Re: MEDIA: Idiots predict future

Charlie Stross (
Tue, 6 Jul 1999 09:36:33 +0100

On Mon, Jul 05, 1999 at 12:03:35PM -0700, Ralph Lewis wrote:
> Food, shelter, cars... how much more do we need? Except for demand created
> by advertising we are at our limits of consumption of traditional products.

So we redefine the desirable targets. For the past forty years, the developed world hasn't been obsessed with what people need (food, shelter, antibiotics, transport) but with what they want (holidays in Thailand, cheap restaurant meals, home computers).

One problem I can see, though, is that some of the possible options for a consumer society just don't work. Mass media, for example -- I'm pretty sure we're in the early stages of a massive upheaval in our entire idea of what constitutes intellectual property and how intellectual property rights should be enforced. (Data points: the free software movement, MP3's, do-it-yourself web portals like Slashdot.) If you linearly extrapolate the media of 1990 into the future, you have a million channels of TV, lots of jobs in music video production, tabloid newspapers, and Microsoft. By 2000, however, the future of the media will be radically -- and obviously -- different. Even its money making potential will have changed (and with it the degree to which it can be viewed as an economic engine of production).

Times change, and the metrics you can use to analyse the standard of living change too. Here in the UK, per-capita coal consumption is probably as low as it has been since 1790 -- but that doesn't mean we're as poor as we were in the eighteenth century. (It just means that coal, a substance the wealth of the nation was based on, has become irrelevant.) It's quite possible that in a few decades the west's raw materials and energy consumption will resemble that of the third world in the 1960's ... except that those figures will be deceptive, concealing smart materials and high-efficiency propulsion technology that let us do an order of magnitude more with an order of magnitude less.

And who knows? Maybe defining our identities in terms of what we consume will itself go out of fashion eventually, once the lesson that we can afford more than we can physically consume sinks in.