When infinite goes mainstream

The human race has been defined by scarcity for most of its history. Even though the resources available to us have risen steadily and sometimes dramatically over the centuries, the mindset has mostly been around a fixed-pie zero-sum situation.

Wars have been fought for resources which look pitiably meagre today. One wonders if the conquerors of old knew how plentiful the modern world was going to be, would they have given up arms and instead hastened to add to the effort of getting there ? Perhaps not. Perhaps wars also have to do with egos and assimilation of power, but at their heart they are almost always about scarce resources, even when they use the pretext of national pride or identity.

The same goes for everyday lives. We have lifestyles defined by scarcity. Because daylight is a scarce resource we got the early-to-bed-and-early-to-rise lifestyle to maximize the daylight hours. Because bandwidth was, till very recently, scarce, we developed the habit of communicating quickly and often awkwardly over phones. Because we had few entertainment options, we developed the habit of evening TV which was broadcast when the most people were available to maximize audience from this scarce resource. Businesses have flourished from scarcity by charging high prices for every new item until it became mainstream.

But something truly remarkable has been happening lately. We’re entering the age of the perpetual.

Netflix, Spotify and their ilk are perhaps the most visible and obvious examples. It is now theoretically possible to watch ‘primetime’ television and listen to music indefinitely. The millennial will take this for granted, but the slightly older lot can still marvel at how truly remarkable this is. And it is a deeply disrupting change. When you had a 60 minutes cassette tape to listen to on your boom box, you would at least have to get up and change a cassette after 60 minutes. It was an externally imposed limit on how long you would listen to something in one go. In the age of streaming, the limits no longer apply — so you have to decide how much music or movies or shows to consume. You decide when you watch. It’s wonderfully liberating of course, but it is also slightly unsettling, and it is just the start.

Renewable energy, which is coming to us as surely as the rain falls from the clouds, is going to alter our lives even more deeply. When you have infinite energy to do almost anything at anytime, what are you going to do with it ?

Do we have the self control and maturity to deal with infinity ?

Genetically modified plentiful food, renewable energy, infinite entertainment, instant, incredibly fast connectivity, infinite intelligence from cloud based AI servers. When everything is plentiful, what will we fight over ? what will we do as a species ? Will we turn to art and philosophy in search of a deeper meaning? or will we turn on each other driven by sheer bloody boredom ?

This vision of the future might not be close, and is certainly not coming evenly to all countries — there are still countries dealing with much more immediate and basic issues — but it is surely coming. And in a connected world it will impact everyone whether we are a direct beneficiary of it or not.

Infinity is going mainstream — we better start learning to deal with it.