This outcome may seem counterintuitive because in physical systems friction generates waste as heat, and reducing friction makes the system more efficient because less energy is lost in the form of heat. More insubstantial systems like the economy or civilization as a whole don't work exactly like physical systems, though. When you look at how our civilization has progressed, we seem to generate more and more waste as we reduce the amount of friction in our lives. Will this trend continue, and how will we deal with it?
From Nomads to Netizens
Before thinking about how things could progress, we should briefly remember how our civilization has developed. We were once nomadic tribes roaming around large territories, hunting and gathering for the food we needed to survive. There was nearly zero waste as we needed to use everything that we caught or gathered in order to survive. We couldn't carry much with us, and it took too much effort to build up a surplus that we would just have to leave behind, so waste was kept to an absolute minimum. Frankly, there also weren't that many of us to generate much waste to begin with, so our impact on the earth was light.
Now, what I mean by waste in this context is somewhat broad. I'll consider any byproducts from our way of life that are not part of the normal course of nature to be waste. That would include all forms of pollution from our activity, discarded or unused products, and unnecessary economic activity that will become more apparent later in our history. Any kind of entertainment or leisure activities and the physical goods that would be used for those activities, regardless of whether or not I personally view those activities as useful, would not be considered waste.
The nomads didn't have too much time for leisure activities since they were spending most of their time and energy simply surviving, but once we started settling down after inventing agriculture, that started to change. Not having to chase after our food was a game changer. Farming allowed us to build more permanent houses, scrape up some free time, and expand into other trades. Because we were now harvesting enough food to last through the winter and feed more than an immediate family or tribe, our civilization could support merchants, tradesmen, and artists. We also started generating more waste.
Since people were not as dependent on the land to provide for their survival, they were more free to experiment with making things, and of course, not everything was useful or wanted. Farming also produced more waste because customers could be more selective about what they bought. Not everything was sold and eaten before it went to rot, so the amount of food waste increased.
Everything still needed to be made by hand or grown with the help of beasts of burden in an agrarian society, but that all changed with the Industrial Revolution. The steam engine, the printing press, and other machines drastically reduced the amount of friction it took to grow food and make things. The number of people required to make any given thing decreased dramatically, and the amount of food and goods correspondingly increased. So did the waste.
Waste was not only in the form of garbage (discarded food and goods), but air and water pollution as well. Back in an agrarian society air pollution was minimal because of the relatively small number of people burning mostly biomass (wood and animal fats) for heat and light. The combination of switching to coal as the main burnable fuel and the population explosion that occurred during the Industrial Revolution meant that more people were burning more fuels to produce what they needed and wanted. The amount of pollution per unit energy produced got better when the gasoline engine was invented and put to use, but transitioning from an all coal-burning civilization to a coal- and gas-burning civilization mostly meant that we could produce even more stuff and travel farther distances in our own vehicles. Waste continued to increase as friction decreased.
Now we are in the midst of the Digital Revolution, which in many ways is a continuation of the Industrial Revolution, and we have machines and computers doing more and more of the tasks that humans used to do, making everything easier. We have factories staffed with hundreds of workers producing millions of widgets. We have farms staffed with dozens of workers producing hundreds of tons of food. We have a global supply chain moving all of these goods across the globe to wherever consumers will buy them. We are surrounded by stuff.
Surrounded by Waste
Sturgeon's Law states that 90% of everything is crap. This law has the distinct ring of truth, but I believe that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Back when we were nomads, that was certainly not true. We simply didn't have the surpluses to survive making that much crap. On the other hand, Sturgeon's Law was coined in the late 50s, and it seems readily apparent that it should be updated with one or two more 9s in the percentage. I would be willing to say that 99.9% of everything is crap.
Examples of this trend abound. Search for anything on Amazon. I get 943,178 results when I search for 'flashlight' and 3,303,080 results when I search for 'headphones.' Sure, these are grossly generic search terms that probably include a lot of irrelevant products, but over 3 million types of headphones? Come on! You can't tell me that market will ever clear. What amazes me most is the sheer number of factories that must exist to produce all of these different products. Think about that for a moment.
Then there's the software market, which doesn't have to clear at all because software is just a collection of digital bits on a server that can be copied to wherever it's sold. Look at all of the useless software that comes prepackaged on laptops and mobile devices or how much open source software is available on the Internet. Now we basically have programmers building unique pieces of software the same way that craftsmen used to make tools and other goods, but the software can be replicated essentially for free, so a piece of software isn't made for a single customer. It's theoretically made for everyone, and everyone could have it, if they wanted it.
The same line of thinking goes for Internet websites. There are approximately 180 million active websites on the Internet—that's sites, not pages. How many of those sites are hardly, if ever, visited. They're the wastelands of the Internet.
Since we are becoming a service economy (partly because if we didn't, we would simply drown in products), we can also look at services as an example of waste. Companies offer all kinds of design services, security services, IT services, integration services, business services… Most of the time I can't even figure out what value these services actually provide. When I try to understand the marketing materials from some of these companies, the best I can gather is that they're providing a purposefully complex solution to an otherwise simple problem in the hopes that they can get other businesses to pay for their employees. Otherwise, they wouldn't have anything for those employees to do. The customer probably doesn't realize how simple the thing is to do that they're purchasing services for, and they end up buying complexity and giving up control.
This critique doesn't apply to all services or all products, of course. There are plenty of good ones out there that are worth paying for, but there is an awful lot of waste, too. Probably 99.9% waste, really. It's good that hoarding is a thing, so at least some of the stuff that's produced doesn't immediately end up in landfills. I don't know why some people worry that we'll someday create an AI whose goal is to maximize the production of some widget, suffocating the world in cheap plastic toys or something. It seems like we're pretty good at doing that ourselves.
Will We Transcend?
To be fair, there is a huge difference between what one person finds useful and the full collection of useful products for everyone out there. The long tail of useful products is exceptionally long.The same idea applies to information one person has versus what the entire population of people has. No one person can hold all of the world's information in their head, and it takes thousands or even millions of people working together to make progress on new scientific breakthroughs and innovative products that will change the world, hopefully for the better.
It's possible that some of the additional waste we get when reducing friction is necessary to develop further as a civilization. It's nearly impossible to tell where the next breakthrough will come from or which new technology will take hold and become widely adopted, so we should experiment with as many paths as we can. That does create its own problems with tens of millions of businesses and hundreds of millions (billions?) of products competing for our attention, and we're back to the paradox of choice. Most of those paths will lead nowhere, but the ones that do lead somewhere can make an enormous difference.
Yet, we could do better about failing faster and giving up the pursuit of paths that are obviously not panning out. We also seem to be generating a lot of useless jobs that serve no purpose toward advancing our civilization. David Graeber wrote an excellent article on the rise of these make-work jobs:
But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.The whole article is thought-provoking, and worth a read. It seems like waste is transforming from physical waste to productivity waste as technology makes things easier and easier.
Even these make-work jobs potentially serve another useful purpose, though. Everyone is making money and spending it, and that provides economic activity that supports the useful R&D that would otherwise not happen. Basic research in quantum physics or genetics wouldn't have earned you a day's meal thousands of years ago, but it does today because we have a massive world economy to support at least some people looking into those things. It would be nice if we had the vision to support more people doing R&D so that we could explore more promising avenues of discovery. That's why investments in quality education and the sciences are so important, so that we have more scientists and engineers with enough resources to keep pushing our civilization forward.
Maybe if we gave more focus to developing and building a clean energy grid, cleaner energy sources in general, and better recycling methods for the goods that we throw away, we might be able to reach a more sustainable point in our civilization before we suffocate ourselves with smog or bury ourselves in garbage. As for the number of people generating that garbage, the birth rate worldwide is declining and has been for years, so as long as we can figure out how to continue generating economic growth without an increasing population, we might have a shot at not overpopulating the Earth. At least the trend is in the right direction for not generating as much waste.
Hopefully we'll figure out soon how to use technological advances to reduce waste instead of increase it. Some recent developments, like the increasing adoption of solar power installations and the progressive move to more virtual products and services that don't generate so much physical waste, are certainly promising. Maybe we'll realize that in a world where we can make millions of widgets for next to nothing, we don't need quite so much stuff.