The myth of the Weightless Economy

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An interesting interview with Bill Gates’ “favourite thinker”, Vaclav Smil on his book “Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization.”

Smil is particularly scathing in his assessment of Silicon Valley’s contribution to “making the world a better place”:

“I wouldn’t put a big trust in what people in Silicon Valley say,” he says. “They may be good at manipulating ones and zeroes and writing software, but beyond that their contribution to human progress has been pretty dismal.”

When Bill Gates have had disagreements in the past with Mark Zuckerberg over the importance of poor countries’ access to internet vs basic human needs such as access to water or vaccines, his thinking is likely to have been influenced by Smil.

And nobody has done more to debunk the myth of the “Weightless Economy” – the theory that digitalization would lead to dematerialization – than Smil. While technology has enabled some relative dematerialization, this has not translated to any absolute declines in materialization on the global scale – as huge numbers of people in emerging economies have joined the global middle class and adopted more resource-intensive lifetyles.

As illustrated by the tripling of global paper even though we were supposed to be having paperless offices by now, (I am writing this post as a break from the tedious process of printing and scanning 80-odd pages):

“Some years ago, everyone was enthusiastic about the paperless office that would be made possible by the advent of word processing and computers. Well, it didn’t happen. The consumption of paper has tripled in the last 20 years.”

Another reason that dematerialization has failed to happen is because we simply produce so much bad stuff, and turn it over much more rapidly than before. A new iPhone may be lighter than a 1990’s-era Ericsson or Nokia, but it has a much shorter lifespan. Equally with cars, and probably houses too. Smil makes a simple but strong argument for producing more durable stuff:

The other obvious solution, Smil points out, “is to build the quality of longevity into products. There is no reason we can’t design a car to last for 35 years instead of six or seven. This is the core of the matter.”

While Smil is mostly focused on the macro level, his insights have implications on the company level too. In the textbook version of the weightless economy profit margins for technology firms with “scalable” business models should have been almost ever-increasing. But it has largely failed to happen. Even digital firms like Google and Facebook (with very high profit margins) are not nearly as dematerialized in practice as theory would have it, (which I intend to come back to in another post).

So what is to be done?

Well, Smil has no interest in playing God, and neither does he hold much belief in the many Messiahs popping up in Silicon Valley on an almost daily basis:

“I don’t propose,” he says. “I’m old fashioned. I’m not one of these young guys who think they are so smart that they can prescribe what humanity ought to do. Humanity never learns any lessons. Prescriptions don’t matter. We already know exactly what to do. We just don’t do it.”

The myth of the Weightless Economy