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PAINFUL TRUTH: Too cheap to meter

What happens when something that was rare gets really, really cheap?
FILE —A nuclear power plant of RWE AG is seen In Lingen, Germany, Friday, March 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner,file)

Back in 1954, people were pretty excited about the possibilities of nuclear power. They were hoping it would replace the major sources of electricity in use, most of which were generated by pumping or mining hydrocarbons and then burning them, creating cancerous smog.

The head of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, suggested that atomic power would become widespread, efficient, and would eventually deliver power that would be “too cheap to meter.”

By which he meant there would be no reason to charge by power usage. There’d be so much power available that you could run your washer and dryer and TV and leave the lights on all night, who cares? It’s just a few pennies more!

We didn’t get clean, abundant, cheap atomic energy, but we did get a few things that were too cheap to meter, and it’s fascinating to see how that worked out in practice.

The late 20th century and early 21st brought us the concept of free information – both storage and transmission.

Anyone my age or older remembers when making a long-distance phone call was a pretty big deal. That would show up on the bill at the end of the month, and if you’d talked too long, it could be hefty.

By the 1990s, the costs of long distance began to come down. Now, who even thinks about that cost? Especially when there are completely free options, like texting, email, and video calls?

Data storage and transmission got so cheap so fast that it transformed our society.

On the positive side, we can now connect with any of our friends and loved ones, easily and for the cost of a basic phone plan or internet connection.

But we’re seeing the downside of too cheap to meter, too.

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Spam and scams, the rapid spread of toxic information – everything from conspiracy theories to vaccine denialism to incitement to genocide – have also been made cheaper and easier.

The fact that data storage is fantastically cheap has allowed for the rise of dense archives of data that are helpful, like Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, or the stories of this and many other news outlets.

It’s also created a market in personal information, and an incentive for bad actors to collect every scrap of data they can about people, for use in various identity theft schemes.

When something becomes cheap, it turns out we don’t just get the benefits. When water is abundant and we don’t meter it, people waste it, which is why we have stricter and stricter lawn watering rules every summer.

The same goes for anything else that gets cheaper. If power had become too cheap to meter, would you like to live next to the weirdo who studded his house with spotlights, facing outwards, turned on 24-seven? Would you enjoy hearing him crank up the bass on his megawatt stereo until the sidewalks cracked?

Abundance can be a risky thing.

Matthew Claxton

About the Author: Matthew Claxton

Raised in Langley, as a journalist today I focus on local politics, crime and homelessness.
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