Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Harbingers of Paradigm Shift

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)


Jonathan D. Beer said...

My word... Sorry, the implications of 3D printing are staggering! Forgetting the excellent point you have made in the article - this is revolutionary! When was this developed? Suddenly the future - Star Trek-esque future - is a lot closer.

My mind has genuinely been blown. I shall have to come back later when I've calmed down.

Anonymous said...

John Ringo's "There Will Be Dragons" starts in such a world. Being John, he quickly blows it to smithereens, but I found the starting point fascinating.

No manufacturing jobs, of course. And services could be provided by artificial creations more quickly and expertly than by another human. _Creativity_, whether artistic or mechanical or medical was about the only high value around.

When anything can be reproduced at essentially no cost, it was the ability to solve a problem a new way, to design something _new_ that couldn't be reproduced.

But then, John had an all seeing, omnipotent computer to keep track, and artists/engineers/doctors/whatevers got energy credit above the maintenance level. Because at some point, you've got to use energy to make the stuff.

So there were limits. Just . . . huge ones.

So here at the beginning we're already faced with that basic problem. How do the creative make a living when what they do can be quickly and cheaply reproduced?

Anonymous said...

Remember the food replicators in the original Star Trek series. I used to covet those when I was young. Imagine having whatever food you wanted when you wanted it. Amazing.

Let's go with the food replicator example. I would imagine that the money invested and to be made would be regarding the actual technology and creation of such equipment. Someone will still be necessary to create, make and improve the technolgies. Someone will still need to create the recipes, input them, provide whatever materials are necessary to create food from nothing, and to provide them.

Let's bring this over the e-books. Authors will still be necessary, and readers will still have favorites. The actual replication of the works might be cheap and easy, but I don't think technology will ever override creativity.

Even if it comes to the point of authors commonly self-publishing profitably, there will still be favorites. They will by virtue of being favorites be able to command a price of sort for their creations whether it be a barter system or a monetary system.

I've always viewed technology as a tool. People are still the ones in charge. Until they aren't. Mwuhaaahhhhaaa!

Linda (hoping some of that made sense)

Brendan said...

Your post makes me think of "The Diamond Age" by Neal Stephenson. Control was kept on the tech by the industry through controlling the supply line of the resources needed as the building blocks for the reproduction. They also owned the fabricators and were the major provider of blueprints for things that could be copied.

Stephen Simmons said...

Sadly, I have forgotten the name of the story. The RUSH anthem "2112" is based on an old SF story of a future world in which the computers take care of everything: "the thoughts you'll think, the songs you'll sing, the pictures that you'll plug into your eyes". No one knows how anything works, because the "Elder Race of Man", the people who did know how to create and build things, left to build bigger and better things among the stars, leaving the "sheep" behind to stagnate and devolve. The one man who does try to be more than a sheep finally suicides in despair at being forced into the mold of Equality, just as the spaceships are landing ...

Unfortunately, that's kind of where I see this technology leading, based on current cultural trends. Those who must create, be we writers or engineers or what-have-you, will continue to be driven by that "run and find out!" compulsion. But we'll be freed from many of the "mundane" concerns that consume so much of our time, which could produce as massive a step-increase in productivity and creativity as we saw at the advent of the "Information Age". But the same changes could easily lead people without that drive to become Weber's "Dolists", or worse.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Great post, Kate.

'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.'

This is a really interesting point.

I've had several stories published set in a near future world run by the Social Engineers. The premise is that only those people who can produce original work, artists, writers, musicians etc and those who contribute directly to bettering society, doctors nurses teachers have real jobs and can reproduce.

Everyone else gets a basic, food, home and health package and, if they want more, they have to find a way to contribute.

So this fits in with your concept that people who can create original things (art, music, books and their cross overs) should be valued.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Other than cite the Diamond Age, as well, I think you have a small slip in logic.

Yes, we're dealing with abundance in COPYING. The creation of the CONTENT of books (music CDs, etc) will always be limited. Now the limits may be much higher. Depends on what "commercial" production of artistic entertainment is. I suspect the field will allow a lot more people to make a living, though, because with say... 20K fans (and my latest mystery has a 17.5 laydown and it's considered low, so this is not amazing) if the costs of producing the physical, readable thing, with 20 K fans, at 2.99 (cheap) per book under Amazon's 70%/30% deal, we'd have... 40k. If you can produce two books a year and your fans are willing to pay that much each, you hae 80k which is a livable salary. With the same printrun, at a commercial level, you'd get nowhere, because of phisyical book costs.
I'm hoping I'm making some sort of sense. What I mean is that the scarcity for copies of mental creations is at an end. The original content isn't and if this humpty dumpty moment we're going through works in the best possible way, the end of the rainbow sees a lot more creators being rewarded for their creation. (Heck, I think a lot of the austen fanfic people in the board I frequent could make a living. Probably true of a lot of other fanfic. Maybe not a high living, but a living.)
And to dip into Matapam's reply, that is "the best possible outcome" because in a world in which we can produce unlimited physical goods, human prosperity and well being will be limited by two factors: the number of humans capable of thinking up new things/discoveries and the number of humans willing to undergo rigorous study in order to preserve the knowledge that keeps society running. Until and unless we create a genuinely creative AI (and I'm probably narrowminded, but I think even if we created it, it wouldn't be creative OUR way) these are the two LIMITED resources humanity must depend on. And therefore they should be rewarded higher than all other possible resources.

Of course my argument is totally self-serving, since I am a "mental-creator" by trade, so dismiss it at will.

Kate said...


It's amazing stuff, isn't it? And boy, doesn't it break a whole bunch of existing models of "how economics works"?

Stephen Simmons said...

Sarah, I think you're right on the money. Did you read any of Gerrold's "War With the Chtorr" series? With 70+% of humanity suddenly gone, but all of the stuff still here, the only thing of real value was knowledge.

Kate said...


I think you're right there - if you can reproduce anything, most of the reproduction type careers are gone.

The supercomputer keeping track of it in "There Will Be Dragons" strikes me as a mechanism to allow an easy "blow it to smithereens", but then, I've only read a few snippets, so I can't say more than that.

Absent an omnipotent computer, I'm not sure who'd end up on top of the heap - but being the cynic that I am I strongly suspect there'd be some determined attempts to control the reproduction tech, and failing that, the creators.

And the basic question of how the creative make a living when once they've created it's quickly and easily reproduced remains unanswered.

Kate said...


I'm not saying authors are going away. I'm not even saying publishers are going away.

When the tech makes reproducing books effortless and damn near cost free (in terms of time, energy consumed, whatever), what does the author live on? The traditional model of the author having a limited monopoly (aka copyright and the corresponding control over distribution in the form of copies printed and sent to places to be sold) can't cope with this - and neither can my brain :)

I can hope that donationware will support me, but... you know, I'm not exactly optimistic about putting out the begging bowl. Or I can assume most people will be honest enough to buy a reasonably priced ebook that doesn't come pre-broken and won't go giving copies to the rest of the world.

Expanding that past books and music, something in my brain makes an ominous clunk noise, then the grinding gears start and the whole thing rattles to an undignified halt (Bonus points for figuring out how many metaphors got scrunched in there - I'm not even trying to sort it out)

EvMick said...


Some of you history oriented academic types can possibly verify or deny this. As far as I know the only human culture that came close to a society of abundance was that of the Pacific NorthWest Indians.

I've heard it was an easy life back then. The weather was good, food was plentiful and there weren't many dangers. IT was NOT an economy of scarcity.

So how DID they manage?

I don't know. But from what I've heard personal Reputation counted for a lot.

Possibly the new technical age of replicators would have similar aspects?

Kate said...


Controlling access to the reproduction tech (either the replicators, the raw materials or the designs) is one way to force traditional economics onto a decidedly subversive technology.

Of course, all it takes is something like the RepRap and enough of an adoption spread to crash it - anything predicated on artificial controls (as opposed to the natural ones) is inherently unstable. The qualifier here is that it can be stable enough for long enough to have ugly results.

Kate said...


Yes, those who are driven to create will find a way. The interesting thing with the combination of the Internet and initiatives like the RepRap is that people who in the traditional model might never have been able to reach much of an audience now have that opportunity.

I rather suspect that once freed of the need to spend most of our time on the daily grind, most people will prove to be creators at some level. The history of quilting in the US is a good example of this (yes, this is a weird example - bear with me). People, particularly in the newly colonized parts of the US, needed warmth. They could have simply taken whatever was available and done the bare minimum to make a functioning blanket or quilt. Instead, large amounts of time and effort went into producing something beautiful and unique as well as functional.

I suspect that sooner or later we'll see people taking the standard blueprints and adding their own flourishes to them, rather than sinking into a kind of helpless apathy.

Kate said...


The social engineer concept is an interesting one too - but here's a scary thought: what if no-one is running this future?

That's about where my brain breaks.

Kate said...


When everything can be copied easily, yes, the two essentials are the knowledge to keep the entire edifice running and the creativity to make new, well... anything.

The question remains - what is that society going to look like? Because I think we're well on the way there - and I'd rather not have anyone "controlling" it. Even though the no-one in charge scenario is scary and makes my head hurt when I try to imagine it.

Why no-one in charge? There's no such thing as perfect leadership. Scary as it is, a degree of anarchy is often the most effective way of doing things (in the sense that anyone can organize to do things any way they please, and the things that work tend to be the ones that stay together).

Kate said...


That's not something I'd heard about - it's not an area of history I've spent any length of time in.

Thinking about it, it's quite possible that reputation would play a large role - maybe even reputation based networks.

Curse it. Now I'm going to have to see what I can find about that culture.

Mike said...

This reminded me of Kevin Kelly's thoughts in "Better Than Free" which is available at

He talks about the Internet -- digital media -- as a superconducting copy machine, and looks at the economics of abundance. Although these are not the only ones, he suggests at least eight possible ways to generate income in an economy of abundance, where the products are essentially free.

1. Immediacy: get it here first. As we know, people will pay a premium for eArcs, even with typoes included! Being the first on your network to read something, or perhaps being able to read the drafts in serial form? Sure, next week everyone will have it, but I signed up and paid for getting a copy direct on the very first day...

2. Personalization: redshirting, writing people into stories, for a small additional premium.

3. Interpretation: providing directions, support on how to use it, etc. Stories probably don't need much of this, but there is discussion with the author and with other fans? Having a place to ask questions and talk about spoilers, perhaps? A reading group?

4. Authenticity: getting one signed, the authorized version, direct from the source can be worth a premium. Knowing that you're getting the real story instead of fan fiction?

5. Accessibility: being able to get at digital content anytime, anywhere, etc. This is mostly a question of distribution server and other technical stuff, but again, people are likely to be willing to pay a premium for good access. Notice how people reacted to Amazon taking down Kindle content, even content that they had not yet bought?

6. Embodiment: I think he's talking about formats here. We all know that vendor specific, oddball formats aren't very desirable, even when there are tools for conversion. Making it easy for people to get access can be worth a premium. Heck, even packaging a nice collection can be worth a premium.

7. Patronage: fans actually enjoy supporting authors. Being able to say I helped... the storyteller's bowl, perhaps even distributed venture capital efforts? I could see an author saying "Here's my proposal. If my fans want me to write this, ante up...make a pledge. And if there's X pledged, I'll start collecting, and writing." Something like that?

8. Findability: knowing where the good stuff is. I suspect this may be the real leverage for publishers or authors groups in the future. Knowing that these books are well edited, formatted, and there's a way to find similar books -- a genre by any other name. One of the problems of digital media is that there's so much of it, and as we all know, 90% isn't what you're looking for. Providing good ways for readers to find that 10% that they're looking for is worth a premium.

Anyway, I've yacked about this way too long. I do think the ideas of generatives -- things that people will pay a premium for even with free content -- is a good one. So what other generatives can you come up with?

Stephen Simmons said...


I'm pretty much a rabid libertarian - you might even say near-anarchist and I wouldn't bat an eye. "No-one in charge" would sit well with me, but I shudder to think of it on a macro-scale. The Platonic ideal of everyone having their own fig tree to sit under just doesn't strike me as being compatible with what I've observed of human nature to date, and there are way too many folks out there who seem to be hard-wired to follow something.

The question is, how does all of this fit in with the current world-wide trend toward "bread and circuses"? Because whatever sysem evolves out of this has to include real reward for the people who will keep that system running and the creative thinkers who will produce the advances to move the culture forward. If it doesn't, the technology we're talking about makes Ayn Rand's "John Galt" scenario both realistic and terrifying.

Anonymous said...

It's not the hard wired followers that bother me, so much as the hard wired leaders. Any system just laying there without leadership is going to get snatched up by someone for their own purposes.

Whether it's a parliament or a computer, control will be there. it's how to make it both protect copyright without causing piracy because the controls are too strict, is going to be the trick. You need just enough of a barrier to theft, that only people stealing for the kicks do it. People who want to read, or listen to, or watch of feel your work of art will pay for it.

The nature of e-reproduction is such that high volume, low price will figure prominently. Perhaps a subscription service? Pay before the work is out there where it could be pirated? Jim Baen's theory was that most people were honest and would pay what they thought was a fair price. So perhaps we simply have to ::gulp:: trust in the honesty of the majority.


Brendan said...

Mike, when you Personalization: redshirting, writing people into stories, for a small additional premium, I immediately thought, cool, have the character describe someone he/she bumps into on the street and that person can be anyone. Tell people to send in $40 and a photo and send them a POD book($70 if it is autographed as well;) )

Mike said...

Brendan -- actually, I halfway expect to see "personalized" versions where you provide name, other bits and pieces, and poof -- you get a personalized version where that name and other characteristics are woven into a bit player. I think they do this with kid's stories already. But right now, people are paying for personalization where they are written into the common copy (Baen did this for Universe Club members). I could see both being done...

Anonymous said...

How much would some of the more rabid fans pay if "their" character was the one who finally seduced Spock? What would pay more, a hundred private versions or a single "The whole world will know" version?

Of course, you've got to be a best seller before that can happen.

For the guys, perhaps they could auction off the single male in the ten gorgeous women hot pool orgy or some such. Or for the Bar Flies, range day with Honor Harrington.

Kate said...


That's a good set of possible directions.
One thing's for sure - whichever way things turn out it's going to be interesting. (Just please, not Chinese curse interesting. I've had enough of that for several lifetimes).

Kate said...


Your reservations are pretty close to mine. Like it or not, there has to be some kind of organization even if only to defend against those who want to abuse others. Or in a rather less polite way, it only takes one to crap in the sand box and spoil it for everyone.

And yes, the prospect of that kind of technology being controlled by the sort of person who goes looking for power is terrifying.

Kate said...


Hoo yeah. The thing with trusting the majority to be honest is that you're relying on a huge collection of societal checks and balances that basically keep us from acting like animals (not a perjorative) even when there's no-one to see and punish and transgressions. If that breaks down...

Kate said...


Or you could go sliding scale - name, $5, name and flattering description, $10, no character assassination, $100 :-D

Kate said...


Oh, yeah. And of course the much higher priced, "I want to be in the story like this" version.

Then there's the potential for the kind of arrangement used as a blackmail tool by The Saint in Enter the Saint: he'd inform someone that he'd written a book about the war (WWI - the first Saint books were written a surprisingly long time ago) and they featured in it. Would they like to sponsor their section with a large cash donation made to such and such a charitable foundation? (and a somewhat smaller cash donation to the Saint himself, to cover costs, naturally).

For some strange reason, no-one ever took kindly to this generous offer.

Kate said...


Now that is scary. Open the doors for the Darkship Thieves universe story where Thena falls for whichever barfly won the auction? (He'd have to die nobly afterwards - you can't break continuity.)

Thena would NOT be pleased. (Somehow, I don't think Honor Harrington would be impressed by HER admirers, either). :-D

Rita de Heer said...

Sarah, you said something about Artificial Intelligences probably not thinking creatively like humans ... New Scientist a couple of weeks ago ran an article on this.

The premise, increasingly backed by research results, is that the human way of thinking is a product of how the human body is constructed.

Mike said...

Semi-related -- there was a business program on the TV this morning here in Japan, talking about the "freemium" trend. Apparently quite a few businesses here in Japan are doing "Free Premiums" -- giving something away for free to help build their base business. For example, McDonalds ran a free coffee bit, one chain of coffeeshops has added free Japanese rice crackers (which reminds me of the old stories of free popcorn and similar salty foods in bars). They also pointed to the free applications available for smartphones. They also mentioned a book called Free by Chris Anderson?

Anonymous said...

I'll blame it on Kate:

". . . so between avarice, ambition, and biological dominance drives, there have been very few time when no one was in charge." Harold looked over to see if he was managing to distract the kids. Judging from his son's white knuckled grip on the seat arms, and the randomly directed tear tracks on his daughter's face, it wasn't working. A series of jerks and spins settled back to the falling sensation.

"Dad. I know you're trying, but if you say that we should be privileged to be witnessing one of the rare hiatuses, I am going to die cursing your sense of humor, and that would really be unfortunate, because . . . " Sissy's voice started slideing up the scale as the ship shuddered and started a slow flat spin. " . . . in all other ways, you've been an Aeeeiiii!"

An odd hissing, and a new light over head. PREPARE FOR REENTRY.

Nothing happened. Harold swallowed. Looked at the lever labeled SHOCK FOAM. "Actually, it's worse than that." He reached for the lever. "I'm in charge. And I haven't got a clue."

Kate said...


Welcome to the madhouse :)

You don't have a link to that article, do you? It sounds fascinating.

Kate said...


The "Free stuff to get them in and maybe get them to buy" has a long and venerable history. As a way to distinguish oneself from the competition it works well.

I'm not so sure how it would play in a situation where most stuff is free or nearly free.

Kate said...


You are an evil, twisted woman. This is why we like you.