Waste, abundance and ideology: the Singularity versus Collapse

The always wonderful and thought-provoking Venkatesh Rao has a typically spot-on analysis of the ideology underlying the idea that we are heading for a world of either collapse or abundance. Along the way, he drops all kinds of great thoughts, like the Generalized Godwin’s Law: "Every discussion within an online community converges to a zero-information signal characterized by empty assertions concerning the foundational dichotomy of that community."

A resource gets cheap enough to waste when it is cheap enough that you can leave it out of the strategic cost calculations for most products and services that it is a part of.

This is a relative definition of cheap. Global shipping is an example of a wasteable resource today, for value-added manufactured goods. Relative to manufacturing and other costs, the costs of shipping something from China to the US (say) are so trivial that as a first approximation, you can ignore them. You can think about business models and strategic positioning issues without thinking about transport (your accountants still have to include it in their book-keeping of course). The design space for your business model shrinks in useful ways.

Not all resources are wasteable in all industries. Electricity is something you can waste in many contexts in the developed world, but not in the data center business, where it is a big enough cost component that it pays to locate data centers near cheap power.

This suggests a good measure for development actually. A nation or region is as developed as the resources its economy views as wasteable (in the good+strategic sense).

Waste, Creativity and Godwin’s Corollary for Technology

(Image: E-waste collection, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mosmancouncil's photostream)


  1. If human history is any guide, we’ll all be living off the contents of our landfills in a hundred years.  Whether we will find the spare time to achieve the Singularity while scrounging for decayed food is the question.

    1. How does human history suggest that? There is this idea out there that there are cyclic collapses of civilization, but there’s just no evidence for it. The closet to that was the collapse of the Roman empire, but even then, most knowledge stayed, and much of the world continued. And of course the Eastern Roman Empire stayed intact long after. Investigation in science and other areas continued. 

      If history is a rough guide then we should expect that despite any problems, we’ll muddle through. Humans seem to be very good at muddling through. 

  2. “A nation or region is as developed as the resources its economy views as wasteable …”

    My mind was blown the first time I saw old IDE hard drives being used to hold down freshly-printed banners outside a print shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand. From pinnacle of technology to paperweight in a developing economy in barely a decade.

  3. As someone with an ecological background who has been working on our e-waste challenge for years, I continue to find lessons from physics (entropy) and biology (complexity) for our technological civilization. I’ll point you to the work iFixit and others are doing to accelerate component recovery and recycling…in effect adding value at every step of the post-consumption chain. In a sense, the truly ‘bad waste’ is what ends up in landfill instead of being integrated into new products and expressions anywhere else.   

    To Venkat’s defense of ‘wasting’ single-sided paper, I think that points to ongoing shortcomings in digital tool design. E-books still haven’t replaced the versatility of paper, and why haven’t we developed 3D models that can learn from our manipulation of ‘smart’ clay? Our technological interface is still woefully inadequate compared to the full range of human expression.

    1. If the latest Macbook Pro in any indication, future tech products will be less serviceable/upgradable than they are today. iFixit’s Repairability Score: 1 out of 10 (10 is easiest to repair). From ifixit:

      “- Proprietary pentalobe screws prevent you from gaining access to anything inside.As in the MacBook Air, the RAM is soldered to the logic board. Max out at 16GB now, or forever hold your peace—you can’t upgrade.

      – The proprietary SSD isn’t upgradeable either (yet), as it is similar but not identical to the one in the Air. It is a separate daughtercard, and we’re hopeful we can offer an upgrade in the near future.

      – The lithium-polymer battery is glued rather than screwed into the case, which increases the chances that it’ll break during disassembly. The battery also covers the trackpad cable, which tremendously increases the chance that the user will shear the cable in the battery removal process.

      – The display assembly is completely fused, and there’s no glass protecting it. If anything ever fails inside the display, you will need to replace the entire extremely expensive assembly.”


      Who knows, maybe in a few years we can just toss our antiquated machines into a bucket full of nanobots for processing into raw materials for our 3D printer. We’ll pay Apple for the CAD file. And then I can cuddle my Realdoll girlfriend as we watch the projected sun set inside my retina…

      1. Sadly I have a hard time imaginging a bucket full of nanobots will ever be cheaper than a poor villager using pliers and cyanide. Proprietary licensing and disposal economics need to evolve or be consumed by new business models.

  4. Ah, one of my favorite arguments.  And I stand firmly on the side of dissolution and collapse.

    The Singularity?  Somehow computers get smart, fix all our problems and everyone is happy?

    That just cracks me up.  Even if nano-bots with God-like genius could make everyone live forever in perfect health, in utter comfort and satiety, heal the oceans and the atmosphere and transform the earth into a Xanadu of beauty and plenty for all…some jerkoff at some point is going to do their best to screw it up.  “Universal equality: not natural.  Freedom: only for people I like.  All this Peace and Unity is boring me to tears…Oi, Nanobots!  Make me a Plague to wake this planet up!  Or at least print me a fusion rifle to blast those guys over there: I don’t like the look of ’em”

    Of course, complete global desolation may take awhile: so until then I must give props to our brainy science guys and gals.  It’s amazing the strides that have been made and are continuing to better humanity.  The future is bright: for the 10%.  For you and me; fellow readers, fellow-enough-leisure-time-to-read-and-post-comments-on-BB-as-opposed-to-dirt-farming-or- burning-wires-for-copper-in-some-squalid-squatters-camp.  We, the few, the proud English speaking computer literate First Worlders…no starvation here!  I’ve seen no corpses in the streets…lately.

    The Singularity is here now!  (for those who can afford it)  

    Someday there will be no hand-wringing about the value of waste in creation: there will only be scarcity and want. 

    Never before in human history have so many benefited from scientific progress and thinking…but it cant go on forever.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

  5. “Every discussion within an online community converges to a zero-information signal characterized by empty assertions concerning the foundational dichotomy of that community.”

    Beautifully put. Let’s do Boingboing!

    Cops are [not] mostly monsters,  steampunk is [not] overrated, religion is [not] mostly harmless and should [not] be tolerated, watches should cost $8[0,000], Disney is [a corporatist walled garden emitting a stench from the creative decay kept within | a modern cultural treasure to be venerated and obsessed over], you are a [bad] parent, and Apple’s new gadget is [the] shit.


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