The zero marginal cost society - welcome to the 3d future

BOOKS: The author makes the low-cost, sharing economy sound inevitable, but what's to stop it being co-opted by big business, wonders reviewer Benita Matofska.

by Benita Matofska
Last Updated: 02 Jun 2014

Imagine a world where cheap, 3D-printed, zero-emission, driverless, shared cars roam our roads; where human organs are easily replicated, ordered and delivered to those needing transplants on demand and where we generate and share our own green electricity for zero cost ...

According to Jeremy Rifkin, this isn't the stuff of science fiction but will become reality for many by 2050.

In his book The Zero Marginal Cost Society, esteemed social theorist Rifkin lays out his predictions, bringing together insights from his previous 20 books and four decades of economic and social analysis. He details the breakdown of our redundant economic system and the rise of a new caring, sharing economy, where community is king and money has meaning.

It's a world where a generation of sharers choose to access rather than own goods in a society of happy 'prosumers', where everyone is a producer and supplier of goods and services, co-creating everything from music to MOOCs - that's massive online open courses to the uninitiated.

Capitalism has had a good run and is doomed to fail, he argues, since competition leads to 'extreme productivity' and ultimately goods are produced for virtually nothing or zero marginal cost.

I'm intrigued, but what is this new world order or disorder where I'm supposed to ditch my belongings and share, share, share? Well, there's the rub - it doesn't have a name - or, rather, it has too many. Rifkin cites sharing economy, collaborative commons, collaborative economy, circular economy, social economy, collaborative consumption, smart economy - and that's just for starters.

Let's face it, if we're to convince Primark shoppers to stop buying disposable wardrobes, they need to know what they're giving up shopaholicism for and exactly why they should do it. If this is to be the economic system of the people, they need to understand it. What we say and how we say it matters.

So, if we buy into Rifkin's assertion that 'corporate profits are beginning to dry up, property rights are weakening, and an economy based on scarcity is slowly giving way to an economy of abundance', does this mean abundance only for those who can figure out what it is and have access to it?

My vote goes to 'sharing'. We all do it, we all understand it; to share is to be human. A 'sharing economy' - it has a good ring to it. And if we can agree on a name, we might be able to sell it on the high street.

But how exactly will this new world order happen? Rifkin argues that it will come about because of people's deep desire to connect with others and share. But what happens when the driving forces of this sharing economy are overtaken by profit?

In April this year, the founders of travel marketplace Airbnb, where people can rent spaces directly from owners, achieved billionaire status. In January 2013, Avis purchased car-sharing club Zipcar for $500m. Is this the breakdown of capitalism that Rifkin refers to? If so, you could ask, where's the sharing in that?

Perhaps if these new business models have a social mission at their heart, rather than replicating the system we have, this upcycled, pre-loved, multi-barrelled economy might just be in with a chance.

Every human being will be connected by smart technology that will do our work for us, creating a global community where reputations replace credit cards. We'll stop measuring how much we produce and start measuring quality of life.

I love the idea that we'll stop buying useless stuff that falls apart before we've even taken it home, and that corporations will become collaborative communities. 3D printing on the moon sounds fascinating, though 3D printing of human body parts admittedly creeps me out.

Rifkin leaves us with the news that 'the transition from the capitalist era to the Collaborative Age is gaining momentum in every region in the world, hopefully in time to heal the biosphere and create a more just, humane and sustainable global economy for every human being on Earth in the first half of the 21st century'.

But first we need to agree on a name, so we can make this a reality back down on Earth for the rest of us.

- An expert on the sharing economy, Benita Matofska is the founder of Compare and Share and the creator of Global Sharing Day, which takes place on 1 June

BOOK:

The Zero Marginal Cost Society

Jeremy Rifkin

Palgrave Macmillan, £16.99

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