Full circle with Jeremy Rifkin's "The Zero Marginal Cost Society"

By Brandon Lewis


Embedded Computing Design

December 01, 2014

Full circle with Jeremy Rifkin's "The Zero Marginal Cost Society"

The IoT is set to usher in an unprecedented age of economic efficiency and drive marginal costs of goods and services down to nearly zero.

In a column earlier this year on hardware commoditization I opened with a brief synopsis of Jeremy Rifkin's recent book, "The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism." In it, I summarized the major theme of the book, namely that the Internet of Things (IoT) will help usher in a never-before-seen age of economic efficiency and drive the marginal cost (or per-unit OPEX) of goods and services down to nearly zero. But with the year coming to a close, I thought it would be a shame not to circle back with a look at a couple of the adjacent/underlying technologies Rifkin predicts will aid in the expansion of the IoT and help push us into a zero marginal cost society.

Renewable energy

The Internet as it currently exists consumes up to 1.5 percent of the world's power, but according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company only 6-12 percent of the electricity consumed in datacenters is used to power servers during actual computation (the rest simply keeps them functioning and air conditioned). Although there are several power management schemes being developed to reduce energy usage within the datacenter, the biggest boon to players in the data storage arena will come through the implementation of renewable energy.

While the initial implementation costs of renewable energy systems are quite high, they offer the potential for long-term savings, and companies such as Apple and McGraw Hill have already begun implementing clean energy technology in their next-generation facilities. For example, Apple's datacenter in Maiden, North Carolina is powered by a 20 megawatt solar facility and 5 megawatt biogas fuel cell system, and includes a heat exchange system that incorporates night time air into water that is used to cool the datacenter. The marginal cost of generating electricity with such systems is nearly zero, Rifkin explains, and as increasing amounts of Big Data are archived in the IoT, reduced energy costs will have a direct correlation with the price of data storage.

The (F)OSS debate

The controversy over open-source software (OSS) and free and open-source software (FOSS) is one that has been going on for decades, and one that draws a line between hobbyists and the business community at large. The contention is underpinned by Stallman's "free speech, not free beer" view of code and the four freedoms of the GNU General Public License (GPL) of the free software movement on the one hand, and the and the subtle yet distinct paid licensing options for OSS on the other.

While Rifkin advocates both forms of open-source licensing within a zero marginal cost society as undermining copyrights and patents that inhibit collaborative technology development over time (as seen in the evolution of Linux), FOSS models better coincide with a new generation of developer that grew up freely copying content from the Internet under the assumption that "sharing information is little different than sharing conversation." In Rifkin's view, FOSS implementations and the free information movement also dovetail with the escalation of Big Data, as, "Just as information wants to be free, 'Big Data wants to be distributed.' What makes Big Data valuable is the information inputted from millions of individual contributors and sources that can be analyzed and used to find patterns, draw inferences, and solve problems. In a distributive, collaborative society, the millions of individuals whose data contributes to the collective wisdom are increasingly demanding that their knowledge be shared in open Commons for the benefit of all, rather than being siphoned off and enclosed in the form of intellectual property owned and controlled by a few."

3D printing and the Maker Infrastructure

A particular area of interest for open-source technology is in Maker communities, where hobbyists are beginning to employ 3D printers as a low-cost, sustainable method of manufacturing. Similar to Stallman's four freedoms, the Maker Movement was built on four principles that include the open-source sharing of new inventions, the promotion of collaborative learning, a belief in self-sufficient communities, and a commitment to sustainable production. As 3D printing is committed to collaboration through OSS and is an additive (rather than subtractive) manufacturing process that even allows printers to create their own spare parts or additional 3D printers, the marriage of these two sets of ideals is a harmonious one. However, of specific importance to Rifkin is the fact that 3D printers can be quickly and easily connected to the IoT infrastructure to allow anyone in the world to become a prosumer (producer and consumer) of products, even to the extent of printing renewable energy technologies for the creation of local microgrids that scale out laterally into a distributed power network. These could, perhaps, help complete the circle by generating nearly free electricity for tomorrow's datacenters, which form the backbone of the communications infrastructure across which Makers collaborate and distribute.

If you're interested in checking out the book or finding out more about Rifkinomics, visit The Foundation on Economic Trends.


Brandon Lewis (Assistant Managing Editor)

Brandon is responsible for guiding content strategy, editorial direction, and community engagement across the Embedded Computing Design ecosystem. A 10-year veteran of the electronics media industry, he enjoys covering topics ranging from development kits to cybersecurity and tech business models. Brandon received a BA in English Literature from Arizona State University, where he graduated cum laude. He can be reached at [email protected].

More from Brandon