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Poverty and Scarcity (Reflections on Poverty Part 2)

Perhaps the most prominent feature of poverty is what I identified in our last post as “material deficit.”  In 2013, we still live in an era of material scarcity. The counterpoint could be made that we actually do not have material scarcity and that our real problem is a problem of material distribution (in essence, the idea that the rich are hoarding material resources and not sharing with the rest of us). This counterpoint is unquestionably true, but unfortunately, it is not particularly useful. Unless the rich magically become more generous or America magically abandons capitalism, that information does not do us much good. So for all intents and purposes, we would have to conclude that in 2013, we still live in an era of material scarcity.

Many of you are probably think, “Yeah, so? Won’t humankind always live in material scarcity? What’s your point?” Well, my point would be that I do not, in fact, believe that humankind will always live in material scarcity. I am not suggesting that the answer will come via divine intervention, the dawning of a great utopia, or anything of that nature either. The end of material scarcity only requires humankind to stay on the path we are already on.

Allow me to explain:

In 2013, in many regards we live in a era of informational post-scarcity. What does that mean exactly? Well, to give an example, I was born in 1983 which in my own humble estimation was still an era of informational scarcity though certainly less so than any era prior to it of course. If in the 1980s, I told you that I needed hundreds of pictures of the Great Wall for an exhibit I was holding, this would present various problems. Let’s assume for my example that copyright is not an issue; “1980s me” will credit all contributors and they are fine with that arrangement. After giving you $50, I ask you to go to a public library and photocopy as many pictures of The Great Wall as you can find and afford to copy. At said theoretical 1980s public library, black and white copies cost 10 cents and color copies cost 20 cents; it is after all the 80s and printing costs were more expensive at the time despite the inferior quality of the photocopies being produced. Many hours of pulling books off of shelves and photocopying later, you would be able to give me a maximum of 500 black and white pictures or a maximum of 250 color pictures or some combination of the two not exceeding 499 pictures. You would have spent hours out of your day, have no money left over, and probably never agree to help me again.

If in the year 2013, I asked you for the same assistance, you would probably use your smart phone to do a Google Image search of The Great Wall of China. It would produce hundreds of thousands of pictures, and you could send the search link to me via email. It would take you less than three minutes, you would thank me for the $50, you could then take a friend out to lunch, and use the remaining money to purchase more apps for your smart phone.

This is an example of informational post scarcity. Currently, everything is slowly being reinterpreted as data or information. Right now we are experiencing the infancy of 3D printing, metamaterials, and  nanotechnology. Over the next two decades and beyond we will see these technologies and other technologies chip away at material scarcity. For the same reason that in 2013, Rovio Mobile Ltd. allows me to download various free versions of Angry Birds and then zings me with advertising and upgrade options, a company like Abercrombie and Fitch might in the year 2028 allow me to use my home 3D printer to print off one of their self-cleaning, hydrophobic, long sleeved shirts for free from their website and then try to interest me with additional paid functionality after I already have their product. This is the sort of material post-scarcity future that I believe we are already on the path to achieving. The potential for this future does not help us in the here and now, but I take great comfort in the idea that it is probably just around the corner (roughly 15-30 years away from the necessary level of technology to produce material post scarcity).

For the time being, we definitely have to battle poverty with existing resources and existing technologies. Charities like Los Angeles Mission are a big part of that equation here in LA. Please visit the following link for ideas on how we can help out:


As a bonus for reading my rant, here are some inspiring videos on 3D printing:








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