I just finished reading The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. It was fascinating and opened my eyes. Jeremy Rifkin, the author, convincingly demonstrates that capitalism will become a niche market within the next three decades and that most large corporations will go bankrupt--inevitably, due to market forces, rather than because of activism or government activity or populist revolution. Here at dKos I got into a debate in the comments of a diary about the end of capitalism, and I can now say that I was wrong. Capitalism is ending, and so are private sector jobs. Here are some quotes:
The Collaborative Commons is already profoundly impacting economic life. Markets are beginning to give way to networks, ownership is becoming less important than access, the pursuit of self-interest is being tempered by the pull of collaborative interest, and the traditional dream of rags to riches is being supplanted by a new dream of a sustainable quality of life.
In the coming era, both capitalism and socialism will lose their once-dominant hold over society, as a new generation increasingly identifies with Collaboratism. The young collaboratists are borrowing the principle virtues of both the capitalists and socialists, while eliminating the centralizing nature of both the free market and the bureaucratic state.
Solar cells are capturing more solar energy that strikes them while reducing the cost of harvesting the energy. Solar efficiencies for triple junction solar cells in the laboratory have reached 41 percent. Thin film has hit 20 percent efficiency in the laboratory.
If this trend continues at the current pace--and most studies actually show an acceleration in exponentiality--solar energy will be as cheap as the current average retail price of electricity today by 2020 and half the price of coal electricity today by 2030.
What's becoming apparent is that a growing number of giant capitalist enterprises across a range of commercial sectors that are already facing plummeting profit margins will not be able to survive for very long against the rising tide of near zero marginal costs in the production and delivery of goods and services. Although the thousand or so highly integrated, vertically scaled megacorporations that currently account for much of the world's commerce are imposing and seemingly invincible, they are, in fact, highly vulnerable to a collaborative economy that is quickly eating away at their already precariously low profit margins.Basically he's saying that almost all megacorporations are going to go the way of the music, publishing and newspaper industries--the "Napster effect" writ large.
This book inadvertently explains a lot about the current economic state. It makes sense now that multinational corporations are acting so rapaciously--they are not fighting for more profit, they are fighting for their actual continued existence. Whether you believe what Rifkin says or not, clearly the powers that be believe it. His predictions also explain banks' and hedge funds' recent interest in land, including farmland, and commodities. In quickly arriving age of material and energy abundance, the only places of scarcity will be raw materials, land, and the food grown on that land.
His book is similar to Kurzweil's predictions about the future and exponential growth. Change is coming faster than most of us expect, especially in the areas of robotics, AI, renewable energy and 3D printing. He spends most of his time talking about the Commons, which is useful and good--I have a deeper understanding of the larger forces at work and the history behind them. However, his vision of a happy and collaborative and distributed future, where most material goods are nearly free, ignores the dark side of such a future.
The book really is an interesting read; I tore through it quickly. He illustrates his point quite well, although a little repetitively--heavy on the talking points. The most fascinating part for me was a history of the last two Industrial Revolutions, to show how quickly they changed society and our notion of work and the market, and how we as people relate to each other. He showed how inevitable it is that the current economic paradigm will fall to the third Industrial Revolution, based on the Internet, distributed, nearly free renewable electricity from solar and wind, 3D printing, AI and robotics, and what he calls the Internet of Things--where material goods will all have GPS-like sensor tags to allow for extremely efficient shipping and logistics.
His focus seems to be on the corporate world, and how to best adapt to the coming economic changes. This makes sense as he seems to run a corporate consulting company, particularly involved with helping corporations adopt the Internet of Things technology into their business models and practice.
The curious lack that I found in his book was the effect of these massive economic changes on the individual and households. Sure it will be great for all of us and the planet (what he calls the "biosphere") to have basically free material goods and renewable energy. But he also predicts that there will be no private sector jobs. Some of us will become what he calls "prosumers"--creating goods with 3D printing, both plastic and metal, and traditional crafts like Etsy, and selling our rooftop solar electricity to our neighbors, but in a zero marginal cost society we won't be able to make much money doing those things. In a society of abundance, some things will remain scarce--food (especially with global warming) and land. Are we all going to become subsistence farmers and return to a post-modern feudalism?
He does do a good job tying in together the environmental movement, hackers, Occupy Wall Street, net neutrality, open source software, MOOC, Kickstarter, and Millenials in general. His main point is that we are moving towards a distributed, democratic, entrepreneurial, communal, socially aware, equality-focused society filled with abundance and cooperation. The whole world will turn into Occupy Wall Street.
Has anyone else here at dKos read this book? I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts. From what he says in the book about his previous books, it sounds like this book is Rifkin's magnum opus, tying together all his previous works into one resonant message.