An impending economic singularity? [Re: Singularity: Vinge responds]

Charlie Stross (
Fri, 18 Sep 1998 11:46:33 +0100

On Wed, Sep 16, 1998 at 06:27:15PM -0400, Michael Lorrey wrote:
> The singularity is ALWAYS in the future. It will NEVER be reached. And
> just as today there are savages and spacemen living on the same planet,
> there will also be a whole panoply of civilizations within each nation or
> ethnic group that at some point will be incomprehensible to each other.

Give the man a cigar. (Applause.)

Actually, I've been nursing a couple of hypotheses for a while now, which bear on the idea of a different kind of singularity (and are probably politically incorrect in such a primarily-libertarian list as this, but that's another matter).

Consider Linux. Not as an operating system, but as a paradigm for an economic singularity that lies no further in the future than the first replicator.

It used to be the case that if I owned an artefact, and gave it to someone else, I no longer owned that artefact. Today, though, software and data have become weirdly delocalized. I can own a computer program and give you a copy of it, and still have all the benefits of owning it myself.

Our existing legal framework for coping with intellectual property is derived from two platforms; copyright and patent law. Copyright was introduced because the effects of _not_ restricting the ownership of copying rights to the originator of a work were damaging the ability of those originators to support themselves, producing more work; thus, it was a useful legal fiction in the 19th century. It was effectively enforcable because printing presses were great clanking monsters; you couldn't violate someone else's copyright on a commercial scale without being fairly easy to track down.

Patents were a secondary form of intellectual protection. Granted effectively by state fiat, for the purpose of encouraging inventiveness in the national interest, they granted a de-facto monopoly over the exploitation of a new technique.

Now, the copyright concept seems to me to no longer be enforcable in the same way that it was in, say, 1850. Moreover, the whole concept has been extended in directions that were never initially intended. It doesn't make _sense_ to assert copyright control over something that is infinitely copyable; if you invent something that falls into this category, there are any number of alternative business models possible to ensure that you receive remuneration without trying to enforce the unenforcable. (Try providing telephone support on a subscription basis, for example. See the recent [entertaining] piece on usenet comparing Microsoft's support hotline to the Psychic Friends Network, for example, then look at SuSE, Red Hat, Caldera, and the other people making money out of Linux.)

The whole free software idea, which Richard Stallman's been banging on about for the best part of twenty years, is finally going somewhere -- and if _anything_ can push Bill Gates out of the #1 spot, it's a competitor with the right price (zero) which he can't buy up and can't undersell.

This isn't the place for a lecture on the economics of open source software; if you want one, Eric Raymond and others have written more eloquently about it than I. Let's just say it's a potlach economy. There's enough of everything for even the most gluttonous consumer because consumption does not involve sequestration; however your personal prestige is proportional to the amount you contribute to the pool. (And we shouldn't discount such things as economically irrelevent -- after all, economics is at one level a description of the interactions of human beings; and human beings, being great apes, have a whole load of tribal dominance and position stuff wired into their brains: ignoring the fact that humans sometimes do things because it affirms their sense of their position in the tribe is not clever when one is trying to analyse human behaviour.)

Now start thinking about the implications of the open source ethos for molecular nanotechnology.

It's probably premature to start expecting this for at least another couple of years, but I'm wondering about the prospects of a 'Free Hardware Foundation' arising fairly rapidly. Such a hypothetical non-organisation will apply the same principles the FSF applies to software to the design of basic living equipment that can be manufactured using whatever replicator technology comes along.

The idea that 'information wants to be free' has a direct metaphor: 'access to tools'. If the cost of manufacturing any physical artefact for which a design exists is brought down to cost of raw materials plus energy, then exactly the same problem of copying control that currently applies to software will apply to all tangible goods. (A case can be made for excluding objets'd'art, but, as they say, you can't eat handicrafts.)

In which case, of course, we have an economic singularity. Suddenly, the contemporary motivations for production become wholly obsolete -- anyone can have all the information or physical goods they can carry, whenever they want them! Because, if you ask me to give you my car, I can do so and immediately run off another copy of GNU Automobile 20.4 (with the combined cycle gas turbine and fuel cells and solar panels, eight wheels and two tracks -- driver's seat and steering wheel optional extras). Which was designed by enthusiasts because Ford and GM were designing and selling the automotive equivalent of Windows 95 -- a glossy but technically inferior and inefficient, unreliable product that is then sold on an insupportable basis.

Lest anyone suggest that this can't happen, I'd like to point to the FSF and the whole Linux phenomenon as an existence proof for information-based potlach economies that can agressively gain market share even in the face of determined opposition by an entrenched industry structured along conventional free-market lines.

Any opinions?