What is Ephemeralization and Why it Matters
In 1956, IBM offered its RAMAC 105 digital storage system. It was the size of two refrigerators and cost about $1.4M in 2014 dollars. It held an industry-leading 5MB of storage on its 50, 24″ platters. 25 years later, the Seagate Corporation introduced the ST-506, the first 5.25″ disk storage drive. It could fit on your desk, stored the same 5MB of storage as the IBM and cost a mere $4500 in 2014 dollars. A minute ago, I searched Amazon and found a SanDisk 32GB thumb drive; it’s smaller than a lighter and cost $18.35, which includes free shipping through Prime. The respective price per gigabyte for each unit in 2014 dollars is $286M, $307K and $.57.
The evaporating cost and size of digital storage exemplifies (at least) two principles. The first–the one you’re probably thinking of–is Moore’s Law, which posits that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. This compounded rate of technological progress is how we are able to fit computers in our pockets that are more powerful than ones that used to require warehouses.
The other principle is called ephemeralization, a term coined by Buckminster Fuller. He believed that technological advancement would one day allow humans to do “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.”
Ephemeralization is relatively easy to grasp with digital technology, where the mass and volume of hardware has gotten increasing small, while the computational capabilities have gotten gigantic. To better understand how it applies to other realms, we suggest checking out the above video by dMass, an organization that sees “enormous potential for businesses to leverage innovation to deliver more benefits to more people with fewer resources–to do better with less on a large scale,” according to their website. They seek to take Bucky’s ideas and apply them to best business practices, something that pays significant economic and environmental dividends.
The dMass video’s narrator Howard J Brown recounts the story of the bridge, which Bucky would use to illustrate how ephemeralization works. The first bridge was a huge amount of rocks placed in a river to span the divide from one bank to another. When the rocks stopped the flow of water, early humans put a hole in the wall of rocks, leading to fewer materials to span the same divide (i.e. wall minus rocks that occupied hole). When those rocks fell down, they optimized the opening by creating an arch (still fewer rocks). People refined the arch until it required fewer and fewer materials to support a bridge’s weight. There was a continual refinement and evolution up to the modern suspension bridge, which uses a fraction of the relative materials of the stone-filled river, yet is infinitely more capable of spanning divides and bearing weight. Bucky said that eventually you could even do away with the wires and all other forms of mass to make a bridge. He would point to the invisible tether between the earth and moon–the two bodies have a perfect, but formless, massless tension and compression holding them together. Why couldn’t everything be like that?
In the video, Brown says that ephemeralization can be applied everywhere. Whereas computer progress has moved along with great rapidity, other things like home building are more or less carried out the same way they were 100 years ago from a resource management standpoint.
While the phenomenon of ephemeralization is particularly relevant with industrial design, dMass’s co-founder and CEO Kathryn Lewis told us that ephemeralization is affecting the public through things like the maker movement, where “individuals will increasingly exert greater control over the resources and inputs that deliver benefits.” She sees people being able to create a “hyper-customized lifestyle that offers the potential to do better with less.”
She went on to say things like “open source information distribution, the sharing economy, crowdsourcing, modularity, and the trend toward multifunctional goods, and onsite resource recapture” exemplify how ephemeralization are playing out in our lives in concrete ways. Think about it: one shared car might serve ten people, reducing material needs ninefold from individual car ownership; or one transforming bed/sofa might convert a bedroom into an office, reducing the materials needs required to have two separate rooms.
While living with less sometimes means doing without, at a certain point even the most ardent minimalist is confronted with inescapable material needs. Ephemeralization is a way of approaching those needs, seeing how the things we have do achieve the most using the least amount of resources.