Has the Future Finally Arrived?

The other day I got a call from Comcast asking if I might be interested in solar panels. I told them I rent (true) so that was that. However, it left me pondering the question: Has the future finally arrived?

You see I’m reading a book right now by futurist Jeremy Rifkin called The Zero Marginal Cost Society, which basically says that in the not-too-distant future everything will be free. Or rather, nearly free.

This is based on the simple idea that the cost of things goes down as we get more efficient at making them. This is why Henry Ford was the first to bring cars to the masses. He didn’t invent the automobile. He invented the assembly line.

In his book, Rifkin points out that our level of efficiency at making things is increasing exponentially, right alongside our exponential increase in computing power. The smarter our machines become, the more they can do. The more they can do, the cheaper stuff gets. The key difference is that once an all-machine-run factory is built the cost to actually operate it is next to nothing. No wages to pay. No benefits to provide. No labor laws to contend with. And it can run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

The main cost after such a factory is built is paying for the power to run it. But solar panels, once installed — just like the all-machine-run factory itself — provide energy for decades at near zero cost.

Imagine, for a moment, Henry Ford’s assembly line. Now replace all the humans with smart robots run on electricity generated by solar panels which gets stored in big batteries during the day allowing for production to continue day and night.

Once that factory is built, the only remaining cost comes from the raw materials. And it turns out that the metal and the glass and the pleather that make up your car are not what makes it expensive. It’s the labor. (And maybe the marketing. Oh, and the big executive bonuses.)

This is just one example of the future that may already be here. Consider that today information is basically free. When I was a kid my “rich” Uncle Ted bought our family a set of encyclopedias. It took up three and a half feet of shelf space, weighed more than I could lift at the time, and cost hundreds of dollars. Today, we have Google and Wikipedia. (If we converted Wikipedia into encyclopedias it would take up more than three and a half feet of shelf space. And, of course, it’s free.)

Let’s see. What else is free?

Facebook? Free. YouTube? Free. Gmail? Free. Google Docs? Free. (Google everything? Free.) Flickr? Free! Medium? Free!!

Top professors from all over the world are now even offering their classes online for free.

And so on.

What all of this means for the job market is a big topic of conversation among people who think about these things. Rifkin, for one, thinks this spells the end of capitalism. At least capitalism as the dominant organizing principle of society. He doesn’t think money will disappear. It’s more that he thinks our current arrangement where groups of shareholders own pieces of huge corporations that pay workers skimpy wages for their time is going to die out. Just like Feudalism did.

Whenever I read something like this I start to look for signs to either confirm or disconfirm it. One of the keys to this particular vision of the future is making the transition from dirty, costly fossil fuels to the relatively clean and ultimately much cheaper renewable resources of wind and solar. As it turns out, every major leap in economic development has been preceded by the discovery of a new source of energy. First it was fire, then water, then steam, then coal, and now oil and gas. But the future, for a number of reasons, belongs to solar and wind. Not only are they clean and inexhaustible, but once they’re built the provide power with little to no additional cost.

So when I got that call from my internet provider offering to install solar panels on my roof I took note. And then, when the very next day I saw a front page article in the NY Times about a company that will build windmills on your land for free and then sell you the energy (like Solar City for wind), I couldn’t help but think that we have indeed reached some invisible tipping point. And that maybe, just maybe, the future really has arrived.