IoT & Zero Marginal Cost Society
April 7, 2014 12:07 PM   Subscribe

Jeremy Rifkin posted an article today on HuffPo titled The Internet of Things: Monopoly Capitalism vs. Collaborative Commons discussing his new book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society:The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. Wikipedia's page on IoT is here. There was some debate on a recent NPR Science Friday about whether it should be called the Internet of Bits. See also, The Zero Marginal Society website.
posted by yoga (12 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Forgot to add that there will be more discussion on future Science Friday editions, according to a comment in the NPR link.
posted by yoga at 12:15 PM on April 7, 2014

Which Botnet Does Your Toaster Belong To (The Answer Will Surprise You)?
posted by ethansr at 12:15 PM on April 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

…or better still, the Zero Privacy Society: The Internet of Things, the Compendium of Surveillance and the Triumph of Coercive Capitalism.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 12:19 PM on April 7, 2014

I propose we call it "The Internet of Future e-Waste". So-called 'intelligent' devices just go obsolete and stop working before their time, even moreso when they're not really as intelligent as they appear to be, because the intelligence is all in the "cloud" (another shitty marketing term), which is to say in someone else's datacenter, running on someone else's servers, at their whim and for only as long as it is profitable for them to do so.

And I don't really understand how you can talk about the rise of smart refrigerators and smart TVs heralding the bright new day of zero marginal costs. There's a very definite marginal cost to building the N+1th refrigerator, TV, cellphone, etc.

But what if I were to say to you that 25 years from now, the bulk of the energy you use to heat your home and run your appliances, power your business, drive your vehicle, and operate every part of the global economy will likewise be nearly free?

I'd tell you to puff and pass, dude. Because that's not going to be the case; even things like wind and biomass generators have a fixed lifespan and require inputs.

They don't require fuel, but a solar panel — just as an example, but this is true of any renewable system — requires certain rare-earth minerals as inputs, and has a fixed design lifespan after which it's garbage, hopefully to be recycled. So the cost per kWh over that unit's lifespan can be pretty easily calculated as the sum of the inputs to produce the panel, transport the panel from the factory in China where it will inevitably be manufactured, install it, and dispose of it at the end of its lifespan, divided by the lifetime output. If you want to generate another couple of kWh, you will need to install more panels — requiring additional capital investment in order to get more output. So basically, it's just another example of an upfront capital investment producing a long-term value stream, like basically every capital expense ever since some Phoenician borrowed some money from some other guys to buy a boat.

It could mean good things for us as a civilization if the costs associated with each marginal watthour produced are significantly less than the cost of producing electricity currently, because I don't really see a path forward for civilization that doesn't involve us needing a whole shitload more energy than it's practical to produce by burning things (whether carbon compounds or uranium in poorly-designed reactors), but "non zero" and "zero" are very different things.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:23 PM on April 7, 2014 [13 favorites]

Nick Dyer-Witheford provides a devastating critique of this kind of shallow technological determinism, as advanced by Peter Bell and Alvin Toffler, in Cyber-Marx. He calls them the "information revolutionaries": they've taken Marx's view of social struggle in an epoch of constant technical change and attempted to remove the class struggle element. It's been the house ideology of WIRED since it's founding.
posted by wobdev at 12:24 PM on April 7, 2014 [12 favorites]

Has Jeremy Rifkin ever been right? He specializes in this fluffy futurism.
posted by rodii at 12:52 PM on April 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Rifkin is a little late on some of this, and a little behind on some it, but his general message about the tensions between monopoly capitalism and shared commons is worth taking in. It seems that the monopolists have always had the upper hand because they are able to derive faster, more immediate, and more efficient information about the state of the network that they can leverage to their advantage. Look at high speed trading as one example.

That said, one variable that Rifkin - and many others - know about, but are leaving out of the equation is "where is work going to go?". What is going to happen as technology replaces the need for workers? In some ways I think this is a greater looming problem (along with environmental degradation/global warming) than any "internet of things" problem - and should somehow get worked into the "monopoly capitalism" equation as a variable. For instance, what will the commons look like if a significant percentage of human beings do not have to - or cannot find - work?
posted by Vibrissae at 12:52 PM on April 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Rifkin is a little late on some of this, and a little behind on some it, but his general message about the tensions between monopoly capitalism and shared commons is worth taking in."

Yeah, they mention it in the NPR program too, although in that discussion it's framed more as a design problem. The companies that manufacture these new automated systems are trying to build little internets that are under the control of each corporation. (Like a home automation system that sends data to a main server, or a car with processors that can't talk to the other cars on the road.) But in doing so they end up replicating the mistakes made in the early development of the Internet, and they'd be better off (according to the guys on the show) just hooking each individual sensor up to the Internet proper, and managing them from there. Everything standardized and talking to each other, on a single network.

This conflict between centralized control and distributed networks seems to be a defining feature of our time.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:52 PM on April 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Vibrissae: It's an interesting question.

In the United States from the 1840s through the 1950s (with a break for the Great Depession), the industrial revolution threw huge numbers of workers out of primary (extractive, agricultural) into secondary (manufacturing) and tertiary (service) industries. Around the 50s the fraction of the workforce engaged in production stops growing, largely as a result of automation. This graph summarizes it well. Alongside these trends we see the long term decline of the labor force participation rate for men, and seemingly for women as well. I'd interpret this as an overall decline in the real employment rate in the develeloped world developing alongside the shift of women into waged labor.

The long term trend has been a decline in human labor required to meet society's most basic needs: our "metabolism with nature" in the form of resource extraction, production of basic goods required for a comfortable existence (so comfortable, in fact, that the biggest threat to our health are "diseases of affluence"). This is true internationally, though stats are harder to come by elsewhere. That such a small fraction of our society, a society globally, is engaged in work truly necessary for high standards of living, despite the deseperate need of so many working people, and the near-universal dissatisfaction with work among those who have it, are the most glaring contradictons of capitalism.

So what sorts of work remains? Those industries where it's very hard to increase the technical productivity of labor: education, healthcare, childcare, therapy, sex work, the arts. Among capitalism-sympathetic economists this is construed in terms of the Baumol effect.

Capitalist social relations are entering ever more intimate settings, seeking to skim profit off the most basic human relationships. This is most clearly seen in the entrance of women into the waged labor force, with the work once considered "domestic" now made productive (i.e. profit-generating) for capitalists: childcare centers, instant dinners, laundry machines, etc. Less obviously: Workers at Starbucks aren't just there to make your coffee, they're there to provide a "brand experience" and develop "personal bonds" with customers ("affective labor" is a term thrown around by many left activists for this). Silvia Federici has interesting things to say about this.

So the question is: does capital ever run out of human relations to harness for profit, leaving us with a permanent supply of "excess workers"? I doubt it. I think workers just end up doing ever more alienated work, as they're asked to subordinate their dignity - their highest intellectual talents, their personal charm, their ability to care for others - to the imperatives of a tiny elite.

I'm hopeful, because I think those workers will have more reason than ever to organize and rebel, to build a new society.
posted by wobdev at 3:27 PM on April 7, 2014 [13 favorites]

where is work going to go?

The Rise of Anti-Capitalism - "THE unresolved question is, how will this economy of the future function when millions of people can make and share goods and services nearly free? The answer lies in the civil society, which consists of nonprofit organizations that attend to the things in life we make and share as a community."

Reading "Capital": Chapters 5 and 6
Regular readers will anticipate my concern: that technological progress will in fact push in the same direction as demographic change, by magnificently expanding the array of tasks capital is capable of doing. In that world, labour could only retain its seat at the table by accepting tumbling wages. Whether labour hangs on in such fashion or is brushed aside through automation, the implications for labour earnings are grim.

The second big question is: in this world of rising capital stocks and income shares, what is the scarce factor, which is able to capture the benefits of economic growth? Not financial capital, that's for sure. Intellectual property is a better candidate; think of the entrepreneurs behind Instagram, capable of realising a vast fortune on the back of a fairly straightforward idea. And then there's this:

Where do the rich, powerful, and productive work and play? For the most part, they do it in a handful of very expensive, very well-educated, very cosmopolitan global cities. People in those cities have access to social networks and consumption amenities that cannot be had at any price in other locations. Such cities may be the ultimate scarce factor and the owners of land in those cities the ultimate beneficiaries of these broad trends.
also btw...
-In Silicon Valley, cooks and housekeepers face eviction
-Uberification of the US Service Economy
-The decline of the mobile web
-Let Them Eat Code
posted by kliuless at 3:33 PM on April 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

the Internet of Things! This time, the real technological utopia is going to be realized. I can hardly wait.
posted by thelonius at 1:22 AM on April 8, 2014

Enclave is word that seems to belong to the future. In the future you can be intermediated and dis-intermediated at any time. You may live in the same street as someone else but live inside a fundamentally different network enclave. The power to partition and enclose over the network is an amazing power that our modern intermediaries have. It is most certainly a power that governments and their adjuncts have observed and have desired. I hope we aren't living in the era of peak access to information. It can most certainly go the other way.
posted by vicx at 1:30 AM on April 8, 2014

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