Category: world after capital

The Meaning of Machine Creativity



For a long time there was a narrative that computers would only be good at automating routine tasks, leaving creativity to us humans. I never believed this because creativity isn’t some kind of magic but rather much of it is based on exploring variations either based on known rules or based on precedents. For example, I titled a post in 2016 “Machine Creativity: Possibly Sooner than Anticipated.” Also in my book The World After Capital, I have a section on the universality of computation that includes a few paragraphs on creativity.

Recently we have had several breakthroughs, first starting with large language models that can tell stories, and now with DALL-E2 and midjourney, two models that can generate amazing imagery based on textual input. For example, here is an image “imagined” by midjourney based on the prompt “Sailing across the alps”

It is mind-bending to sit with this image for a while. A machine created it and did so within a space of minutes, yet it is full of imagination and detail and could easily be on the cover of a book or the walls of a museum.

So what does it mean that we now clearly and demonstrably have creative machines?

First, more than ever it means that we need to come up with a new social contract. People who have earned a living with logo design, or illustration, or music composition, or code authoring, or any number of other creative pursuits are suddenly facing stiff (Read more...)

To Infinity and Beyond



“Infinite growth in a finite world is an impossibility” goes a popular quote. It is usually rolled out to illustrate that sustainability requires humanity to impose limits. Sometimes people then point to a specific element that they argue we will run out of in relatively short order, for instance phosphorus. I believe that this view is fundamentally wrong and ultimately dangerous. Instead, I propose a different motto “A finite world requires infinite growth.”

To explain my disagreement let me go back to a pivotal early moment in my personal development. I was about 8 years old or so when I learned in school that the sun, like all stars, would eventually exhaust itself and in the process first expand and then collapse, likely destroying Earth in the process but certainly making it uninhabitable for humanity. This insight resulted in an existential crisis for me. What is the point of anything, if everything will eventually disappear?

This may strike people as comical, after all we are talking about billions of years from now and there are so many pressing problems in the here and now, so why waste one second on the ultimate fate of the planet? But just ask yourself whether anything would matter, if you knew that Earth was going to explode later tonight. Yes, you might want to spend time with loved ones for mutual comfort, but it ultimately wouldn’t matter. There would be nobody left to remember. The only difference between today and the cosmic fate (Read more...)

The World After Capital Print Edition



After many years of writing in public, I am super thrilled to finally announce that my book The World After Capital is now available in print

The digital version will remain online for free and the content continues to be creative commons licensed. There is no subtitle and the back cover is free of annoying blurbs (just a beautiful blue). All four of those points are meaningful to me and yet every publisher I talked to insisted that those are terrible ideas and they wouldn’t publish the book that way. So I am publishing it myself. Suck it.

A great many people have contributed to the book over the years and the acknowledgments are an attempt to thank some of them. The print edition wouldn’t exist without Mona Alsubaei’s amazing work on charts, bibliography, last minute edits and more. The design of the print edition was created by the wonderful team at Looping Group who are amazing to work with. Any remaining errors are of course my responsibility.

Here is me beaming while I hold the first copy:

All net proceeds will go to the Eutopia Foundation (outdated website – a project for another day). For now suffice it to say that Eutopia is how Susan and I are supporting projects that are inspired by some of the thinking in The World After Capital.

So GO BUY THE BOOK and tell all your friends about it – no matter if you like it or if you hate it ;)

The World After Capital: Big Book News!



I am super excited to share that my book The World After Capital is nearly finished. What is on the web site is more or less complete, with maybe a bit more copy editing coming.

If you read the book now and find a typo please let me know or even better, make a pull request to fix it. A huge thanks to everyone who has contributed over the years, including everyone named in the acknowledgments. A special shoutout for Mona, who has been crucial in getting to the finish line.

Now for everyone who has asked me about a paper copy: It is in the works. I have teamed up with my friends at Looping Group in Germany to create a high quality bound version that will be available in late 2021 or early 2022. Stay tuned for an updated website with a pre-order form.

Capital is Sufficient (Part 3): Pressure and Light



More on how we are not constrained by capital in meeting our needs. The previous post covered discharge (yuck) and temperature. All of this is part of the continued rewrite of the Appendix of my book The World After Capital. 

Pressure
. Anybody who has gone diving will be aware that our bodies do not handle increased pressure very well. The same goes for decreased pressure, which is one of the reasons why we find air travel exhausting (airplane cabins maintain pressure similar to being at the top of an eight-thousand-foot mountain).

Thankfully we need minimal capital to meet our pressure needs. One might at first assume that we do not need any capital, but that’s not correct. For example, pretty much all commercial flights are in altitudes that require pressurized cabins and hence extra capital above and beyond what would be required for an unpressurized plane. For instance, at just 12 km of altitude pressure falls to 0.2 bar. At such a low pressure it is not just a lack of oxygen that would be fatal, but also decompression sickness may occur where gases that have been dissolved in the bloodstream may gas out resulting in sickness and even death.  As noted earlier, we cannot take the existence of the Earth’s atmosphere for granted. So in addition to giving thought on how to create a livable atmosphere on planets such as Mars that we may eventually want to settle, we need to pay attention to (Read more...)

Capital is Sufficient (Part 3): Discharge and Temperature



Today I am continuing my examination of whether or not capital is the binding constraint for meeting humanity’s needs. The prior post looked at our needs for calories and nutrients.

Discharge. We also need to get things out of our bodies by expelling processed food, radiating heat and exhaling carbon dioxide. Humans have made a great deal of progress around meeting our discharge needs, such as toilets and public sanitation.

Building public sanitation systems is one of the major contributors to improvements in life expectancy. As Steven Johnson documents in his books “The Ghost Map” (2007) and “Extra Life” (2021) the city of London was hit by repeated Cholera outbreaks until it separated sewage from fresh water delivery. Even back in the mid 1800s London had sufficient capital to build out a large scale sewer system.

In many countries we take this for granted today but there are still places in the world that have insufficient sewage treatment capacity. Globally the number of people without access to proper sanitation has been declining albeit slowly. That’s largely due to the fact that a lack of sanitation exists predominantly in the places with the highest population growth. Still at this point about two thirds of the global population has access to sanitation and the total number of people who do has grown by several billion in the last couple of decades. This has been possible as the overall capital required for achieving sufficient sanitation is (Read more...)

Capital is Sufficient (Part 3): Calories and Nutrients



Today I am continuing my examination of whether or not capital is the binding constraint for meeting humanity’s needs. The prior post looked at our needs for oxygen and water.

Calories. To power our bodies, adults need between 1,500 and 3,200 calories per day, a need we mainly meet by eating and drinking. The best way to obtain calories, however, is surprisingly poorly understood – the mix between proteins, lipids and carbohydrates is subject to debate.

Eating food is the primary solution to our need for calories. This is where Malthus expected the big shortfall to come from. Agriculture simply wouldn’t be able to keep up with the growth in population. The big breakthrough that he didn’t anticipate was the Haber Bosch process of nitrogen fixation, which powered the so-called green revolution. Equipped with artificial nitrogen fertilizer, agricultural output soared. 

The other big win in agriculture was the use of machinery. Today in the US only 1.3% of the employed population works in agriculture and the entire food supply system at $1.1 trillion represents only 5% of total GDP. Even in countries that are further back in development such as India, the percentage of the population engaged in farming has been shrinking, a decline made possible by the availability of sufficient physical capital.

Now clearly not everyone has access to enough calories to meet their needs. For example, starvation is ravaging Yemen right now as a result of the ongoing war there. Overall, however, since the (Read more...)

Capital is Sufficient (Part 3): Oxygen and Water



This is the third part of a rewriting of the appendix to The World After Capital. In the first part, I provided evidence on the tremendous growth of physical capital over the past one hundred years. The second part dealt with looking at World War II production as an indication for how much excess capital we have above what we need to meet our needs. Now comes a more specific examination of our needs with regard to the sufficiency of capital.

The overall physical capital statistics provided earlier abstract away any regional differences. The examination of World War II showed that the US was able to meet people’s needs with a fraction of the available capital but obviously that wasn’t true elsewhere. In particular of course in the actual war zones much physical capital was destroyed, resulting in needs going unmet. In the following discussion too we will see that capital is not yet sufficient everywhere. Given the total amount of aggregate physical capital available now that is a distribution problem (which is really an attention scarcity problem). Paraphrasing a famous William Gibson quote: capital is already sufficient, it is just not yet evenly distributed.

Furthermore, I should caveat that I am providing a mix of statistics, anecdotes and arguments. My goal is not to make an incontrovertible case that capital is sufficient. I doubt this would be possible even with a lot more time, given the limited state of measurement of much of the world’s capital. Incidentally, I (Read more...)

Capital is Sufficient (Part 2)



In last week’s post, I provided some data on how much physical capital has grown in the last one hundred years. When measured by certain proxies, such as the production of steel, it looks like about a 30x growth in the last 100 years and nearly 100x if you go back just two decades further to 1900. We also saw that significant growth has occurred since World War II, which as a first approximation is at least a 10x growth.

Now someone might suggest that this growth could all be due to the population explosion, but that’s not the case. Over the same timeframe the global population has grown a lot less: from 1900 to today a bit less than 5x and from the end of World War II to today only by a bit more than 3x. Put differently, the increase in physical capital has far outstripped population growth.

Now one might still question whether this capital is sufficient to meet everyone’s needs as I have asserted. I believe that the strongest evidence for my claim comes from considering what happened during World War II. Here is a chart that shows how government share of GDP in the US spiked during the war years.

Let’s dive a bit deeper and look at the manufacturing efforts. The US ramped production of tanks, airplanes, battleships and guns at an extraordinary clip in the war years. Here is a table that tabulates this for different weapons systems.

The (Read more...)

Capital is Sufficient (Part 1)



In a push to wrap up my book The World After Capital to a point where I will make a print copy available, I am finally tackling the appendix one more time. The goal of the appendix is to provide more data to show that physical capital is no longer humanity’s binding constraint. Or in the language of the book, the goal is to show that physical capital is sufficient.

The plan of attack is as follows. I will first be pulling together some general data on global physical capital (this is today’s post). I will then use some data from World War II to show what can be accomplished when there is a decision to redirect physical capital towards fighting a specific crisis. Finally I plan to examine the sufficiency of capital with respect to our human needs.

It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find global data on physical capital. The best source I have been able to locate is the World Bank, which publishes a data series on gross capital formation. Unfortunately the data here reaches back only to 1970 but it still shows an increase from roughly $5 trillion to $22 trillion in 2019 (this is measured on constant 2010 dollars, i.e. adjusted for inflation).

image

For triangulation it is worth considering the output of some things that require productive capacity. Put differently we can infer the availability of physical capital through outputs. To that end, I was able to find the following (Read more...)