product, let alone has one inside it.

This is going to turn into a new kind of "Tragedy of the Commons" - the last one was about the fictional over-use of the shared resource that resulted in the actual resources being shut down, but this time the tragedy is the new Commons are stuffed with value we can't touch. And if the middle can't generate resources to pay for their lifestyles, then the entire economic edifice of consumerism collapses.

Just imagine if iPhones could be legally embedded in toy robots or remote-controlled planes, and retain the warranty. Apple would no longer be market limited by the number of physical people. I'd carry the one I know about, and not realize my "Internet Fridge" had another inside. And your car, and baby monitor, and telescope. Their business would expand, uncontrollably.

But no, Apple can rain a product down upon you, and you're only allowed to do what they want. That means you can't add value, extract a living, and afford the next iPhone. Henry Ford was a racist bastard, but even he understood the need to give your workers economic opportunities so they could afford to buy your next product.

Remember, in the game of Monopoly when one person holds all the property, the game is over, and all that colourful money becomes meaningless again. We are closer to that point than most think.

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