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

Charlie Stross (
Mon, 21 Sep 1998 10:19:55 +0100

On Fri, Sep 18, 1998 at 02:08:47PM -0400, Mike Linksvayer wrote:
> I feel that the property status of information will be the single
> greatest non-engineering factor in shaping societies of the next
> century. If we continue down the path of increasing property
> protections for information we will likely have a society run by
> state/corporate cartels with huge disparities of wealth between
> information owners and non-owners and a very boring culture.


Maybe I'm an optimist, but I don't think it is practical to increase property protections for information much beyond where they stand today. (Lobbyists will try, but whatever the win in law will be unenforcable on the ground.)

You can't maintain a monopoly on information resources without co-opting the producers of information. If not all the producers of information will play ball, your monopoly is subject to being undermined -- the free software movement, if nothing else, demonstrates how this can happen.

Some types of information may require a large project team to assemble -- the design of a Boeing 747, for example, a large structured artefact designed from the top down to meet overall specifications -- but many other types of information are amenable to individual creativity or a loose team of volunteers. The existence of entire operating systems, complete with applications and GUIs, suggests that big corporations aren't essential for such developments and, indeed, may impose a parasitic load on the developers.

Given that the 21st century is shaping up to be the century in which the informational revolution burns, and given the concommitant trends towards globalisation, I'd be astonished if a global society run by cartels could arise and maintain itself in the long term. The only way they could stabilise it would be to maintain a "war on creativity".

> However, I feel that anything qualifying as a "singularity" will
> be engineering-driven. Nanotech implies drastic changes irregardless
> of the property regime it occurs in, short of a totalitarian one
> that could completely control access to the technology.

Without engineering there won't be a singularity, granted. But the shape of the post-nanotechnology economy could be radically different from anything we expect.

For example, consider the communist singularity. (Or rather, the resurgent Leninist singularity.) Current developments in Russia don't look too wonderful; there's a good chance that the vanguard party will find itself running the joint once again early in the next century. This time round, Soviet foreign policy may be a bit less hostile to the west -- the more paranoid fears of invasion or attack by NATO having been assuaged -- but economically they'll be inheriting a scrap heap. I'm stabbing in the dark here, but I'd expect them to go for heavy-handed paternalism and possibly some discreet emulation of the Chinese modernization model. (Hell, they may even retain the current near-democratic model and wait their turn in opposition -- the party is no longer very revolutionary.)

Now inject a mature molecular nanotechnology (developed elsewhere, very probably) into a regime of this sort that is just getting its feet under it. What is an authoritarian central-planning regime, with fairly powerful networking resources, going to make of nanotechnology?