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Scavengers of the Physical Universe

Mises Daily: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 by

Thrift Store

It has been ten years since my office was last cleaned. It was like opening a time capsule — and not just because what I found was old. What I found represented a different epoch, a time when all things that mattered were subject to the law of scarcity: what one had no one else could have and therefore it was treasured and hoarded for all eternity.

And then something changed dramatically. Most of what was once hoarded became digitized and reproducible unto infinity by pushing buttons, and therefore all things were accessible instantly from everywhere. And so within the last ten years, not all at once but bit by bit, what I owned became something that I no longer had to own. I could keep it or not, but it wasn't going away.

Here's some of what I found: video tapes of short clips of ideas and events that are now all on YouTube; a printout of contacts generated by my own Palm Pilot, all of which are now back on a handheld device that syncs through cyberspace with any online device; my ancient Palm Pilot itself, which is about as useful as a pet rock; first print runs of legislation before Congress, now all on the Internet and searchable; two big plastic trays, one labeled "in box" and one labeled "out box," now replaced by a gargantuan archive of emails that I can access in seconds; photographs of this and that, easily scanned and posted and shared with the world; scholarly journals (say no more); pile after pile of weekly magazines and newspaper clippings, all long ago digitized; cassette recorders for doing interviews; once-treasured software packages that now seem as sophisticated as cave drawings; a "world clock"; a thermometer with a wire you stick outside the window.

I put all 200 pounds of it into contractor bags and put it in the dumpster.

In the scheme of things, this is a lightning-fast change in the way we value things. Measured by the pace of life itself, it has been too slow for most of us to be entirely conscious of. We encounter the newest new thing several times per week. We get a kick out of it, but that kick evaporates in a day or two as the new technology is rolled into our daily lives. But then one day you clean out your office to discover that the technology has reshaped what we value and why, and that our lives are completely different than they used to be.

Somehow, the change from physical to digital strikes me as more significant than the move from iron to steel, from horses to internal combustion, or from land travel to air travel. In all other cases, the technological shift went from less- to more-efficient ways of accomplishing tasks by the use of things. But these things were still scarce. To make another book required felling another tree. To get from here to there still required fuel and everything that is associated with making it. My pile of paper could not simultaneously be your pile of paper. The space on the land on which I was driving could not be shared without causing a wreck and endangering life itself.

"What we had in common was the assumption that we had to physically possess what we valued. This is what has changed, and all in a mere ten years or so."

These limitations informed our valuations. Prices allocated distribution. Property rights in all things were essential, else we would fight with each other. What we acquired we kept. We only gave things up if we got something in return of higher value. Many things we knew were valued by no one but ourselves; and so we packed them away, hoarded them so they couldn't get lost. Accumulation was the goal. We weren't aware of it because we hadn't been shown any other way. Our behavior was being dictated by our sense of what was possible, which thereby informed our sense of what should be done.

I had a friend once who moved from Russia to the United States in 1987. He moved from a place where offices chained typewriters to desks because they would otherwise be stolen. Citizens would brag about their private collection of paper clips. Spare parts for washing machines and cars were gold.

So when he first arrived, he got an apartment and began to fill it up. I visited. He had typewriters and stereos. He had washing machines and car parts. He had tables and chairs and desks piled high. He had vases and bowls and plates and cups. He had moose antlers mounted on a big piece of wood. He had golf bags with clubs, wooden and plastic bats, stuffed animals, music boxes, toys of all sorts, and piles and piles of shoes that didn't even fit him. His apartment looked like a thrift store or the refuse of two dozen yard sales.

I was aghast and I asked him why he was accumulating all this ridiculous junk. He explained that in Russia, everything here was treasure. He was vaguely aware that it was not valuable here but he had to have his fling, for he was in a constant state of shock that he could buy all this stuff so cheaply. He begged for indulgence. He just wanted to get through this stage in life, this period of adjustment. Fine, I said. Then he took me with him car shopping. At the end of the day, he was the proud owner of three used cars that barely ran.

In Russia, he had learned to grab anything he found because there was a shortage in everything. He was hardly alone in this. The whole society was informed by this sense of valuation. There was no free market at work, so one could be sure of nothing. Socialism led to shortages and poverty: a perfect recipe for rampant materialism.

I'm realizing now that we had more in common than I thought at the time. The only difference between us was in what we accumulated. His passion was what I regarded as junk. My passion was for documents: papers, journals, magazines, and books. He thought of all these as luxury goods that could be foregone until life's essentials were provided for.

What we had in common was the assumption that we had to physically possess what we valued. We were both desperate scavengers of the physical world. This is what has changed, and all in a mere ten years or so. Digits take us away from the constraints. They have folded vast swaths of regular life into that magical realm that makes scarcity evaporate. If I have a document now, I can continue to possess it even as I unleash it on a globe that has the opportunity to consume it in exactly the same way I have, making hundreds, thousands, and millions of duplicates of the same thing in a matter of seconds. The same is true with any sort of information: databases, video, audio, and images.

No reflection on this topic can fail to credit the market economy for what has happened to us. Despite every attempt by governments to hobble it, the digital universe as we know it was made by the market economy. It is a market-built world, which is to say, a world built by human choices, entrepreneurship, and service one to another.

Socialism tried to make scarcity disappear through government fiat and only ended up creating huge shortages that spread misery and death. Capitalism sought to unleash the cooperative and competitive spirits of the human person and ended up abolishing scarcity in life's most valuable things.