The key question: how can we better conceptualize the switch from an economy of scarcity to an economy of abundance?
Last night, Leah and I had the fantastic opportunity to fly down to San Francisco to hear Tim O’Reilly speak about the birth of the global mind. As a long time listener of the podcast, it’s always been my dream to attend a Seminar About Long-Term Thinking. The essence of Tim’s talk is well-encapsulated in an essay of the same title. One idea posed in Stewart Brand’s interview at the end touches in the nature of economy in the information age.
Economy, in my perspective, is our way of understanding how we work together. We take many things about it for granted — GDP as a measurement of growth, monetary instruments as our tools for transaction — that aren’t actually hard truths. They exist because at some point along the way we invented them to make our society more prosperous with less effort.
A peculiar situation has manifested itself. Most recently with the web, we’re inventing newer, better ways to function together that are essentially “extra-economy,” or outside how we normally measure economic activity. In these systems, far more value is being created than being captured; and for many, the generated value and associated recognition is more important than financial gain because they lead to influence.
For instance, in what I do with Automattic’s WordPress.com VIP team, a not-insignificant amount of my time each day is spent contributing to open source projects. We don’t directly monetize this work but it generates value that trickles back to us. Releasing our liveblogging plugin has already resulted in several useful contributions from the community. Making money from open source is a hack though, as our currencies are based in scarcity and our peer economies are based in abundance. In the latter, the more people participating means the more everyone benefits.
Our bootstrapping of a new mode of economy is happening hand in hand with another trend: increased productivity making certain types of jobs obsolete. A hundred years ago, the number of people involved in food production was X while today it has dropped to Y, a ten-fold decrease. While we don’t yet have the nutrition we need, we’ve certainly been able to meet our caloric numbers. Douglas Rushkoff observes “we’re living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is.” For our government, the focus is to keep the populace in jobs, because unemployment breeds discontent and has a perceived negative impact on our traditional perspective of economy.
I have no idea what comes next. I see an economy of abundance as generative, whose engine is creativity in the very literal sense of the word. And it’s additive too; what’s mine can be yours and vice versa. Don’t ask me “how do I make money?” because I don’t know. That’s the old way of measuring economy and we haven’t invented the new one.