Information based inter-planetary commerce

NASA Blue Marble 2007 West by NASA Goddard Photo (cc) (from flickr)
NASA Blue Marble 2007 West by NASA Goddard Photo (cc) (from flickr)

[Long post, over 4 minute reading]

For a while now, I have been considering whether an inter-planetary economy would be possible.  Given that faster than light speed is impossible for any material substance, I believe the only viable foundation for any inter-planetory economy must be information transfers.  But can this sustain a multi-planet economy.

Worldwide information market today

How much money is made from information in the world today?  Just looking at published information sold for money we can come up with a lower bound estimate.  For example, USA book publishing was expected to generate $23.9 Bn (in 2009), magazine revenue was $9.8 Bn (in 2008), movie industry revenues were $9.6 Bn (in 2007).  If this represents just 25% (USA’s proportion of world GDP) of similar world wide revenues that says these activities would have generated ~$134.8 Bn last year .  Add to that worldwide software industry revenues of $303.8 Bn (in 2008), movie, TV, newspapers and radio revenues, such potentially pure informational transactions probably generates about $500 Bn worldwide or ~0.9% of world GDP.  Although, most certainly dwarfed by the rest of the world’s economy and ignores private information sales, this still represents a sizeable worldwide niche that could be addressed by any exo-earth colonies.

How would business work between parties light years apart?

Although we would colonize Mars for purely scientific reasons, any real exo-earth self-sufficient colonies would likely be 10 or more light years away from the earth.  So, most likely any business transactions to such colonies would be a long duration transaction. It would probably begin with a one way informational transfer for some period of time until the colonial expedition debt was paid off.  The exo-earth colony could provide basic planetary fauna, flora, colonial development and other information which depicts the colony’s home planet and its developmental history.  No doubt such information alone would be invaluable scientifically and would suffice to pay off any original expedition costs by itself.

But assuming such data was payment for the expedition and that this information stream was expected to continue indefinitely as a commitment by the colonists, what reason would the Earth have to continue supplying more information to the colony or vice versa. One would have to believe that the colony would take off on it’s own, developing unique expertise in scientific, technological or other intellectual pursuits that would be of value to Earth and as such, provide a surplus in their information account.  Once such information starts flowing from the colony it’s reasonable that the Earth should start payment in the other direction comprising of more information about developments here that would be valuable to Earth’s distant colony.

Now, any inter-planetary informational transaction would take possibly 20 to 50 years or more, with a 10 to 25 year wait time for the first exo-planetary byte of data was received.  Such transactions would need to be done with a great deal of trust that the other side would deliver their part of the informational bargain.  However, if one side were to cease informational transfers it’s entirely reasonable that the other side, after some necessary 10-25 year delay, could cease such transfers as well.  Enforcement potential activities such as these could be used to keep the information flowing bi-directionally, and establish a foundation for economic trust.

Would 50 year old information be useful today?

Given technological change, knowing scientific discoveries that happened fifty years ago doesn’t seem valuable at first.  However, any colony would have resources and material capabilities significantly different than Earth, such differences would dictate the pursuit of other paths than what would necessarily occur on Earth.  Such independent developments, that shares some common but dated knowledge base, could easily generate information that either side would value.

Also, long duration transactions have existed in the past and seem somewhat similar to expeditions funded in the 15th through 18th centuries by nation-states of that time.  Most such expeditions took years to complete and very rarely returned material value but often returned with information about routes, cultures, and places they found along the way.  These expeditions all started out under government funding but over time as the value of such expeditions became less risky, stock companies arose which provided commercial, non-governmental funding.  Shareholders would profit from any positive returns from the journey.  Today, one can see some similarities to this in venture capital activities.

Other parallels to exo-earth colonies are shown by looking at the more economically closed societies on the Earth.  Any country/culture which just allows information to flow in with limited material out would look similar to a planet light years away.  For example, take Japan.  For centuries Japan has gathered information, culture and technology first from China and then the rest of the world but had a strong societal culture that assimilated such information and expanded on it.  However early on, substantive business transactions in material were nowhere near as significant. But over time, as Japan became more integrated into global society, they were able to materially advance the world economy.

Inter-planatory commerce will ultimately depend on long duration transactions and informational transfers.  As shown above, long duration transactions have had a lengthy and profitable history on Earth.  Additionally, informational assimilator societies have existed in Earth’s past that have significantly advanced world society albeit in both informational and material goods but the informational return alone was significant.  As such, we believe inter-planatory commerce based on information transfers alone can prove to be profitable for governments and farsighted/long-lived institutions or individuals.

Plenty of implications for all of this, not the least of which will SETI find other civilizations if those civilizations only talk to their business partners.  But I will leave that for another post.