8.28.2017

Radical Abundance: How Faith is like the Digital Economy

One thing that separates the digital economy from the everyday physical economy is 'radical abundance. Digital goods differ from physical goods in a profound way. They can be produced and distributed at zero marginal cost.

Normally production and distribution present a huge economic barrier to getting whatever it is you produce into the hands of everyone who wants or needs it. If you have a million potential customers you have to make that item a million times. Once you have a large enough demand and ramp up for mass production costs do go down significantly. But they can only go down so much, and you still have to pay to move your product, to store it, to display it. This economy which we're all familiar with, is an economy of scarcity.

What the digital economy does though, is flip all this on its head. It has caused massive disruptions in our economy. Suddenly the cost of things that can be digitally distributed no longer cost anything to produce and distribute - and the people who have made their living as the middle-men in our economic transactions have been displaced. This has caused a lot of legal and legislative turmoil, as people who once used proprietary law to help overcome the hurdles of production and distribution, now use those laws to slow down the natural flow of goods in order to extract their due. Radical abundance has transformed the nature of this transaction from one of enlightened self-interest to one of guarded self-preservation.

Our capitalist economic system has turned virtually everything even people into a commodity, and scarcity is the lens through which we understand our world. Now radical abundance (for some things,) threatens to disrupt huge segments of our economic system. The forces unleashed by the internet are pushing hard to de-comoditize a number of things, and we have to ask "should we just let it go - and allow our society to be transformed, or should we try to resist it and keep these industries on a kind of legislative life support?" Many people think we should. What's the right thing to do? One of my favorite phrasings of this question is by Eben Moglen (Freedom Law Center), who says,

"If you could make as much bread, or have as many fishes, as you needed to feed everyone, at the cost of the first loaf and the first fish plus a button press, what would be the morality for charging more for loaves and fishes than the poorest person could afford to pay?" (Here)

Under the economics of scarcity, tools that make our lives easier and creative works that give us aesthetic pleasure are considered luxuries. People who had enough money could afford these things and enrich their lives, but others for whom money presented a barrier, these items were hard or impossible to obtain. This is our societies value judgement - that the quality of a person's life should be determined by their earning potential. What the digital economy does, is unlock many of these luxuries for people of limited economic means, through decomodificiation.

What would our society look like if we found a sustainable way to decomodify the things that enrich the quality of human life?  Some people believe it would result in a more humane existence for everyone - Gene Roddenberry for instance.  In his book Trekenomics, Manu Saadia, describes Roddenberry's concept of a society in which material wealth has become so abundant that possessing it no longer holds any appeal. In such a world the only way to gain status would be by cultivating talent and intellect (Wired article here).

But let's talk theology now.  Abundance is also something that separates the Faith Economy from the Sin Economy.  You can look at an event like the Fall of Humanity as a turning away from the Radical Abundance of God to the Scarcity of human finiteness resulting in a self, rather than an other-oriented perspective.

Remember Jesus' teaching about the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field (Matt 6:25-34; Luke 12:27-40)? These creatures go about their lives unconcerned about where their next meal will come from - like they have confidence that God will provide for them. They don't work or fear - and God provides what they need. We on the other hand worry about these things all of the time - yet we have the same loving God.

The Creation account in Genesis 1 is curious in the way it is structured. Most notably because you have the creation of light 4 days before you have the creation of the sun and the stars. This bugs a lot of people - until you realize what the author is doing - what he is trying to communicate. The message that he wants to send can be clearly seen when you look at the structure of the days of creation. Before God creates a single creature, he takes the time to create their habitat and to provide food for them. These are the first three days. God creates the on day one he creates light, on day four he creates the luminaries that live in that light. On day two he separates the sea from the sky and on day five he creates the fish and the birds who live in that abode. On day three he separates the land from the sea, and on day six he creates all the creatures that live on the earth - including humanity whom he creates in his own image. The message is that God loves his creatures and has the power and the desire to provide for all of their needs.

Jesus tells his disciples that, armed with this knowledge they are free, free to love others without self concern, free to give their time, their resources, even their lives - because God is the one who sustains their existence.  Just as the Devil helped to turn human beings into sinful self-preservationists by disconnecting them from God's Radical abundance. Jesus frees them to love others by assuring them that God loves them, and knows what they need - and will not allow them to fall. As it says in 1 John 4:18 "Perfect love casts out fear." And our understanding of the perfect love of God does just that. It drives out fear of not having enough money, or time, or freedom and allows me to confidently love and serve the people around me.

Here are a few talks I've found on the idea of radical abundance. and zero-marginal cost.


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