Friday, February 27, 2009

Ephemeralization

R.B. Fuller conveyed a concept he referred to as "ephemeralization", which made the claim that as society improved its understanding of the world it, in fact, the efficiency with which it utilized scarce resources increased at an exponential rate, or certainly much faster compared to the rate of increase in the demand than is commonly supposed. In metals, for instance, recycling streams now make up a far larger percentage of production than in the past when ore was the major source.

Of course, as demand grows, supply must grow too or a shortage will ensue. But the relationship isn't a simple linear curve. I'm not sure if this is in any way original to Fuller, who made a career out acquiring ideas.

In any case, the effect of ephemeralization is in no way tied to a moral outcome. That is to say, there's no particular reason why one should think that changes in efficiency, in general, must be an increase which inheritly benefitting society. For instance, there has been a large-scale increase in enforcement activity of government over the decades, and masses of IRS laws passed which no one would pretend to understand, giving a bureacracy which adds nothing to the gross productivity of society yet which is more and more efficient at expending its capital. Another example is sometimes found in corporate quality organizations, particularly those involved with obtaining rubber-stamps of approvals for ISO9000 or CMMI, the motivations for which are anything but technical improvements to quality and performance. Most anyone who has worked in a large company will have had the experience of wondering just what the manager down the hall actually contributes to the bottom line, when he spends his days discussing the blueness of the sky or the methods of brewing sweet tea.

The point is, ephemeralization works both ways, simultaneously. Over time, many people will naturally find ways, in fact, to do less and less in exchange for the same amount of renumeration or more, and they are very creative in the manner in which they can fictionalize their actual levels of contribution. The more money available without true accountability, the less will be done with it. Oh yeah, that stimulus package is going to go far...
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