It was still warm, even though the sun had set half an hour earlier. The whole “family” was out on the back porch finishing one of Leslie’s outside summertime meals. I imagine they were sipping glasses of lemonade or some such. This was about a week after a major event: getting an elby big enough to lift a four-and-a-half kilogram weight. That was ten pounds, back before David made everyone switch to metric measures. So, this night’s dinner was something of a celebration, meaning it ended with an unimaginably rich chocolate cake, courtesy of Leslie.
I can only imagine. I’m not kidding. Leslie is dead. And I’ve never tasted chocolate cake. Came close, once.
Anyway, with Roger nearly comatose from overeating, Ishmael diverted the conversation to how elbies could hope to compete with other, more developed sources of work-energy. David smiled broadly. This was a question he had waited a long time to answer.
“People living on the grid don’t appreciate the extent to which technology has determined lifestyle. Thomas Edison knew he was inventing an industry when he commercialized electricity transmission. What he may not have realized was that he was dancing to a tune that would be recapitulated in nearly every business sector. It’s all about mass movement. Large quantities of information-bearing substances, from cargo to oil to books to contracts to home appliances to cosmetics to entertainment. These became the substrate on which to grow the knowledge base that defines modern social systems.”
“What do you mean ‘information-bearing substances’?” Ishmael replied. He was doing his best to keep up. “The economy is based on goods and services, isn’t it?”
“The economy is based on what’s in peoples’ heads. As the economy has grown it has created a knowledge base of possibilities that swells with every different noticeable distinction. Take lip gloss, for instance. A fourteen-year-old girl at the neighborhood drug-store looks at the array of brands, colors, styles and marketing features of a hundred different products called lip gloss. And to her they’re all different! She will not confuse ‘creamy peach’ with ‘summer peach’.”
“Once upon a time,” Leslie chimed in, “a made-up woman used lipstick, and there was only one color. Red. Perhaps a few different shades of red, but it was all red. These days, it takes more than two full store aisles to hold all the different cosmetic products, and a sizeable portion of that is devoted to lip products.”
“So an information-bearing substance is something like a product line in which each small variation is considered a separate product,” said Marta.
“I get it. The more products, the more choices you have to consider. And choices require information,” said Ishmael. Then he added, “What does that have to do with my original question? Adding elby-energy to the mix of energy products expands the menu of choices. But the other products are already so developed, who would care to use this one?”
David resumes his argument. “As I said, the knowledge base that enables the design, production and selection of information-bearing substances exists in peoples’ heads. The economy is largely intangible, since it’s based on choices that people can be trained to value. But the knowledge base has become increasingly unstable. That part of the KB that’s in peoples’ heads is supported by an infrastructure that is narrow, kind of like a mushroom. At some point it’s all going to fall apart—actually, I think that has already started. Costs will go sky-high, so to speak, and most of the available choices will simply fall away. It’s not just cosmetics that will disappear. Most of the current civilization’s KB will disappear. It will usher in a time of profound ignorance, another Dark Age.”
Roger sat up with a start. There was something on his mind. He wanted to jump to the punch line so he could ask a new question. “OK, OK, so we’re creating elby-energy. And it’s not part of the current KB, so it won’t be lost—”
“That’s it exactly!”