Generative AI seems to be everywhere these days. AI is winning art fair competitions, spouting poetry, and writing college admissions essays. This new technology is unquestionably fun and increasingly accessible—everything new technology should be. It puts the power to create (think: being able to create a Van Gogh-esque painting of your furry friend in one day) at the fingertips of perhaps decidedly un-trained artists. Where does that leave the skilled artists and writers who create for a living?
Deven Desai, associate professor of Law and Ethics at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business, sees these opportunities, and their inherent tensions, becoming increasingly relevant with the democratization of technology. Recall the way Napster disrupted the music scene in the late 1990s, making it easy to swap and share songs— illegally it was decided— though it was extremely difficult to shut down.
“Digitization is a core first step towards ending scarcity because it helps remove physical limits,” Desai writes in his recent paper “Scarcity, Regulation, and the Abundance Society,” with co-author Mark Lemley of Stanford Law School. After the digitization of technology comes democratization. Democratization, Desai explains, leads to decentralization, giving almost anyone the power to “print or otherwise obtain the things they want, including living organisms, on demand.”
“You're getting to a point where the technology will allow unbelievable amounts of creation,” Desai said. “Better computing, better material science, and more access have created some amazing things. People are actually talking about and have piloted 3D printed homes for countries that need more affordable housing. This is going to be a big deal.”
So, it's not just the creative industries with their writers, musicians, and illustrators whose jobs may be threatened by AI. It’s also construction, engineering, textiles, and all others that are tethered tightly to an economy that works on the assumption of the scarce goods or services they provide.
“That's basic economics 101,” explained Desai. “If something is scarce, you want someone to produce it. If you're the lone producer, you can charge quite a bit. But in theory, that encourages me to try and produce what you're producing, so I can get in on the action and the price will eventually come to a market equilibrium where there's still a sense of scarcity in place.”
The democratization of technology will change industries in radical ways. Where once a fair amount of money and skill were needed for production, technology is making production much easier and cheaper. “With technology comes abundance,” Desai said. “As scarcity goes away, our whole theory of economics and advertising and buying and selling is going to get upended. It's going to be a long time before we get there, but it is the reality.”
When fewer things get scarce, those who own what is scarce become more powerful and can wield more control. As we look to the future of technology Desai wonders, “Will we reorder our economy and our society to focus on things other than scarcity? If so, what will that look like? And how will abundance affect the distribution of resources in society? Will we reverse the long-standing trend towards greater income inequality? Or will society find new ways to distinguish the haves from the have-nots?”
Learning From the Past to Build an Abundant Future
Technology wields the power to disrupt the way markets and systems have always been run with the potential offering of abundance for all. Desai points to California’s attempted move to solar power beginning in 2006. Arnold Schwarzenegger, then governor, championed greener energy, and the resulting combination of technology backed by political policy led California to 1.3 million solar rooftops generating roughly 10,000 megawatts of electricity—enough to power three million homes.
One would think cheaper, renewable power that did not contribute to climate change would have been universally welcomed. But, Desai and Lemley write of the political fallout that occurred with local power companies who needed revenue to make a profit and maintain the grid, a grid that those without solar panels (usually those with lower incomes) would be left to pay for.
“Despite California’s professed commitment to clean energy,” Desai and Lemley write of recent developments, “At the end of December 2021, the state tried to cut 'by about 80%’ the rate paid for energy created by home renewables and add a new ‘steep grid access charge, about $60 a month for a typical solar customer.’ This was an effort to return to scarcity and the centralized provision of power with which entrenched incumbents were familiar. California would still support solar energy according to this proposal; it would just support large industrial solar farms run by the power companies.”
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, in California, Desai and Lemley suggest the possibility of a hybrid system that includes centralized and decentralized power generation. Metaphorically, this power could extend beyond the electrical grid that lights our homes, to encompass ideas about the decentralized technological power to create that could be abundantly available but still moderated by some centralized authority. This centralized authority would ideally have equity in mind.
As we look to a future of technological abundance, only time will tell how politics and the law will move forward to shape society. Desai and his co-author suggest cautious optimism as technological change creates the possibility of abundance. But, ending scarcity can happen only if those technologies are coupled with the political will to replace our notions around the necessity of artificial scarcity.