ZERO MARGINAL COST AND UNEMPLOYMENT
By Karl Arnold Belser
07 October 2014



I have expressed my concerns about what people will do when (and if) robots and artificial intelligence become dominant in the workings of society and industry. See my post The Second Machine Age and Stagnation for a discussion of the problem.

The book The Zero Marginal Cost Society by Jeramy Rifkin has a veiled message about how people in the future might occupy themselves in Social Production in what he calls the collaborative commons. He goes the the extreme by claiming that this networked-like organization of society will displace capitalism.

It is true that today we have a commons called the Internet that allows collaboration by music, essay  and free-ware sharing that is astounding. It is interesting to me that people are willing to contribute to important developments like Wikipedia without being paid. Rifkin also suggests that a power distribution infrastructure would become a new and very productive commons.  Such a commons would allow creative means of generating and sharing electricity. Such a sharing would make the electricity grid much more robust to system failure or attack.

The P2P Foundation site has a good summary, review and discussion of the book, whose comments I pretty much agree with. Hence I will not repeat a summary here.

in short, most of the potential commons would have to be established by the government, which is problematical given the current subordination efforts by rich people and corporations. For example the collaborative commons of the Internet could be destroyed if net-neutrality is lost. In addition, it is doubtful that power companies will agree to spin off their power distribution networks without a fight. Even if there are data and power distribution networks, I think it is likely that hierarchical organization will continue. I think Rifkin gets carried away with unreal assumptions bout scarcity of resources, which is the same criticism I made in my post The Second Machine Age and Stagnation.

That said, I have observed in the area where I live (San Jose, CA) that volunteerism is on the upswing from people that are unemployed or retired. This does make me wonder because the capitalistic assumption that people will work only if they are paid seems to be untrue.

For example, my significant other and I spend a lot of time managing and running our 501(C)(3) nonprofit, The Committee to Promote Square Dancing. I know many other people that volunteer for activities that they like. In addition, the staff reductions in the police, fire and recreation departments of San Jose has fostered the rise in community service organizations. My guess is that the need for social interaction will drive an increase in volunteer activity as long as people can live at a reasonable standard of living without working for money.

The United States is already set up to foster
volunteer based 501(C) organizations by exempting them from income tax and protection from law suits (Volunteer Protection Act of 1997).

In conclusion, I think that public policy should be aimed at developing commons like  the Internet and the power grid in order to tap the unused human capital that will become available when robots and artificial intelligence become common. Such commons might result in the kind of creativity that has already occurred because of the Internet. There are probably other commons, such as open space usage and shared power distribution grids, that could be developed if the United States focuses on activities for unemployed people.
   
Last updated October 7, 2014
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