The future doesn't look bright for large corporations which give vast numbers of people employment.

I saw the face of the future when I realized that Craigslist brought in $100,000,000 or so (according to the NY Times in 2009) but had fewer than 25 employees, and none of them in customer service, as anyone who's had a beef with the service soon finds out.

The ideal company is exemplified by a successful consultant who pulls in millions of dollars but carries no employees, I suppose. However, not every company can be that lean and mean. Still, the idea is to maximize profits while minimiizing expenditures on bothersome things like a staff, is it not?

What does the future hold, given the incredible advances technology has made, is making, and will make in the future, making it easier to do so many things without needing other people, which is another way of saying, "without giving someone else a job"?

But it's not just corporations big and small killing jobs. Each and every one of us is doing it every day.

From this article:

The curve of change -- which I boil down to 6 “d’s” -- is exponential because culture makes progress cumulative. Innovation occurs as humans share ideas. You build on my idea; I build on yours.

We’ve gone from transmission of ideas through storytelling around the campfire to print to Kodak photographic film and now to digital. Anything that becomes digital -- biological, medicine, manufacturing and so on -- hops on to Moore’s law of increasing computational power, which he said would double every 12 to 24 months. This has remained true for the last 60 years when he first posited it.

Once a product or a service becomes digital, it is exponentially empowered. Thus, digitalization is the first “d.”

The second “d” is deception. Exponential growth usually remains hidden from most observers when it gestates in small increments before it starts doubling.

That is when disruption takes place, because any innovation that creates a new market disrupts an old one. We have seen how digital pixels replaced Kodak analog film cameras that needed photographic chemicals and paper. At its height, Kodak had 144,000 employees and a $10 billion market capitalization. Today, Instagram has the same market cap with only 13 employees.

Kodak’s fate is an example of another “d” -- demonetization. Digital pictures cost nothing to take or transmit once you’ve got a smartphone.

The smartphone is a prime example of dematerialization -- its functions replace in one small device the computing power of old IBM machines that filled whole rooms, landline phones, cameras and watches.

When the cost falls so dramatically with dematerialization, you get democratization -- smartphones are affordable to billions of people empowered now as never before with devices that were once only available to a few. Democratization is the logical result of demonetization and dematerialization.

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I believe economists would argue that most modern economic growth is driven by improvements in efficiency, particularly efficiency of labor.   So one can certainly have economic growth without the need for additional material resources.   We Americans tend to associate economic growth with "bigger", as in bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger monopolies, bigger banks, but that's just our hangup.  Real economic growth manifests as better quality of living, not necessarily more or bigger.

I'm not sure that abstractly there are any physical limits on economic growth.  The modern economy certainly needs energy, but if coal and petroleum both vanished tomorrow we would survive with improved efficiency, changes in production patterns, and rapid deployment of alternatives.  That's why our lack of response to human-forced climate change is so maddening.

It's true that we can hit bottlenecks on our ability to extract elements from the ground.  For example, when I was younger a colleague at AT&T was involved in a bid to provide telephone service (land line at the time) to most of India.  They realized they had to decline the bid because there were insufficient known copper reserves in the world to be able to wire most of India for telephony.    They would literally run out of copper before the end of the project, and along the way they'd drive the commodity price of copper through the roof.  That didn't stop economic growth, we just innovated around it with cell phones, microwaves, and fiberoptic cable. 

Can we imagine some sort of 2nd-Law effect with material resources, similar to what happens with energy?  We keep working with copper and over time we scatter the copper around landfills and river beds and ocean bottoms in ways that aren't readily reclaimable?  Perhaps, though I expect that would have a long tail as we'd shift to more aggressive recycling and reclamation long before the end.   I just don't see those sorts of things doing any more than creating temporary blips in economic growth as innovation and efficiencies adjust.

I believe economists would argue that most modern economic growth is driven by improvements in efficiency, particularly efficiency of labor.   So one can certainly have economic growth without the need for additional material resources.

Really, your argument is that we can have growth and cointinue to deplete natural resources and poison the environment at the same rate?

Wow, that is comforting.

As it is, we seem to have NO PLAN for what happens when we run out of petroleum and a few other non-renewable resources.

I'm not sure how you get from

one can certainly have economic growth without the need for additional material resources

to

Really, your argument is that we can have growth and cointinue [sic] to deplete natural resources...

Did you misread "without the need for additional resources"?

My point, which you seem to skimmed past, was that the rate we are currently using up resources will ultimately place a limit on growth, eventually becoming expensive to extract and finally just being so scarce as to make the effort of even trying to extract them unworthwhile.

You see no limit on growth there?

No, I don't see any limit on growth there.

Economic growth can proceed without any additional resource extraction, by improvement of efficiency.   If an engineer in a factory comes up with a more efficient production process, then total labor AND material AND energy requirements will decrease, resulting in net economic growth while reducing resource consumption.

If you are talking about population growth, rather than economic growth, then perhaps there are ultimate limits.  We're not really sure what they are, though.  When I was younger, folks were predicting mass starvation and war before we ever hit 6 billion people.  Instead we got less starvation and less war than when there were less than 4 billion, because of industrial nitrogen-fixing, and genetically modified crops like dwarf wheat. 

Those are good examples of how humanity has generally worked around resource limits. If you are thinking that everyone must use horses to travel, or copper wires for communication, or bacteria for nitrogen-fixing in soils, then of course there are limits.  However, what we actually find is that innovation goes around those limits by simply replacing the limited technology with something else.  That something else allows for greater production with less resource expenditure, which is economic growth.

It's starting to look like you are missing my point intentionally. I'm saying that eventually THERE WILL BE NO MORE COAL OR PETROLEUM, and long before that those resources will become scarce and expensive to extract. And those aren't the only resources which are in limited supply. You can slow down consumption of those resources, but you can never eliminate that consumption, especially with conservatives who go into denial whenever anything threatens to make conducting business inconvenient.

That is a fact and an unavoidable one. So, how can that not put a limit on growth?

That is a fact and an unavoidable one. So, how can that not put a limit on growth?

Because at the point there is no more coal or petroleum there will be solar (now cost-competitive with coal for electricity in most of the U.S.), or thorium reactors, or some other innovative energy source, and that energy source can even be used to produce synthetic hydrocarbons if necessary for automotive power.

When things are working well enough, innovation in an area tapers off because innovation has startup and scaleup costs and therefore is not cost-competitive.  As a resource becomes scarce (and therefore costly), innovation is spurred. 

That also works on social factors as well.  The need for electricity for one's home at a reasonable price will trump irrational fear of nuclear power development at the point when coal becomes scarce.

I'm a big proponent of thorium reactors as well as wind, solar, and other renewable energies, but petroleum is also used in medicine, lubricants, and most important of all, the production of most plastics. 

You have no answer for that, and it's unwise to just assume technology will provide a solution.

1. We're potentially running out of economically extractable crude oil for the lowest value added uses (i.e. fuels, waxes). Lubricants, white oils, and other highly refined specialties command a premium price and require small volumes.

2. Regardless of 1., crude oil is hardly the only source of refined petroleum products. Methane and coal, even wood and other types of biomatter, are substitutes.

3. "Plastics" is a massive group of chemicals. The reason it's produced from petrochemicals is its low price.  

Don't get me wrong, petrochemicals are absolutely great energy carriers and a superbly malleable product. The reason we use it is very cheap and in many instances produce superior products. Despite the current slump in prices, the general trajectory of crude prices is upwards. The price picture of the last 8 years have led to fairly substantial R&D spending into research into alternatives, and given another 30-50 years a range of products will probably match, or even surpass, the quality of petrochemicals. 

I ask again, is your pessimism about the future based on actual research or the fact that it's hard to conceive of a future that's brighter than the past?

In your conceivable lifetime, Unseen, energy will be dramatically different than what any of us grew up with. Oil and coal will be thought of the way we think of rotary phones. The technology has already arrived, and is in the distribution stage now. 

In regards to jobs, the new infrastructure will need to be built, and even though you are correct that there will be fewer jobs compared to past job creators, there will still be jobs. 

Further, you still live in the largest market in the world, and technology is now allowing things to be built competitively here. If Kodak was here today the way they were in yesteryear, they might have 144,000 employees, but 100,000 of them would be in some Asian country.

Again, in the very near future, there will be far less need for Asian labor making our widgets. So the job losses for big companies will be there, not here. Your 6 "d"s will cause the Chinese economy to implode within that same time frame, my bet is it will happen in the next 20 years.

@Arcus 

1. We're potentially running out of economically extractable crude oil for the lowest value added uses (i.e. fuels, waxes). Lubricants, white oils, and other highly refined specialties command a premium price and require small volumes.

You talk like there's an endless supply as long as we're cut back and use alternatives. Actually, all cutting back and using alternatives can do is put off the inevitable. There are no more rotting dinosaurs from which to produce more petroleum.

Can you at least acknowledge the obvious fact that the day will come when we won't have petroleum to kick around anymore?

2. Regardless of 1., crude oil is hardly the only source of refined petroleum products. Methane and coal, even wood and other types of biomatter, are substitutes.

Googling produced nothing for me as to how one obtains petroleum from methane or coal. You seem to be thinking here only of petroleum as a source of energy for vehicles and producing electricity, not of its uses in medicine, lubrication, and the production of plastics.

3. "Plastics" is a massive group of chemicals. The reason it's produced from petrochemicals is its low price.

I've heard that it's possible to produce some plastic(s) using algae as a source, but as you note, plastics is a massive group of products with a mind-boggling variety of qualities and characteristics which have become essential to our lives. There is right now no alternative to petroleum for producing plastics with all of those characteristics at all, much less economically enough to be viable.

The price picture of the last 8 years have led to fairly substantial R&D spending into research into alternatives, and given another 30-50 years a range of products will probably match, or even surpass, the quality of petrochemicals.

This reminds me of the cartoon where two scientists are standing in front of a blackboard with a lengthy equation on it, and somewhere along the way it says "Then, a miracle occurs." Your solution to the end of petroleum consists of wishing and hoping?

My pessimism, as you call it, is just realism.

Of course supply isn't endless, but we'll run out of money before we run out of oil. Oil becomes progressively more expensive to extract, and as it does, the alternatives become ever more viable. As I stated, the reason we use petrochemicals is primary that they are cheap, and secondarily they are generally superior to today's alternatives. The point being that more expensive alternatives have historically received less investment into R&D, but as they become more price-competitive.

To put a little science behind it, let's use the measurement EROI. As you can see, it is decreasing over time for oil, and that trend has accelerated as of late as more unconventional sources are coming to market. Unconventional sources become ever more expensive to extract:

And we keep finding ever more oil:

While we potentially can "run out of oil" we won't. As I said, we'll run out of oil that can be extracted at a competitive price.

Which leaves alternative techs, and the last decade or so of high oil prices has seen substantial improvements in their efficacy. For instance, the cost-per-watt of PV, though still not competitive with oil, has plummeted:

As for plastics these can be produced, among other sources, from cellulose. There are plenty of non-petroleum based adjuvants available to the pharma industry and organic fats can replace white oils in cosmetics. Turning coal or gas into oil - coal liquefaction generally using the Bergius process and gas the Fischer-Tropsch process - is a well know and established industry, used extensively in WW2 by Germany and currently by Sasol of South Africa. 

Your pessimism isn't realism. It's lack merely of knowledge and a dismal attitude. 

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