Saturday, December 13, 2008

Information Economy

Futurist crap

I've mentioned this before, but I guess it bears repeating. A lot of the stuff we now consider information wasn't considered information until technology allowed the local user to create the final form from information.

I know it's not terribly clear, so let me give an example: music.

Music wasn't information for most of the history of humans. It might CONTAIN information, but the music itself was created by the use of complicated instruments, and would be considered to be a product of that instrument plus someone who could play it.

Then we got phonographs which, in combination with records, allowed us to play back music that was recorded on any number of instruments with a very simple instrument: the speaker. The physical presence of the instrument and the time of its playing was removed from the equation: you could listen to the symphony or a jug band, all out of your home device.

This continued to improve, of course, with the advent of radio stations, tapes, CDs, and now MP3s. Moreover, some music is created without anyone ever playing an instrument at any point! At each step, the creation of the song and the end user's enjoyment of it is separated more and more. It becomes information.

It may be difficult to imagine a time when music wasn't considered information, back in a time where songs weren't protected by law because it wasn't the schematic of the song that mattered, but the individual rendering it.

As songs became more and more informationesque, laws were pushed to limit the spread of the information component. Whereas before anyone could pretty much play whatever song they wanted, now there are extremely strict limits on which songs musicians are allowed to play and in what situations they are allowed to play them. There are similarly complex laws governing the final rendering of music. This absurdity that most of the world takes as a given only exists to commoditize something that has always existed freely, but has only recently become useful.

I'm not going to argue whether it's good or bad, and I'm not someone who's advocating an information anarchy. I'm simply pointing out that as songs have had their physical requirements lifted and become information, laws have been made about who is allowed to access and replicate that information. Information that, only a few generations ago, would have been happily passed from person to person without anyone even noticing.

Of course, we all break those laws every day. Well, except me, the sterling example of not-a-music-pirate (cough). But that's not because we're evil, that's because it's gotten to the point where music is about a half a millimeter from actually being nothing but information. It has become so insanely easy to transmit and replicate that it is almost impossible for us computer nerds to really imagine it restricted.

Now, the point of this essay is that many things march towards information in the same way as song did. This is not obvious because music is the only one we're really very familiar with in our modern culture. But here are some examples:

Writing! Writing wasn't originally information, although it conveyed information. Instead, writing was in heavy books or scrolls (or cave walls or bark or whatever). It required the physical presence of these displays to exist. Now, of course, we have a billion displays that can render writing on the fly, and writing has turned into information. Just like music: we no longer need to have the physical form that writing originally required. Our ability to manufacture any "blueprint" of writing on a wide variety of personal screens or printers makes those things obsolete. We take the information - the "blueprint" of the book or essay - and we render it on our screen instantly and painlessly. You're doing it right now.

We're seeing slow strides in that direction for many, many, many things. For example, Pepsi keeps their recipes secret because, unlike three hundred years ago, that information would allow their competitors to easily "render" Pepsi. It's not feasible for individuals to do it, but other large companies can easily do it. That means that Pepsi is largely an information product. Sure, you buy a can of Pepsi, but that can's contents could be manufactured by anyone with a soda mixing plant anywhere on the planet. Pepsi's existence as a unique product is only true because of the countless laws that protect their specific mixture from being stolen and duplicated.

Does that seem odd, to consider a soft drink "information"? Well, how about coffee? More and more homes are getting coffee-savvy, with their own coffee machines, espresso makers, and so forth. Obviously, they're still using beans that are physically grown somewhere, but the final drinks they're making are the result of simple recipes - information about coffee.

My uncle makes something almost indistinguishable from Starbuck's Frappuccino. In fact, we call it a Frappuccino. My dad prefers hot drinks, so on his machine he simply makes coffee, but he grinds the beans to a very specific level and lets them seep for a very specific amount of time under a very specific heat, and it often varies from bean to bean. He's producing, from his home, coffee far superior to most public coffeehouses because his recipes - his "coffee information" - is superior and calibrated specifically to his taste.

I can't go so far as to say that coffee is information, but I can say that it is moving in that direction in the same way that the record began making music into information. It sounds insane to say that someday we'll just say "Coffee, Barbados blend from 2024", and out will pop coffee. But two hundred years ago, it would have sounded insane to say that someday we could just say "Bach, concerto #7, Philharmonic symphony orchestra 2001"... but today, that's almost literally what we can do.

"But that's so far in the future it doesn't bear to be considered!"

It's actually amusing to look back at those times and see their predictions for the future. When people were saying things like, "The phonograph of the future will allow the family to listen to up to thirty different concerts in the quiet of their own home!"

Yeah, I've got three hundred concerts on this machine, and that's only classical music. Um, legally, yeah.

The thing about progress is it's not linear. It's exponential. Just when you can see far enough to start realizing what might happen, it explodes into insanity.

So, let me go ahead and explode this "informatization" of products into insanity.

Cars as information. Download a blueprint from OpenSourceCars, print it out on your home machine, and drive a Ferrarenti to work today. I'm officially coining that pun.

Genetics as information. Plan out a garden consisting entirely of plants to grow in exactly your soil, in exactly your weather conditions, and form a stable biome. Print them out. AS PLANTS, not seeds.

Neighborhoods as information. Get together with your community and pound out the specifics of your community power generation, water filtering, shared spaces, optimal parking... then grow it using a pseudo-life form that excretes complex structures like a clam forms a shell.

Insanely over-futuristic?

Well, it's certainly not going to happen tomorrow!

But all it needs is something that lets you render a product locally. Just a machine that lets you print out the things you want.


Ryan said...

I think you meant "exponential"; not "logarithmic".

"Logarithmic" would change the next sentence to "Just when you can see far enough to start realizing what might happen, that's more-or-less what happens."

Matthew Rundle said...

Okay, this is the sort of feeling that I get from reading this stuff:

As more accurate copying processes are developed and distributed, the value of an artifact is diminished without particular regard to the complexity involved in creating the original. I think it's basically true that the value of an artifact is an estimate of how difficult it would be to replace. If exact copies can be produced, the value of the artifact - even of the original - is reduced to whatever it costs to obtain the process and the tools and the materials - the costs of which, I figure, are also diminishing.

Increasingly accurate copying processes - for everything - are constantly being developed. This means that, for all those people who make their living selling artifacts - which is still everyone, essentially - the worth of what they sell is increasingly diminishing.

Under such an economy, isn't being a bastard about copyright increasingly the only way to retain anything of value? Would it still be desirable that the things we own and produce should be valuable?

Soyweiser said...

The future is closer than you think:

It is a 3d printer. One that could largely reproduce itself.

Craig Perko said...

Ryan: Yup, changed. For some reason, I couldn't think of the word when I was writing this, I just kept seeing x^e in my head...

Rundle: Everything you say is true, except the part where you assume that our economy should remain the same even when everything else changes.

I think that big companies are going to find themselves unable to compete in a slowly increasing number of areas. We're already seeing it with publishers/newspapers.

Undoubtedly they WILL become increasingly bastardly about copyright, but that doesn't seem to actually affect the nerds much, does it?

Soyweiser: I'm not unaware of those projects, but the 3D printing aspect is only a start. They need to be able to do considerably more. The so-called "40%" that you have to buy in the store is the important 40%.

There has been advances in other techniques such as milling and circuit-board layout using the same devices, which is promising.