The publisher sent a copy of The Zero Marginal Cost Society along with a note that Rifkin himself wanted ESR to receive a copy (because Rifkin thinks ESR is a good representative of some of the concepts in the book). ESR isn’t impressed:
In this book, Rifkin is fascinated by the phenomenon of goods for which the marginal cost of production is zero, or so close to zero that it can be ignored. All of the present-day examples of these he points at are information goods — software, music, visual art, novels. He joins this to the overarching obsession of all his books, which are variations on a theme of “Let us write an epitaph for capitalism”.
In doing so, Rifkin effectively ignores what capitalists do and what capitalism actually is. “Capital” is wealth paying for setup costs. Even for pure information goods those costs can be quite high. Music is a good example; it has zero marginal cost to reproduce, but the first copy is expensive. Musicians must own expensive instruments, be paid to perform, and require other capital goods such as recording studios. If those setup costs are not reliably priced into the final good, production of music will not remain economically viable.
Rifkin cites me in his book, but it is evident that he almost completely misunderstood my arguments in two different way, both of which bear on the premises of his book.
First, software has a marginal cost of production that is effectively zero, but that’s true of all software rather than just open source. What makes open source economically viable is the strength of secondary markets in support and related services. Most other kinds of information goods don’t have these. Thus, the economics favoring open source in software are not universal even in pure information goods.
Second, even in software — with those strong secondary markets — open-source development relies on the capital goods of software production being cheap. When computers were expensive, the economics of mass industrialization and its centralized management structures ruled them. Rifkin acknowledges that this is true of a wide variety of goods, but never actually grapples with the question of how to pull capital costs of those other goods down to the point where they no longer dominate marginal costs.
There are two other, much larger, holes below the waterline of Rifkin’s thesis. One is that atoms are heavy. The other is that human attention doesn’t get cheaper as you buy more of it. In fact, the opposite tends to be true — which is exactly why capitalists can make a lot of money by substituting capital goods for labor.
These are very stubborn cost drivers. They’re the reason Rifkin’s breathless hopes for 3-D printing will not be fulfilled. Because 3-D printers require feedstock, the marginal cost of producing goods with them has a floor well above zero. That ABS plastic, or whatever, has to be produced. Then it has to be moved to where the printer is. Then somebody has to operate the printer. Then the finished good has to be moved to the point of use. None of these operations has a cost that is driven to zero, or near zero at scale. 3-D printing can increase efficiency by outcompeting some kinds of mass production, but it can’t make production costs go away.