Catastrophic Success


I’m reading K. Eric Drexler’s new book Radical Abundance, which explores the impact of atomically precise manufacturing (APM). Drexler predicts that APM will be with us soon and that it will transform the global economy in ways that can be compared to the industrial revolution of the 18th century or the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. That is to say, he predicts it will be among the biggest shifts that have ever occurred.

Drexler compares the introduction of APM with the digital revolution of the past few decades, asserting that APM will essentially turn the production of physical goods into a form of information technology. Just as digital technologies made it possible to produce unlimited copies of information products (books, recorded movies, music) at essentially zero cost, APM will enable the production of physical goods at a tiny fraction of the cost of producing them today — enabling a world of radical abundance per the book’s title. This transition will not come without problems, however. Imagine the kind of disruption which has occurred in the music business over the past decade and a half applied to manufacturing, agriculture, and energy production. The elimination of infrastructure, businesses, and employment will be staggering. Drexler warns that with the introduction of APM we may face a period of “catastrophic success.”

That’s an interesting turn of phrase. We’re all familiar with the concept of “creative destruction,” wherein a new technology or set of technologies come along and supplant the old order — taking businesses and livelihoods with them, but producing far more opportunity than they eliminated. Catastrophic success, it would seem, is an advanced form of creative destruction.

I’ve written extensively over the past couple of years (at the Transparency Revolution blog) about the possibility that automation may be behind some of the long-term problems we’re seeing with the employment picture. Just last week, observing a long-term drop in the number of people employed in the manufacturing sector, I wrote:

The standard argument is that manufacturing as a whole must now be seen as a quaint, buggy-whip-making type activity — one that technology and economic growth have decreed is no longer a viable creator of jobs. But not to worry! The economy marches on, creating more and better opportunities for all those folks displaced from manufacturing jobs. Automation is simply replacing drudge work, as it always has. The real economy is in information, now, not stuff. Everyone has the chance to move up the value chain.

The problem with that argument is that our machines are far better at working with information than we are, except where it comes to actually understanding information, where we still have a bit of an edge. Automation is poised to start killing white-collar jobs with the same ruthless zeal that it used in going after blue-collar jobs. In fact, the use of the future tense in that sentence is superfluous. This is already happening. How else can we account for an economy that is growing overall — however slowly — while the total number of people who work continues to go down?

Not only is technology eliminating jobs, our reliance on it makes it harder for people who are not part of the workforce to join it (or to get back into it.) For example, people who are employed tend to have larger, more current, and more viable social networks than people who aren’t. A returning veteran or a recent college graduate or someone who has been out of work for six months or so can’t rely on social technology, which is driving more and moreof the job-search / hiring pr0ocess, to give them the same boost that it gives to others — especially when there is already a presumption in place against hiring the unemployed. Technology is a great enhancer and accelerator of things, including being left out.

If Drexler is correct, we’re no longer just talking about automation replacing jobs in certain sectors of the economy; we’re talking about whole sectors of the economy changing beyond recognition, if not disappearing altogether. The upside is huge: cheaper, better everything — an era of plenty unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. But it’s unclear how we transition from the one era to the next, how we minimize the catastrophe while maximizing the success.

Stay tuned.

(Cross-posted from The World Transformed.)


  1. 2017-01-22 15:54:12

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  4. 2014-03-21 14:37:33

    The custom nature of the ASIC chip design has made it possible to squeeze in more functionality under specific system size, while simultaneously reducing power requirements, heat and cost. During World War II, Eisler was interned in England for being an illegal alien. Deliver A Presentation, most performers from the witout a doubt throughout-deal through the development of awful excessiveness amount the actual malfunction stacking wire small business, even worse.

  5. [...] Bowermaster wonders if we are feeling the effects of catastrophic success; automation is improving efficiency and productivity faster than we are creating jobs. This could [...]

  6. 2013-05-12 10:30:12

    Agree that we face a very big period of job creative-destruction. Destruction may win in terms of numbers, but also tech can enhance productivity and creativity. Would be great to discuss specific jobs/industries that would be impacted and which types of jobs may be relativly more sustainable - and what job/life skills will be key in coping in the future. FYI, I am currently taking a Coursera course called "Surviving Disruptive Technologies" - which is a bit ironic in that Coursera itself is an example of such disruptive technology!

  7. 2013-05-09 14:41:49

    It's already been done: Printed meat (just Google it; first page is all relevant). It sounds yucky to me, but, if cheap enough, it might catch on. After all, people eat hot dogs. Apply some Google to your comments...

  8. 2013-05-09 00:05:26

    I would ... the "cloud" is the of today ... we've had 3D autocad for rapid prototyping for decades ... the printers are still toys ...

  9. 2013-05-09 00:01:04

    apply APM to manufacturing, agriculture, and energy production ? you are going to produce food with APM ... or electricity ? really ? get real ... apply some common sense to your writing and you won't write nonsense like this in the future ...

  10. 2013-05-08 23:04:48

    I've been thinking about this subject for a while. There will be waves of progression. It will be easy to do 3D printing of simple objects, but not large objects, or sturdy objects, or fine objects. Are we going to start printing I-beams for skyscrapers? or microprocessor circuits? Perhaps one day, when we are able to manipulate molecules and turn a turd into either steel or a printed circuit board, but not for a long time. Point here is that the transition wont be a sudden shift. Even if the technology was able, there would be slow adopters and the long tail, so you are talking about a 20-year shift not an overnight thing. Also, scarcity will still exist. At first it will be the plastic material used for the printers but once we are able to do molecular-level replication there will still be management problems. Consumption is spikey, so you need to store material somewhere until you are ready to use it, and people dont want to keep piles of turd laying around, so we are likely to have infrastructure for a long time. Even if you are able to throw a banana peel into your Mr. Fusion replicator, you still have some loss during the matter-to-energy-to-matter conversion, and given the previous statement you are basically looking at a provider infrastructure of some sort, that is priced appropriately. When everybody is free to spend all day doing nothing, nobody will be a plumber. Money will continue to be an imposed scarcity, to preserve value, so we can pay plumbers to come to your house and fix your turd converter.

  11. 2013-05-08 22:51:02

    Yes: that and counting bogus government spending in GDP. And the real government spending multiplier is < 1.0 ... and probably closer to 0.5.

  12. 2013-05-08 17:19:49

    I think Clay Christensen's framework for innovations is somewhat helpful to make some distinctions. He describes three kinds: empowering, sustaining and efficiency innovations. The first, and most desirable from an employment perspective, are those which increase the productivity and potential value add of labor. This might include something like shifting snail mail to email. Suddenly labor can do more and add more value. Sustaining is simply a smaller improvement, like iphone 4 to iphone 5. Its wanted and needed, but doesn't really move the needle. Finally efficiency innovations, where most start-ups and companies have been investing lately, are those which cut costs out of the system by automating and replacing expensive human labor with cheaper applications and machines. Efficiency innovations were needed as the financial crisis ensued and companies needed to cut their costs to remain in business and competitive. Going forward, I think we are already starting to see the pendulum swinging back towards empowering innovations. The Cloud and rapid prototyping via cheap 3D printing may be early technologies that enable such innovation. I wouldn't write off industrial revolution like changes from the near future just yet.

  13. 2013-05-08 16:08:20

    Yes, but we will be more equal and that is the only thing that counts.

  14. 2013-05-08 16:04:17

    At least workers will still have a bright future in music, movies, microcode, and high-speed pizza delivery.

  15. 2013-05-08 15:23:44

    We are rapidly approaching a point where large numbers of people have only two things of value to offer: their votes in elections and their bodies for the riots. Warm-body democracy will not survive this.

  16. 2013-05-08 15:17:59

    I was thinking the same thing. I'm disabled but I have a job. A shorter work week (say Wednesdays off) would be great. On the other side; if things were cheaper we'd buy more... ergo more people working to make more things.

  17. 2013-05-08 15:02:37

    As someone whose job is to some extent this entire process in miniature -- I write macros enabling people to do in minutes stuff that used to take hours or days -- the thought that comes to my mind is one of the big tradeoffs in automation, which is, "The product of efficiency and flexibility is a constant." The entire point of automating something, from a desktop task to a form of industrial production, is that you are sacrificing the ability to self-correct, self-customize or self-upgrade on the fly in favour of a standardized, rigid product you can deliver faster and cheaper. The scarcer that flexibility becomes, the more likely it is to become desireable, and the more in demand human judgement will become. Look at how much automated voicemail and messaging systems were predicted to save companies, and now look at the frequency with which companies say, "You can speak to a real person," as a selling point in their commercials -- there *is* a connection. Human judgement and human ingenuity will never be post-scarcity commodities; demand will always exceed supply on those things.

  18. 2013-05-08 14:58:40

    Yep, we already have a 32-hour work week. Except it's now a 28-hour work week. Thank you, ObamaCare! Prices on things MUST go down because our pay already HAS gone down.

  19. 2013-05-08 14:57:15

    Automation isn't reducing employment in the USA, China is. The story of the last three decades is the addition of 3 billion people (China, India, ASEAN) to the global economy's workforce with a comparative advantage in low-cost labor. China has leveraged this advantage to the greatest degree. Robotics create more productive workers, but that productivity makes its way into local consumption through higher wages too, absorbing the increase. The reason employment has been so flat (or downward trending in certain sectors) over the last 20 years is because Chinese productivity has raced ahead of its consumption by a wide margin. Thankfully this is a temporary condition. Labor conditions and wages are improving dramatically in China, especially in the coastal cities. And at a macro level, China is moving towards a service-heavy, consumption-driven economy. As it makes this transition, conditions will return to historic trends among its trading partners as well.

  20. 2013-05-08 14:47:24

    Q) "How else can we account for an economy that is growing overall — however slowly — while the total number of people who work continues to go down?" A) By having the press actively choosing NOT to look at GDP per capita, in order to put a positive spin on things as long as Chairman Zero is in office.

  21. 2013-05-08 14:47:12

    Will Drexler be doing book readings in the House of the Venerable and Inscrutable Colonel? Seems only appropriate.

  22. 2013-05-08 14:35:59

    If people don't have to work, they won't. Employment would be a whole lot higher if, first of all, employers were allowed to keep their profits instead of being demonized; and second, if things like unemployment compensation, food stamps, disability compensation, Social Security, and the never-ending host of other federal and state government goodies were eliminated. Why work if you can get by on government largesse?

  23. 2013-05-08 14:32:42

    It isn't my book; it's Eric Drexler's. Economic growth is measured as the overall productive output of the economy. Employment has never been factored into measures of growth. But in the past, the two always went hand in else could we be producing more unless more people were working? It just kind of figured. If we're producing more than we were, the economy is bigger than it was. I understand how debt would seem to offset the overall health of the economy, but I don't think it invalidates the actual growth that has occurred. However I will gladly let someone who understands economics better than I do set me straight on this point.

  24. 2013-05-08 14:09:55

    Sounds like its time for the 32 hour work week.

  25. 2013-05-08 13:49:00

    I haven't read your book, but I thought of an answer to your question: How else can we account for an economy that is growing overall — however slowly — while the total number of people who work continues to go down? If the "economy" no longer counts those people who are looking for work and doesn't count the increasing debt that they and our government are incurring as a result of the unemployment issue, then sure, you could say the "economy" is growing. The problem is these people still do exist and so does our government debt. They have to be counted. That changes the picture completely.

  26. 2013-05-08 13:39:24

    Still waiting on Amazon for my own copy of the book, but a quick generality if I may. I'm not certain we either can or should "... minimize the catastrophe while maximizing the success." I think it reasonable to project that those people and institutions having a vested interest served by the historical methods of production/work/success will necessarily have to experience catastrophe in order for their former customers/employees/suppliers to become independent producers of there own unique replacement construct (trying to avoid the whole mercantile terminology we currently associate with goods and devices we utilize in our personal and professional capacities). The longer the transition process takes, the more opportunity exists to muck up the transition away from the historical model of making supply meet demand (the individualization of which, it should be noted, is primarily what the APM model achieves). Better as quick and clean a break as possible (short of outright bloodshed between us), and a lot of that depends heavily upon how well thought out the implementation itself is invested in. Have you got to the part where he describes the base assembly material supply and storage mechanism yet Phil? In the past this particular aspect of The End Of Scarcity has always been subject to a lot of handwavium, but I believe it crucial to the process actually working outside an R&D lab (like, say, in my 1 bedroom apartment for instance).

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