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Book Review: ‘The Zero Marginal Cost Society’ by Jeremy Rifkin

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9781137278463Just before writing this review, a news show reported the rising costs of food, especially beef and pork prices. Plus, the price of gasoline is close to $4 a gallon. Electric and natural gas prices are up due to higher demand over an unusually long and cold winter.

All of this seems to demonstrate there is no end in site to rising costs.  Yet, a new book by Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, suggests that within the next few decades, consumers are going to start living in an era where many goods and services are free.

Free Energy

Rifkin writes, “But what if I were to say to you that 25 years from now, the bulk of the energy you use to heat your home and run your appliances, power your business, drive your vehicle, and operate every part of the global economy will likewise be free?”

Rifkin surmises that events starting with free downloads of music back in 1999 and continuing with the decline of newspapers and book publishing will expand into almost every aspect of our lives and destroy capitalism as we know it today. Emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and 3-D printers, free online education and open-source software are going to change the world and how commerce is conducted.

Prosumers and Zero Marginal Costs

Rifkin defines prosumers as “consumers who have become their own producers—generating their own green electricity at near zero marginal cost around the world.”

This is going to happen in part due to the IoT. “The Internet of Things,” writes Rifkin, “will connect every thing with everyone in an integrated global network. People, machines, natural resources, production lines, logistics networks, consumption habits, recycling flows, and virtually every other aspect of economic and social life will be linked via sensors and software to the IoT platform…”

Shift from Capitalism to Collaborative Commons

The first premise this author offers to readers is that capitalism is in a slow death spiral and that a new economic paradigm called Collaborative Commons will emerge. He also presents his theory that today’s society will go from ownership to social capital and a shared economy.

He writes about free college education and students getting college degrees to work in a world transformed to less need for human labor. He poses the question, “What would the human race do, and more importantly, how would it define its future on Earth, if mass and professional labor were to disappear from economic life over the course of the next two generations?’

So why would anyone want a free college education?

Noteworthy Features of The Zero Marginal Cost Society

While the author does make a solid case for an increasing zero cost of a host of goods and services, the notion that energy, food, and all things being free is frightening. Nothing in life is free. If the world goes to free energy, free transportation, free everything, the cost will be the human factor and the diminished need for human labor.

Some form of capitalism has to be in effect to move the technology Rifkin writes about forward. Where will research and development be completed? Where will be the money come for medical research and advances? It just seems impossible that all of that will become free and that people will be encouraged to become doctors, engineers or technology experts if there is no incentive such as a paycheck. Continued free stuff for all just doesn’t seem to be a strong enough incentive.

People may think that killing capitalism will make the world a better place, when in the end, they really just want to be at the top of the ladder in a capitalistic society. The premise of this book is a hard one to accept for those readers that embrace capitalism.  For those looking for all things free, the book defines the perfect world.

About the Author

Rifkin is described in the book as “one of the most popular social thinkers of our time.” He is a bestselling author of 20 books. He is an advisor to the European Union and to heads of state around the world.  Rifkin is also a lecturer at Wharton School’s Executive Education Program.

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About pfaulhaber

  • mic_drop

    I get really tired of responding to people that rehash the same tired notion that capitalism is under siege and that everyone needs to get in the bunkers and fight back. It is true that certain aspects of capitalism are in danger of under-performing, but that isn’t really the same thing. Taking into consideration innovations like Linux, there is truly nothing that could convince me that capitalism is the only thing that can propel innovation and development forward though.

    In fact, the nature of the knowledge economy is such that it can propel itself, owing to the desire for self-mastery. In addition, and more to Rifkin’s point, zero-marginal cost, and hence, at least questionable returns, suggests that there is a truly stupifying hole in terms of what there is on offer for citizens for certain services. And if I had my needs met, I would do it just because I think it would be good for everyone…….and fun for me. What that actually is, is Communism, or Socialism. The term collaborative commons is really just a fancy way of saying Communism, like putting lipstick on a pig. Communism, or socialism, seems to be predicated on a knowledge economy, after needs are met.

    The real limiting factor preventing socialism, communism, or anarchism from happening is simply real-time information on production. But since we’re heading to a time where we don’t even need to know it and hence, know if production is running efficiently, since machines will be doing most of the work anyway, suggests that the time will come where a society’s goings-on will be updated in real time and we’ll begin to form new forms of common wealth, in other words, something that was taken directly from the mind of Karl Marx. This is why it has been said many times that socialism can only happen in advanced economies.

    We’ll all find new ways to collaborate without need for money even, but that would be next to impossible, for sure. I just think it’s getting a little silly that people have to still keep score with money, when basic needs are met and a billion dollars is really just money for excess and waste and a status symbol, (and also for buying politicians).

    It’s an exciting prospect, but as I’ve said before, these things can only happen in a low-maintenance society. America is very, very high-maintenance, what with the roads and oil imports and whatnot.

    Maybe one day though.
    Check this article out:
    http://pando.com/2014/04/01/what-jeremy-rifkin-gets-wrong-about-capitalism-communism-and-the-internet-of-things/