On Philosophy

August 27, 2007

The Entertainment Economy

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Yesterday I discussed briefly what might be called a post-production economy. A post-production economy is one in which the methods of producing the material goods that people want become completely disconnected from the people who want to consume those goods. Meaning, in other words, that the consumers in no way contribute to production. One way this might happen is if computers take over production. Obviously computers don’t have any desire to consume, and so they are producing goods effectively for free. If we wish to be more fanciful we could imagine completely automated robot factories in the asteroids, and other resource rich locations, that periodically send cargos of goods to Earth, like manna from the heavens, except with a higher playstation to food ratio.

Obviously there are still limits as to how much stuff can be produced in a given time frame (which we might choose to limit further in order to preserve resources), and so while consumption is effectively free it can’t be unlimited either. Let us assume then that everyone is simply given equal shares of this productive capacity; seeing as how no individual has an effect on it there is no good reason for giving more of it initially to any one person over another. We can also assume that people can transfer parts of their shares to one another, for a limited period of time, allowing for the possibility of an economy, since people desire the productive capacity allocated to others (because most people always want more).

Given such a set-up would an economy emerge? Or would people simply be happy with their shares and never trade any portion of them away? One possibility is that people still might need to pay each other for services. Granted, the effectively unlimited production of goods doesn’t necessarily guarantee that those goods can transport themselves, or that people won’t require education or other kinds of assistance. But given the level of technology that can provide goods essentially without supervision I think it is safe to assume that most of these demands will be able to be met by machines as well.

But such thinking is a step in the right direction. Obviously any economic exchanges will be focused around dividing a limited resource. And one such limited resource is the time of individual people. Some people naturally want to use the time of other individuals; they want them to listen to the things they have to say. Maybe they are personally driven to get a certain message out, maybe they are trying to convince people to join them in some endeavor, or maybe they are trying to change public opinion for political reasons. Now obviously individuals aren’t seeking out these messages, but they do participate in many activities, such as reading websites and playing online games, into which these messages could be inserted. This gives us a three way dynamic. Individuals get to select how to divide their time among a number of different entertainment “channels”. Obviously some channels will be better then others, and so operators might be able to charge people a fee to partake of them. The operators of these channels naturally have to provide a selection of usually high quality content centered on some specific theme, to keep their viewers interested. They might have to pay for the best content, as it is in demand because it helps attract viewers, but some content providers might pay them in order to distribute their content (as mentioned above), since such content usually turns viewers away.

I call this the entertainment economy. Such an economy already exists, in a very limited form, on the current version of the internet, although usually the channel operators are also the content providers, and ads are the only form of content that they are paid to distribute. But the current entertainment economy is currently dwarfed by the production economy. Contributing to production in order to consume is the primary focus for most people, how they spend their free time is something that comes in a distant second. This means that the current entertainment economy is stunted, because people are unlikely to pay to participate in a channel (since it is of relatively low importance), which make it equally unlikely for channel providers to pay for content, and doubly unlikely for anyone to pay them to distribute content, except for ads, which are really part of the production economy. Certainly it is possible that the internet will evolve into a full blown entertainment economy that dwarfs the production economy, but I really doubt that it will, unless something completely unforeseen happens that frees people from having to spend the majority of their time as part of the production economy.

If my analysis is on track the production economy and entertainment economy can’t exist simultaneously; one will always be more important than the other. And, furthermore, the production economy will eventually be replaced by the entertainment economy, no matter what our opinions about them are. Despite this we are probably still curious as to which is “better”. Obviously “better” is hard to pin down in this context. They both result in the best allocation of resources for a specific end, but in one case that end is production and the other it is entertainment. And it doesn’t really make sense to say that one end is better than another, given the surrounding circumstances. However, as described here, the entertainment economy has the edge. No one is forced to subscribe to any channels at all (as they are forced by nature to consume), and so everyone has a real option to “opt-out”, either partially or completely, of the entertainment economy. And this, as I see it, gives it a leg up in terms of fairness, as there isn’t any arm-twisting involved.

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