At Oekonux, Patrick Anderson makes the very useful point that we cannot ignore the materiality of so-called immaterial resources.
“I would like to discuss what appears to be an almost universal confusion about the nature of reality itself that causes us to think rivalry (finiteness) is limited to certain *TYPES* of things (such as a loaf of bread or a washing machine), while we simultaneously mistakenly believe other things (such as movies and software) have no rivalry whatsoever.
Whether software or bread, everything is infinite (non-rivalrous) in potential, yet realistically constrained (rivalrous) in it’s actualization.
A movie is obviously non-rivalrous in that the number of potential copies is infinite, but it is also constrained by the rivalrous space, time, mass and energy required to create, use, modify, copy and share it. It is common to brush off these hosting costs as being ‘marginal’, but if they are so unimportant, why don’t we just start a video hosting site today to replace YouTube? Can we really pretend the warehouses of servers Google pays for are not physical constraints? And it doesn’t end there. That movie cannot be utilized unless it is copied, which of course takes time, and consumes physical resources including the twisted-copper, fiber optics or satellite hardware (mass) to transmit it, and a local computer (more mass) and electricity (energy) and even land (space) to house these things.
Similarly, once the mechanical design of a washing machine (the type) has been created by an engineer, what are the potential number of washing machines (instances) that can be produced (how many times may it be copied)? The design is just as infinite in potential (non-rivalrous) as the movie, yet is also constrained by space, time, mass and energy again.
Wheat is actually just a design (DNA or genetics) that has been ‘applied’ to the Mass called ‘dust’ or ‘clay’ or ‘sand’, and the Mass called ‘water’ using a little bit of space (land) and some SUN for energy. The farmer and breadmaker apply their own designs as they harvest, thresh, grind, mix, knead, bake and cut to specialize that mass into a finished product.
But software also requires Mass for storage (a hard-drive, CD, DVD, RAM, even paper or your brain if you have not yet entered it into a computer) and a physical input device (such as a keyboard or microphone) for creation and an output device (such as a monitor or speakers) for “expression”. This Mass also requires it’s own Space to exist and of course software has little value if it can’t be “expressed” by temporarily applying that design to a completed computer components using electricity for energy.
While the time and personal energy (labor) needed to copy a grain of wheat appears to be much more than downloading a copy of a program and running it, if we factor in all the resources required to manufacture the hardware and supply the electricity as compared to allowing nature to propagate the seed, it may not be as much of a difference as we imagine.
In summary, even though different TYPES of things require different AMOUNTS of physical resources for their production, the fact remains that all things have infinite potential, and all things are realistically constrained by space, time, mass and energy.”