Yes, it's another post about ebooks. No, it's not the same path we've trodden before - this time is something new, I promise. I'm not going to talk about what should be happening with ebooks or publishing, but instead what ebooks represent.
They and their parallels in the entertainment industry are the very tiny tip of a new paradigm, one humanity is utterly unprepared for. It's going to be a wild ride.
Here's the thing - until very recently, there was not one single resource that was completely unlimited. Nothing. There might be a huge amount of solar energy reaching the Earth, but at any given time, that amount is finite. More to the point, the amount of it we can convert to usable energy is even more limited. Everything we eat is finite - plants grow, but once you harvest part of it, there is no more until the plant has grown more or until you've grown a new plant from seed. A cow (or any other milk animal) can hold only so much milk at any given time. A chook lays a finite number of eggs. If you eat the animal, you can't get more until you get another animal - and if you eat all of them, too bad. There will never be more. Well, unless you get hold of some extant DNA and then make clones of your extinct animal.
We're intimately familiar with scarcity. Everything in every human society is built on scarcity - the idea that all things are finite. Supply and demand reflect this: if there is a low supply and a high demand, prices go up. Where the supply is much greater than the demand, absent intervention prices will fall. Most people understand this at a level that's almost instinctive, probably because until maybe a hundred, 150 years ago in the West, and still now, a scarcity in staple foods (a famine) meant the difference between living or dying.
There are two basic, interlocking rules of supply and demand in a world of scarcity. First, the greater the supply, the lower the cost. Breathing and sunlight cost so little energy they might as well be free - and breathable air and sunshine are both, while finite, sufficiently well-supplied we haven't managed to run out yet. Food is rather more difficult to come by, and costs us in money and energy expended (ultimately money can be considered to represent energy expended, via a number of abstractions I'm not going to go into - well, apart to point out that we wouldn't have so many figures of speech relating to hard-earned money, working for something and so forth, if that abstraction didn't exist). Second, the more effort required to get something, or the more difficult it is to create, the lower the supply and hence the higher the cost. Live concerts are both rare and represent a one-off combination of artist, music and venue, so are much more expensive than a recording of the same music by the same artist. Silk, as the product of a relatively rare animal with an extremely limited diet, and requiring careful treatment and processing, is far more expensive than nylon, which can be mass-produced for much less effort and expense per square foot of cloth.
ebooks and their cousins MP3s overturn these rules. Now after the initial creation there is a genuinely unlimited supply. Our understanding of supply and demand says that this should mean they cost us very little, if not nothing. However, the cost to the creators is quite significant - an author might spend months writing a novel, then the manuscript must be proof-read and edited. A band creating a music track will need to first write the music (not exactly a trivial exercise), then hire studio space and/or high-quality recording gear, and often spend much more time mixing and editing tracks than was spent recording them in the first place. Not surprisingly, those who front these costs expect to be paid for their investment. Also no surprise, they'd like their costs repaid as soon as possible - which is at least in part the motivation for what seem to readers and listeners to be artificially high prices. I should note that I'm talking about electronic-only items here, not items released in hardcopy and electronic formats. There's a reasonable argument that the electronic copy there is a bonus item.
Just to complicate things, since most of the places distributing electronic media are corporate groups rather than individuals, there are rules relating to how long a loss can be carried for tax purposes (as a general rule, you can only consider it a loss in the year you spend the money), and what the accounting is supposed to look like. Putting something up for sale for almost nothing because you'll keep getting money from it forever gives accountants hives. As for what the tax people think, it's best not to go there.
So, we have our unlimited supply ebooks and music tracks out there breaking the supply and demand laws. As soon as you put the infinity symbol into any of the standard economic equations, you get nonsense. You can't calculate your running costs as a proportion of expected profit when you don't have any meaningful way to calculate expected profit, and worse, you can't calculate expected distribution because once someone buys they could make as many copies as they want and give them away. Guess where the much-loathed notion of DRM came from? It's ultimately an attempt to impose some kind of limit on supply so that normal business models work. After all, with electronic media, the concept of a limited edition is meaningless.
The DRM arguments, the Amazon vs Macmillan mess, the Google Books settlement - they're all problems arising from our inability to deal with abundance. And it's only going to get worse.
There are already 3D printers that are capable of reproducing everything needed to replace themselves. Right now the open source RepRap model is pretty limited in what it can do, but the tech is improving, fast. It's not going to be long before they can output almost anything from an input of almost anything, and do it fast. Quite possibly it will be available in our lifetimes - and you can build one of these for a relatively low cost. How long will it be before we can create an entire house worth of 'hard' furnishings with one of these things? How long before they can make cushions? Fabric? Food? Water? Breathable air?
When this happens (and it's not a case of 'if', it's 'when'), what allows those who create stuff to make a living? For that matter, what constitutes a living in this environment? Artists, authors, musicians, designers... the people who produce something new from what wasn't there before, they'll have a place. People being people, there'll always be leaders, or would-be leaders. Services will remain popular - but when you can effortlessly reproduce money, what value will it have? If everyone can produce the "stuff" they need and want, what will have value?
This is the big paradigm shift - and in a sense, a true singularity, in that we're not capable of understanding or imagining what life will be like afterwards. I personally find it incredibly difficult to imagine a world where most of the necessities of life are available in unlimited supply. I've focused instead on the relatively few things that do have limitations.
What books - if any - have you read that deal with this in a way that makes sense? And what do you think will happen when most goods have an effectively unlimited supply?
(p.s. The Darth Vader mask was made on a RepRap - I imagine that after polishing and painting it would look quite impressive)