Local production (not always)

Robin Hanson on the locality assumption:

Similarly, people seem to make lots of assumptions when they refer to “full-scale nanotechnology.” This phrase seems to elicit images of fridge sized home appliances that, when plugged in and stocked with a few “toner cartridges”, makes anything a CAD system can describe, and so quickly and cheaply that only the most price-sensitive folks would consider making stuff any other way. It seems people learned too much from the PC case, thinking everything must become personal and local. (Note computing is now getting less local.) But there is no general law of increasingly local production.

I see this a lot in the self-sufficiency tech communities which seasteading tends to overlap with. People seem to implicitly assume that producing power, water, and food locally is better and that technology will inexorably move things in that direction. But as Robin points out, there is no general law which states that local production will be better. It depends on various costs in the particular industry with particular technologies.

I can certainly see the romantic appeal to locality.  I yearn for political self-sufficiency, and dependence on large centralized infrastructure is one of the major obstacles to achieving it.  If the amenities of civilization could efficiently be provided at the scale of a family, then I would happily hop into a boat and sail for freedom, hoping that others would join me to provide the last ingredient (other people).  But as it is, sailboat-sized generation of energy, food, and water, not to mention tools, toys, and computers, is vastly inefficient.  My standard of living would drop enormously.

Since locality appears to be very beneficial to political freedom and independence, I certainly hope that utilities get more local, and I applaud technological advances that move us in that direction.  But this hope should not be confused with a belief that future technologies will be more local than present ones.  Perhaps solar panels will be the energy technology for seasteads, and each family will generate their own power. Or perhaps OTEC will be far cheaper, and so only groups of 10,000 or more seasteaders will be able to get cheap power.  The former would make our movement easier, but sadly the universe is not organized so as to make things easy for us.


3 thoughts on “Local production (not always)”

  1. >People seem to implicitly assume that producing power, water, and food locally is better and that

    >technology will inexorably move things in that direction.

    Water and power don’t need to be cheaper for me to want my own production, just affordable.  From the trends in solar power and associated electronics I am confidant that solar is or will be affordable.   Producing water is already affordable.   I can buy a year supply of food easy enough.  Technology is inexorably making these things more affordable. 

    For the 14 years that I have been in Anguilla solar panels have held off inflation (still like $4-$5/watt after all these years).  My main use of electricity is for airconditioning and a 5 ton airconditioner now uses half the electricity it did back then.   Go technology.

    Having lots of single family seasteads each with their own power production, water production, and supply of food makes for a more failure resilient society.  That is why producing locally can be  “better”, even if it  costs a bit more.

    A large seastead will have advantages and disadvantages compared to a single family seastead, but I doubt very much that power production, water production, or even food, will strongly tip either way.  I think other factors and personal preferences will be much more important for people deciding which way they want to go.



      — Vince



  2. Let’s think at the margin. People who value dynamic geography more will benefit even from comparatively inefficient production as technology advances and reduces the costs all across the range of possible economies of scale.

    Besides, there are reasons to belive in a granular-wards trend for many markets: decreases of transaction costs push the optimal relative size of capital structures down. This is a visible phenomenon in today’s internet-capable, transportation-advanced world, as production shifted from 20% of corporations making 80% of everything, to 28% making 72% (in the USA, from 1980 to 1995, the share of Fortune 500 corporations in the GNP went from 58% to 37%). The “natural” trend of free markets is towards lesser relative concentration of capital, by making the entire economy grow faster than any of its individual component.

  3. During the final years of USSR, the water-purification plant of Leningrad (a 5-million strong metropolis) was getting worse and worse. At some point it was pretty much everybody’s opinion that the water from the faucet is better boiled before drinking.

    As economic decay progressed, they (whoever was in charge) decided to gut the purification plant, leaving only the passive elements (such as sand filters). It was publcily announced that faucet-water was not fit for human consumption without further processing. At the same time, however, small purifiers that could be built into the last meter of the waterpipe right before the faucet or attached to the faucet itself became available and quite popular.

    It turned out that it is much better this way; it was actually a waste to wash floors with potable water and the water supply is much more resilient now that purification is decentralized. They give these things a lot of thought in St. Petersburg, because of the experience of the World War II, when the centralized food storage facilities got bombed by the nazis early on during the siege of Leningrad. Even when there was more than enough money to restore the purification plant’s active parts, it turned out not to be worth bothering with.

    Now, I understand that de-salination is a much tougher task than purification of already fresh water. The above have very little to do with fulfilling the purified freshwater needs of seasteads. But I think it is still notable that even massive economies of scale in a 5-million metropolis proved insufficient in the face of decentralization and all the benefits it brings by removing coordination problems.

    Similarly, a laser printer may still print more expensively than a rotary machine, but its output is surely better matched to the actual demand and thus it generates a lot less waste. Same for CD burners.

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