Saturday, May 13, 2017

On the Cusp of a Post-Scarcity Age?

It is very clear that we have not entered a post-scarcity age with regard to the more material essentials of life--energy, food, housing. We are already consuming the resources of 1.6 Earths, and the pace is accelerating--even as a vast majority of the planet remains mired in poverty, much of it poverty beyond the painfully limited imaginations of those who form respectable opinion. The potentials of known technology and organizational methods are a source of hope--but the point is that the job has not yet been done (and the politics of the last four decades are, to most of those both deeply concerned and deeply informed, cause for despair about the status quo).

Yet, it may be that we are seeing something of a post-scarcity economic reality in other areas, particularly those relating to information of certain kinds. Of course, quality is one thing, quantity another--and vast asymmetries still exist and seem likely to endure. Still, simply searching for the written word, for sound, for images still and moving, we can now access a super-abundance of them at virtually no cost.

To take one example--the one I am really concerned with here--consider fiction. Let us, for the time being, not concern ourselves with the corporate bogeyman of piracy, or even the massive availability of commercial work released under watered-down versions of copyright ("copyleft") or work with copyright intact but given away for free for promotional purposes (as by working authors hoping to build up a readership), and just focus on the work that is normally available for free, like non-commercial work (as with fan fiction) and old, public domain work (like out-of-copyright classics). Single subsets of this stuff (like Harry Potter fan fiction) are so prolific that an avid reader could take more than a lifetime going through just a small portion of what is already there.

The abundance may not necessarily be convenient to sift, or suit every conceivable taste. Nonetheless, someone just looking for something to read need never pay for content. This fact alone, along with the relentless competition from other media continually offering other and more alternatives to reading as a use of spare time, continually widen the gap between supply and demand in favor of supply--enough that much, much more than piracy I suspect this to be the greatest challenge facing the would-be professional writer today. And how we deal with it may be a test of how we will deal with other, larger, more material questions of scarcity and abundance in the years to come.

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Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
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