On scale

I’ve been reading a bit of literature on physics. Turns out matter doesn’t exist? Matter only exists when two particles ‘meet’? Aka: in the physical world there is no matter, there are only events? (I’m summarizing here. Badly, probably.)

It reminded me of something I read in Ray Dalio’s book a few years ago: the closer you align yourself to the rules of nature, the bigger your chances on success are. If you, for instance, find a way of scaling something that used to be unscalable, you turn something scarce into something abundant and you’ll be rewarded for that effort.

Netflix, for instance, made 25 billion dollars in 2020 by streaming DVD’s. (They do a lot more, but this time I’m just summarizing for brevity’s sake.) Imagine how many DVDs*, storage space and rental shops they should’ve had if they wanted to generate this turnover with physical DVD’s. Netflix abides by the laws of nature: it’s an events-based-business. Away from possession, or ‘matter’, towards usage or ‘events’.

Zero growth

I’ve had a lot of conversations about zero-growth economy being a necessary step to tackle the climate issues we’re facing. But is that truly necessary if consumption and physical resources stop being so connected? In the chart below you can already see how the GDP (flawed metric, I know) of the United States stopped being so closely correlated to the US Energy Consumption starting around 1987.

Source: https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/the-metaverse-and-near-infinite-economic

Elites and their pie

Of course I’ve only been addressing the link between economic growth and physical resources in the mean time ignoring the part where economic growth mainly benefits the rich. But I’m not so sure we’ll tackle that issue any easier when we stop economic growth altogether.

When our economy stops growing, they turn into zero-sum games. One has to lose for the other to win. The pie stops growing. Given how hard we all want to eat pie, that seems like a pretty good recipe for disaster.

In Capital & Ideology I read how slave owners where financially compensated (!!!) after the abolition “to reimburse them for their economic loss”. It just illustrates how hard it has been in the past to strip elites from their horrific privileges. Translated to this context: won’t a smaller piece of pie be easier to enforce when the pie keeps growing? Aren’t fair(er) taxes easier to enforce with economic growth than without?

Money for abundance

But, returning to the ecologic argument, economic growth is for the moment mainly created by exploiting scarce resources. That’s why economic growth is so intertwined with the business of destroying our planet. So wouldn’t it be best for us humans to start spending lots of money on things that require a lot less scarce resources to create? Or none. Or almost none.

Isn’t that happening?

In 2020 we collectively spent 87 billion dollars on games in the iOS app store and Google Play store. Fortnite alone made upwards of 5 billion in revenue in 2020 by selling access to their virtual world and the gear to run around in that world. A new sword, a special dance in Fortnite, … Pixels. Abundant pixels!

I wonder how big the total ‘abundant economy’ is. Every digital book, song, … Everything which can be created with zero marginal cost, yet people are paying for. Am I wrong or are we saving the world a tiny little bit by buying these non-things?

*If the price for renting a DVD would be around 5 dollars, you’d need 5 billion DVD rentals to generate 25 billion in turnover. If the average DVD would be rented out 50 times in its’ lifetime, averaging never-rented-creepy-porn on the one hand and Die Hard on the other hand, you’d still need 100 million physical discs a year.

3 thoughts on “On scale

  1. Great question. I think. (or maybe it’s just great because it’s another opportunity to exchange thoughts)

    Related to your question (for me) is this article: https://stijnbruers.wordpress.com/2021/12/29/the-case-against-degrowth/

    First of all: are we sure it is consuming a lot less energy than the physical things? There is a lot of hidden energy use. But I think the answer is yes, it cuts energy consumption on average.

    What comes to mind is another question, what could we be doing with that money instead of spending it on games? Other areas that are “non-things” for ourselves? And then I think the answer is: sure we could do lots of other things with that money that are more helpful and meaningful in other people’s lives. (From the perspective of marginal increase – if there even is one – above a certain threshold of wealth – that is usually a lot lower that “we” think) (Just to give an example: the foster kids here spend hunderds of euros a year on fortnite for gaining nothing functional in the game. And they don’t seem to have a particular increase in happiness or anything positive by spending all that money)

    That leads me to this question: is it realistic to think that people will start spending their money on “others” instead of themselves, even though it would be “better” for everyone. I don’t think it’s probable any time soon. We would need a shift in perspective, assumptions, (self-)image etc. Or could we be spending it on things even less consuming and more durable? You’re only creating more questions!!! (great 😉 )

    I’m also worried about the way in which technology is making lots of jobs obsolete. Not that I want people to work (not to be confused with meaningful ways to spend our time here on this blue spinning ball), but for now, there is a lack of system to take care of those that aren’t lucky to be on the “winning” side. Those that are not making (a lot of) money in the system are dealt shitty cards. A lot needs to change for me to be happy about certain aspects of digital transformation. (But that’s probably because of my perspective: looking for things that could be better instead of celebrating small progress)

    Last thing that comes to mind for me: there is a lot of non-stuff that is not necessarily better for us (on this the planet) because of the systems we live in (financial, economic), but it’s never too clear cut and a complex matter.

    I’m wondering if your question is an invitation to see the silver lining to things and then I would say yes, in a way switching from physical scarce to abundant is a good thing. But it’s never just that. What are the implications of playing video games a lot, of not reading a physical book that allows for making notes and taking time. I realise now that I’m not really sure what you’re asking, what you were looking for. Well that’s a lot quicker than usual, to come to realise this, so I’ll consider that “good”.

    Curious to hear what effect my rambling has on you.

    1. I think the hard thing is agreeing on the definition of words like ‘meaningful’, ‘helpful’, and ‘good’.

      That’s what makes money so interesting to me: I can spend it any way I like. Aside from taxes, which can be seen as a sort of punishment for certain economic activity stimulating other behaviour in the process, I can decide pretty freely what I deem to be meaningful enough for my cash.

      For instance: gaming is, to me, a truly meaningful and social activity. That opinion is not widely shared and I can see a way in which the moral beliefs of the majority could culminate in punishing my online economic activity by taxes or other disincentives.

      The battle for the meaning of these seemingly neutral words is a cultural and moral one, and I believe the ever-changing outcomes of these never-ending battles have a huge impact on how we organise our society. Moral beliefs crystallise into laws. And laws are notoriously difficult to change.

      What I’m trying to say is that when discussing the definition of these words I’ve heard strong arguments from people I firmly disagree with, which made me see the amorality of money not as something to be tossed away lightly. If I wouldn’t have heard the argument, I probably would’ve banned things that are truly meaningful to their lives.

      I feel at the heart, or underlying, all these more or less semantic discussions, we’re doing a huge round of negotiations. We’re renegotiating personal rights and group rights, because the context in which those rights play out and the consequences they have, changed so drastically. And everyone is digging their heels in the sand, trying to defend what they believe to be true. If some of the consequences weren’t so damn awful, I could be honestly ecstatic by this show of civic virtue.

      (I am, for the benefit of our mental health, ignoring the psychopaths who, for their personal gain, continue the behaviour they know to be harmful.)

      1. I completely agree with your following statements:

        “I think the hard thing is agreeing on the definition of words like ‘meaningful’, ‘helpful’, and ‘good’.”
        “I can spend money the way I want to.”
        “If I wouldn’t have heard the argument, I probably would’ve banned things that are truly meaningful to their lives.”
        “If some of the consequences weren’t so damn awful, I could be honestly ecstatic by this show of civic virtue.”

        I am very aware of how difficult it is to use these terms meaningful, helpful and good. I see them as a starting point of conversation, but thought just now that they can also cause confusion, misunderstanding, friction and resistance.

        I can spend my money the way I want to, but that doesn’t mean I think we should be able to do so in complete freedom without thinking about the consequences. (I have a lot more to say about this – not as truth, but for your consideration. In short: what I get – in money – for what I do, doesn’t necessarily mean I deserve it and what I am able to do with it, doesn’t mean it is justified, good, helpful, warrented … enough)

        I wasn’t saying that gaming can’t be meaningful and social. I really do believe that. I was mostly reacting from the fear I have with all substances that can be abused. That can be mindnumbing etc. The thought that arises now is that I should be looking at what is underneath that addictive and numbing behavior rather than focus on what it is people (i.e. my foster kids) are grabbing on to, to get away from a shitty experience of life.

        I completely agree with you on the “listening to others, and truly hearing what something means to them, no reacting to disprove their experienc, can help me understand and can bring a lot of – to me – meaningful / constructive / helpful / good insight”. (Thats why I love what you guys are doing with http://www.zwijgenisgeenoptie.be – really, I can’t thank you guys enough for that)

        About the consequences being so damn afwul… that’s the reason I have been hooked on nvc (nonviolent communication) since I encountered it.

        What I don’t agree with (completely):
        “And *everyone* is digging their heels in the sand, trying to defend what they believe to be true. ”

        Not all men… I’m sorry: not everyone x-D What are we doing here? I’m genuinly trying to understand what your point is and what your concerns are. I trust you do the same. (and you do it all the time, and you’re meeting and interviewing lots of people that do it)

        For the past two years I’ve been thinking how much I would love to bring people together to make an effort to understand each other. I’ve been wanting to talk to you guys about it. Then recently I found out VRT is doing something like “snapt ge mij nu”, but I would love to see it with people that have a very public function (not sure if it’s even possible), with mediators that try to create an atmosphere where we just try to hear and understand “the other one” (and yes I’m very aware that participants would have to be willing to do such a thing)

        I’ve been reading the Scout mindset by Galef and the past years have also taught me that lots of people are in soldier mindset most of the time and maybe aren’t even capable to take on the role of scout. But I find it so valuable. To put an effort into describing the map, to scout, rather than to be “right”. I’m trying to figure out how I can help a little in the grand scheme of things to augment the willingness to listen and to understand.

        Sometimes I wish I’d have more time for conversation with you (guys), but I completely understand. Thanks for this exchange!

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