It’s almost as if the law of gravity had stopped working.
For centuries, the law of supply and demand has been one of the foundational concepts of modern economics; it was the beginning of every high school econ class, a ubiquitous term as broadly-understood as the notion that matter gravitates toward other matter. What, then, are we to make of a world where this fundamental tenet of the free market (or at least half of it) simply ceases to exist?
Demand for goods, services and information is unlikely to dissipate any time soon- supply, however, is another story. The entire notion of supply is built on scarcity, because the limitations of resources and manpower mean that only so much can be produced and offered to consumers. Modern technology is changing that. Though it may sound ridiculous, the principle of a “post-scarcity” world is in some respects oddly intuitive, because when things like information are reduced to ones and zeros and their cost to reproduce and distribute is virtually nil, why should it ever be in short supply or even have a cost at all?
The answer is an idea called “artificial scarcity,” a principle which says that even though we can produce more than enough of something to go around, we shouldn’t. This is nothing new, as it forms the basis for the entire notion of intellectual property- access to information must be controlled, because if anyone can have it for free, how can it ever turn a profit? Or, more simply, infinite supply and finite demand is a great deal for consumers, but not so much for producers.
One could go on at length (or perhaps even teach a seminar) about the ways in which access to artificially scarce information is regulated and monetized, but it goes further than that. For now, it’s primarily information which is subjected to this treatment, but what happens when you don’t need to buy a computer, a phone or even a sandwich, because your 3D printer can make them all for you? Is there a way to get out of this jam without placing untold restrictions on the spread of information?
Yes, but it might not be pretty. Welcome to the world of post-scarcity anarchism, a phrase coined by author Murray Bookchin in his book of the same name (available here and here, ironically in both artificially scarce and readily available versions, respectively) to describe a world where capitalism and the state have no purpose, as there are enough resources for everyone. Information is shared freely and services are provided in pursuit of prestige, not profit. Ridiculous? Possibly. Utopian? Definitely. Impossible? Maybe not.
The question comes down to consumers- will they continue to pay for goods and services which they can get for free with ever-increasing ease, or will they begin to break down one of the basic building blocks of capitalism? For now, it seems that a mixture of both is preferred, try though copyright-holders may to stem the tide of things like file-sharing. Still, online communities like Wikipedia, Slashdot and Reddit are growing at stunning rates as users elect to contribute to a communal, readily-available pool of information for free. If more and more of society really is moving online, perhaps freely-offered, user-generated content will come to replace the copyrighted materials of old.
Nonetheless, producers can and will continue to fight against the natural erosion of scarcity, but as they say: in the end, gravity always wins.