The hundred Coca-Colas of post-brand capitalism

1.

Knowing nothing of the inextricable complexity of the human administration it was flying into, the fly entered through the vent of the workstation’s fan. It slipped into the depths of the circuitboard, causing a single-bit error in the index of the Reference Legal Archive. The intern in charge of proof-reading felt that something was different, but could not pinpoint exactly what. The fully automated computer system had corrected any inconsistency in paragraph numbering. When the updated text of the law was sent to all executive forces., nobody noticed that an entire section had been erased.

In Terry Gilliam’s 1975 film Brazil, a fly gets jammed in the apparatus of a dystopian bureaucratic administration, creating an error which serves as a starting point for the entire story. As our legal systems become increasingly bureaucratic and complicated, it is a fun exercise to think about what could happen if a small modification was randomly introduced into the law, as a mutation in the genome of society. Certain mutations would have no effect, some would lead to the rapid collapse of civilization, and, who knows, some might even be beneficial.

But there is one simple mutation – a deletion of single legal concept – that I believe has the potential to make our society much better in the long run. I am talking about trademarks, and I will explain why I think they should be abandoned. There has been a lot of debate about whether patents or copyright should be abolished, but even anti-patent and anti-copyright activists like the Pirate Party’s founder Rick Falkvinge or the GNU guru Richard Stallman think trademarks are a good thing. This is how far out the Overton Window we are going. Well, I don’t actually think that they should be just erased at once – I am aware that trademarks, by design or by accident, serve all kinds of roles in our current societies, so we couldn’t abolish them just like that, without carefully planning how these roles would be filled instead. But you already know the arguments in favor of the status quo. Rather, I am just going to present the radical idea of abolishing trademarks in a one-sided way, with the hope to make you question whether trademarks are as natural, necessary and optimal as they appear to people who are used to them.

2.

Thank you for coming to this emergency meeting. As you may know, we are facing a problem without precedent. Since this morning, a second Coca-Cola company has entered the market. The first batches are already reaching retail stores as I’m talking.
– A second Coca-Cola company? How so?
– Another Coca-Cola. The same as ours. Identical product, same packaging, same logo. It is just not produced by our company.
– Well, we sue them for trademark infringement, like we always do!
– This is where it gets complicated. Apparently the administration made a mistake when converting the official version of law to some obscure new technical standard. They said it was a computer bug or something, nobody knows. But the entire section about trademarks completely vanished from the law. At the moment, there is nothing we can do legally to protect our brand.
– You’re saying trademarks disappeared just like that? What the hell, don’t they have backups of the law somewhere?
– Of course they do, but you can’t just revert the law of the country to a previous version like that. That would be antidemocratic. As per constitution, the state will only enforce the standard version of the law from the Reference Legal Archive, and any correction will have to be voted. It might take weeks.

I know the fly scenario is highly implausible in real life, but take that as a thought experiment. Let’s suspend our disbelief and assume, for the sake of the story, that all laws related to trademarks suddenly disappeared. In other words, anybody can brand their product as they want, and counterfeits are basically legal. That does not mean one can write whatever they want on the packaging – required information like ingredients, contact info or quantity are still enforced as always –, but the brand is no longer protected. Anybody can start manufacturing Coca-Cola and call it Coca-Cola.

3.

– The marketing department just got the results from panel testing. “The One and Only Coca-Cola” did pretty bad, only 20% of the panel picked it. “The Original Coca-Cola” works much better. People are confident that we are the original one if we write that on the label.
– But we are
not the original Coca-Cola, are we?
– As far as the law is concerned, we are.
– Oh right. What about the holograms?
– Bigger is better. I mean, I don’t want this to escalate out of control, but it’s increasingly clear that people are just choosing whatever package carries the largest hologram. So we designed a new, 12 cm-wide hologram. The largest on the market. Not even “Best Coca-Cola” have such big holograms.
– Actually, they’re no longer called “Best Coca-Cola”. If I remember correctly, they changed their name to “The Original Coca-Cola” last week.

1970 anti-war poster, Berkeley university

This might go on for a while. Eventually, the original companies have to face the hard truth – their brands only existed as long as the State was willing to protect them. Without them, they are just one manufacturer among many others selling the same product under the same name.

But what if it is not the same product? One company might seize the opportunity to sacrifice quality and cut down the costs. To quote Rick Falkvinge: “Trademarks are basically good, as they primarily serve as consumer protection. If it says “Coca-Cola” on the can, I know that The Coca-Cola Company guarantees its quality.” I personally doubt this, and my doubts are supported by blind tests where participants taste food without knowing the brand1“Our conclusion is that brand image is the only explanation for the premium commanded by the supplier brands in the four food product markets. The consumer is paying a premium for the often intangible benefits inherent in a branded product. Only in washing-up liquid did the leading brand offer better intrinsically superior value for money.” – Davies et al., 2004..

Moreover, it’s important to separate the effect of trademarks themselves, from the effect of other regulations. As a case study, let’s look at counterfeit medicines. This is obviously a rampant problem, with about half of the pills sold online being fakes and many people dying because of it. But trademark infringement is not the root of the problem here. The factories who make counterfeit medication break the law in two different ways: first, they infringe a trademark, second, they deliver pills that do not contain the chemical mentioned on the label (or not in the right concentration). The danger of counterfeit medication comes from the latter, and has nothing to do with the trademark. Without trademarks, copycats could copy the name, the logo and the slogans, but they still couldn’t lie about the content or cGMP-compliance, which would still be enforced by law. The reputation of brands could be fully replaced by product certification, where an independent organism delivers a label if the products meets a certain standard, as it already exist for environmental impact, ethics, health, compliance to religious traditions and so forth. There are even certifications that certify certification bodies’ certification procedures. Or, you know, if everything else fails, you can just go for the cheapest product.

Of course, at this point, there are many objections that you can make about how the standards for product certification would work without trademarks. They definitely require some level of legal protection, otherwise anybody could just copy the name and logo of an existent certification but with more lenient criteria, and award it to themselves. But they shouldn’t be protected too much either, otherwise any company could have their own standard that says “manufactured in our factory at [address]” and we just re-invented trademarks. Hopefully, there is a middle ground somewhere, where labels are unique and meaningful, yet flexible enough so they can be fulfilled by any competitor entering the market. That is not going to be a clean and elegant solution, but trademarks were never clean and elegant either. If trademarks did not exist and I was arguing for introducing them, one could also come up with many loopholes and objections: what if your actual last name is McDonald and you want to start a fast-food chain? Should trademarks be transferable to other people and if so, how does that not defeat the purpose of trademarks? If not, what happens when Sir Coca-Cola, First of His Name passes away? What if I start a company called “Coca-CoIa”, where the 7th letter is a capital i instead of an L? Can I trademark an image, a sound, a smell, a taste? In practice, these issues are fixed using a ton of specific laws and jurisprudence, that legal experts must navigate to tell what is ok and what is not. Likewise, without trademarks, a new legal framework would be necessary for product certification to actually work. But why would we even get rid of trademarks?

4.

Something in the city was not the same. You would just walk to work, as you’d been doing everyday for years, but you kept noticing things that you had never paid attention to before. A pigeon nest, a 19th century street lamp, a tree, a wrought iron balcony, the stamped pattern of a manhole. All these things had been here forever, but you could not see them, because the flashing advertisement billboards would catch all your attention.

The Eiffel Tower used as a billboard, 1925-1934. Wikimedia Commons

Without trademarks, there is no point in advertising your brand, since anyone else could just use the same brand and benefit from your advertisement. And this is fortunate, because advertising is the ultimate form of evil. I talked before about how the Chinese government buys “sponsored content” in western journals to print propaganda disguised as legitimate articles. In 2016, as the New York Times distanced themselves from the less-reputable “fake news” media, they realized painfully that their own website was displaying its own fake news in the form of advertisement – like announcing the death of a celebrity who was still alive. In their classic book Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky describe how journals that rely on advertisement are pressured into printing things that favor the advertiser. That’s not to mention the attention cost of constant interruption, the mass surveillance necessary for “behavioral” advertising, the waste produced by junkmail, or the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes by commercials (although causality is contested). Without trademark protection, most of this would spontaneously disappear, making the world a much better place.

Can we really live without advertisement? The best natural experiment comes from Brazil. In 2006, the city of Saõ Paulo enacted a law called Cidade Limpa, prohibiting all outdoor billboard advertisement. In a survey more than 10 years later, the citizens had no regrets, and the majority of them wanted to keep the ban in place. Other cities have made similar (albeit milder) attempts. Of course, these legal bans might sound a tiny bit authoritarian, and one can wonder where is the safeguard between banning ads and censoring speech. In addition, these policies are not that radically effective – in São Paulo, advertisement started to appear again after a few years, in more convoluted forms, stealthily integrating itself into urban furniture. Abolishing trademarks, on the other hand, would circumvent these problems and cut brand advertisement from its roots. No ban has to be enforced – in fact, it’s not about enforcing a new law, but stopping enforcement of an old law. We remove a little piece of coercion from the state, the police no longer comes when someone infringes a trademark, and the entire advertising industry becomes unprofitable. The most brilliant computer scientists in the world can go back to doing useful things, instead of building machine-learning models for consumer tracking and targeted marketing.

5.

“Help us bring the best content to you, for free”. The old advertisement-based media started a massive communication campaign to persuade citizens to vote trademarks back into the law. Yet, people just had a glimpse of an ad-free society, and many wondered whether they really missed the advertising giants so much.

Needless to say, all the big companies that rely on advertisement for funding would be in immediate danger. Some might try to defend the advertising industry by claiming it allows to obtain things for free. You get free search engines, free bus stops, free newspapers, what is there to complain about? This is a gargantuan scam. Let’s investigate. Internet companies like Twitter, Facebook or Google use advertisement as their primary source of revenue. This includes directly displaying ads to the consumer, as well as accumulating information about their users to sell it to third-parties. In turn, this process manipulates consumers into buying products they wouldn’t otherwise. In effect, advertisement makes you pay a premium on everyday products, and that is where the money comes from. How much is that? In the third quarter of 2020, Facebook made a bit more than $10 billions from North America only. Divide this by 255 millions users that are active monthly, you get $40 per user per quarter, that is $120 per year. And that’s the average for monthly users. If you go to Facebook daily, it will be much more. A similar calculation for Twitter gives about $20 per user and per year worldwide (like for Facebook, it may be much more if you live in a rich country). Google doesn’t disclose how many users they have, but given their worldwide revenues exceeded $160 billions in 2019, even if every 7.8 billions humans on Earth used Google (this is a lower bound) that would still be about $20 per person. Of course, it must be something like an order of magnitude higher if Google also provides your e-mails, document storage, maps, browser and so forth. Oh, and JCDecaux, the arch-evil Great Satan of public space advertising, made €3.9 billions in 2019. Now make a list of all the “free stuff” you get in your daily life (other free websites, applications, TV commercials, movie theater advertisements, sponsored content, …) and calculate the grand total. That’s an expensive free lunch.

Keep in mind this is only a fraction of the real cost of advertisement, since the companies who buy ads or data from Google et al are expecting a positive return on investment. The amount they give to advertising companies is only a lower bound to the premium they can trick consumers into paying. For example, Google claims that people who advertise with them get an average return on investment of 8-to-1. If that is true, what we previously estimated using Google’s revenues must be multiplied by eight to obtain the real cost for the consumer.

Even worse, competitors on a market are engaged in a Moloch-esque red queen race, where each company must spend more and more money on marketing just to stay in the game. Where do all these wasted resources come from, if not from the consumer’s pocket? Without advertisement, I’d speculate that companies would resort to the next best strategy instead, that is cutting prices. Hopefully, the large premium people pay for marketing would be subtracted from the price of day-to-day products.

Finally, for those who still think Internet ads are good because they support the creative class, remember that only a fraction of what you pay goes to the authors, and you would be better off with something like Patreon. As for server costs, a centralized service like Youtube might resort to paid subscription, in which case they would have to compete with decentralized, p2p-based alternatives like PeerTube which may turn out a lot cheaper. Also, when we talk about Internet Giants, we often forget that one of them never relied on ads in the first place – Wikipedia has run entirely on donations for two decades, and they did better than Google’s own attempt at making an encyclopedia.

6.

It was a passive revolution – no plutocrat was be bereft, no king was beheaded, no parliament was burnt, no landowner was expropriated. Removing a tiny piece of legal coercion made the entire society less coercive.

In their modern form, trademarks are about 150 years old2Sumerian merchants were already marking stuff with their seals some 5000 years ago, but this worked in a pretty different way and I don’t think those merchant marks were protected by the State.. This is just old enough so nobody remembers how things worked before trademarks, and we accept them as a part of nature that’s been here forever. 150 years old is also just young enough so the long-term efffects of trademarks have not been thoroughly tested and selected for by cultural evolution. If you want to overthrow a 3000-years old tradition, you should remember Chesterton’s fence and think carefully about why it’s there and why it remained in place for so long. But 150 years old? That could just be a temporary mistake.

Do you think this guy owns a trademark? Probably not. After all, he’s an actor posing for stock photos.

Omnipresent advertising is one of the things that did not go so well in our modern capitalist society. Another one is the emergence of a handful of aristocrats with an astronomical amount of financial power. These commercial empires are, to a large extent, built on the salience of their brands, itself built on advertisement, itself built on trademarks. Once we see trademarks not as something natural and necessary, but as a legal mistake of the 19th century, those empires appear to be built on very artificial foundations. If we removed them, the plutocrats would be forced to adapt, or lose their fortune. On the other side, the fall of brands would be a blessing for individual artisans and local shops. They did not rely on trademarks anyways, and they can use the now-cheap advertisement space to get known from local customers. Nevertheless, as soon as one of them grows big enough to try to advertise their brand, copycats would appear and make the brand useless. Like a rubber band, this would pull companies back to the human scale. Somehow, this echoes a point Guy Debord makes in La Société du Spectacle: “With the generalized separation of the worker and his products, every unitary view of accomplished activity and all direct personal communication among producers are lost.” A bottle of Coca-Cola is a calibrated, standard, almost abstract entity that contains no trace of the individuals who were involved in its production. While Debord sees this as an essential feature of capitalism, I would say that it’s rather a feature of brands, which act as an abstraction layer between the chain of production and the consumers.

Let’s speculate even further. Building a brand and making sure the public knows about it is a major obstacle for new companies. In post-brand capitalism, it may be much easier for newcomers to enter the market. Any company making products with good certifications, for a low enough price could readily compete with the most established industrial trusts. Monopolies would be much harder to establish, and even if someone actually manages to reach a monopoly on something, they could not make a lot of additional profit out of it because some unknown player could just enter the market under the same name as soon as they increase their prices too much. In the long run, economic inequality might even erode a little bit. That’s not too say you can’t bereave the plutocrats in addition to abolishing trademarks, if you are into this kind of things.

7.

I guess it is time for a reality check. First, there is the problem that brand abolition is not exactly the most viable political project. That’s because the people who benefit from advertisement are precisely the ones who are in the best position to define public opinion. It might not be easy to remove something that directly benefits journalists, news sites and search engines.

Second, the obvious: if the government actually decides to store the entire law on a single computer, and if a fly actually does crash into the motherboard and erase everything about trademarks, the world would not instantly become a post-brand utopia – there would most likely be a lot of turmoil and violence and chaos and everybody would be upset at me. If this happens, you are welcome to complain in the comments. That is, if you can find the real Telescopic Turnip among the hundred copycats.

The Great Happiness Filter

I.

The universe is full of wandering celestial bodies covered in complex, superintelligent lifeforms who engage in eternal masturbation.

That’s it. That’s the Great Happiness Filter.

II.

This idea has been discussed before, but it strikes me that people still struggle to find other solutions to the Fermi paradox, as if the Great Happiness Filter was not already explaining everything. Sure, synthetic biology going out of control, AI going out of control, cosmic superpredators going out of control, Earth-is-a-zoo, all make great film plots. But that is what they are: great film plots. We hear about them because they are on display in sci-fi films and books. You know what Great Filter hypothesis would make a terribly boring film? Aliens sitting in the dark with a wire plugged straight to the happiness center of their brains, doing nothing, while a combination of robots and nuclear fusion takes care of all the logistics1An earlier version of this post was about stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain. But stimulating happiness should work just as well (just replace dopamine with serotonine, something along this line). It also makes the idea a bit scarier, for some reason.. All they have to do is figure out which neurotransmitters and which parts of the brain are involved in the “I’m happy” sensation, and find a way to stimulate it. Save your philosophical arguments about whether they are really happy or if they just have the illusion of being happy, it does not matter for the following.

You might object, this is not optimal, eventually they will run out of whatever fuel they are using, or their sun will turn into a red giant, so they should still try to expand and obtain more energy. As Robin Hanson puts it:

After all, even navel-gazing virtual reality addicts will likely want more and more mass and energy (really negentropy) to build and run better computers, and should want to spread out to mitigate local disasters.

This rests on the assumption that intelligent civilizations will necessarily try to fully optimize masturbation. They won’t. Compare this to heroin addiction: all things considered, heroin addiction is far from being the ultimate hedonistic experience (quite the opposite), yet many people still get trapped into it. You don’t see heroin-addicts building Dyson spheres to make sure they have a sustainable feed of high-quality heroin forever in the future. This also applies to masturbation. For the Great Happiness Filter to occur, you don’t need a perfect self-sustaining planetary masturbation system. You just need to reach the threshold were masturbation is just the right amount of good, so it’s not worth working to fix the flaws of your current masturbation scheme, because you would need to stop masturbating in order to do that. Past this threshold, intelligent lifeforms will not try to improve their masturbatory experience anymore, and will just chose to masturbate instead. Maybe there will be a warning, like as little red icon on the lifeform’s internal brainscreen that will say “warning: your fusion reactors have almost turned everything into iron already, please plug the system to a new planet”, but who cares at that point? You can just ignore the warning and enjoy maximal sensation of fulfillment and satisfaction. This is basically a sink point.

III.

The real difficulty with the Great Happiness Filter is the order in which the relevant technologies are discovered. If robotic servants and artificial general intelligence are developed before happiness-pods, then there is a chance that we get to stay in the pod while a robotic butler continues to improve the experience on our behalf. In that case, we are back to the Fermi paradox and space colonialism, because our butlers will try to maximize the energy we can spend on happiness-pods. Eventually, our civilization’s masturbation-maximizers might conflict with other civilizations’ paperclips-maximizers (not all civilizations can be as wise as ours), leading to cosmic-scale battles. On the other end, it is likely that happiness-pods are available to everyone before we get the appropriate energy source to sustain them. In that case, the intelligent lifeform will quickly go broke and possibly go extinct (as if the entire humanity got addicted to heroin at once). But between these two extremes, there is a large sweet stable spot where there is enough automation to power the happiness-pods and make sure everything is running well, but not enough to expand and reach for new planets. As a result, we get plenty of silent planets covered in happy masturbating lifeforms, traveling through space at speeds beyond imagination. Remember this when you look at the stars.

90% true: Agriculture from the Future

This post is only 90% true. Among these ten items, one was deliberately made-up. Each items includes links to sources, so you can easily check if they are true. Can you find the fake item? (More information about the series here.)

  1. Insect-resistant, genetically-modified maize have been cultivated in Spain and Portugal for more than twenty years. A 2019 study analyzed the environmental effects: aside from the obvious decrease in pesticide pollution and water savings, there was a measurable drop in greenhouse-gas emissions. This is because diesel-powered tractors were no longer needed to spray the insecticides. The downside of insect-resistant GMOs is that new pests will eventually emerge after a few decades, just like they do with chemical pesticides. Biotechnology could also have an impact on climate change in a more direct manner – for example, engineering the gut microbiota of cows to minimize the production of methane by cattle, or genetically modifying poplars for wood production so they no longer release isoprene, a pollutant that increases the air concentration of ozone and methane.
  2. You might think that millions of years of evolution would have fully optimized photosynthesis, but it is not quite the case. Many crops are much less efficient than what would be possible in theory. Multiple genetic strategies are possible to increase the yield of crops, for example to increase their carbohydrate production. In soybeans, rice and wheat, the process of photorespiration diverts part of the energy obtained from photosynthesis. Using tobacco plants as a model, researchers were able to increase biomass by more than 20% in field trials, just by optimizing the expression levels of various photosynthetic components.
  3. Improving the nutritional qualities of crops through genetic modification is also promising, especially in third-world countries were malnutrition is rampant. The “golden rice”, a variant of rice with a high level of vitamin A was developed more than fifteen years ago. So far, it has not been widely adopted (in part due to efforts from Greenpeace to undermine it). More recently, by enhancing cassava with an iron transporter and the iron-storage protein ferritin, it was possible to increase the plant’s iron and zinc content by about ten-fold.
  4. Even without genetic modification, the fruits and vegetables we eat are very different from what is found in nature, owing to centuries of breeding. This is visible in still-life paintings from the Renaissance where fruits are on display. If you are wondering what vegetables looked like in their natural, not-genetically-modified forms, here are pictures of wild-type bananas, wild-type corn, and wild-type carrots1This last links points to a website called World Carrot Museum, with the tagline “discover the power of carrots”. That might not be an academic source, but I am sure we can trust them for all our carrot questions..
  5. Since humans started agriculture thousands of years ago, the selection of plants by breeding has completely changed our food habits. This, in turn, put an evolutionary selection pressure on humans themselves. The textbook example is lactase persistence, when the domestication of cows gave a great advantage to humans who could digest cow milk. Now, according to some research, modern humans have evolved some kind of dependency to selected plants. That is, if all the domesticated plants were to suddenly go back to their wild state, most humans would have trouble finding food they can digest.
  6. Starting in the 1950s, exposing crops to radiation became a popular way to generate new mutant varieties. The typical “gamma garden” design involves a circular field with a Cobalt-60 gamma ray source in the middle. This way, seeds are exposed to a gradient of radioactivity – the plants near the center usually die, the peripheral plants are unaltered, and interesting things can happen in the intermediate range. Needless to say, gamma rays produce mutations all over the genome, and large chromosomal rearrangements are frequently observed. Despite being much messier than genetic modification techniques like CRISPR, plants obtained through “atomic gardening” are not legally considered GMOs. They may even be accepted in organic food.
  7. There are no Terminator seeds. The legend goes that some greedy GMO company sold seeds that would turn sterile after the first generation, so that farmers could not sow them and would have to buy it again from the company every year. The underlying technology does exist, but it was never used in any commercialized product. That being said, farmers buying new seeds every year is nothing new (and not restricted to GMOs): for decades they have relied on hybrids from inbred plants, which have desirable properties but can be sowed only once since their offspring would be too heterogeneous.
  8. Local production has become an important criterion for consumers. Somehow, people are starting to realize there might be something wrong about shipping fruits and vegetables from the other side of the planet. In general, the more local, the greener. But there is a loophole: not all places are equally fertile. According to a study from 2020, only one third of the world population could sustainably feed on food produced in a radius of 100 km. In some cases, outsourcing food production to more fertile grounds could allow to spare land (i.e. growing forests), which is a good way to sequester GHG. In fact, a recent paper advocated for combining high-yield farming in some spots with land-sparing in other spots, as the optimal strategy for environment-friendly agriculture.
  9. According to large surveys of representative samples in the USA, France and Germany, extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most (this is one of the best titles for a scientific article).
  10. Like cellphones, micro-wave ovens and every other new technology, GMOs have been accused of causing cancer2For some reason, it’s always cancer. I have never met anybody who feared GMOs would cause pica or Capgras syndrome, although that would be pretty funny.. And technically speaking, yes, they do – but just as much as regular food. Carcinogenic substances can be found in small amounts in all kinds of food, e.g. in red meat, cereals, apple juice3In most cases, the amount is negligibly small. The only association that I would take seriously is red meat.… In fact, it is even possible to engineer plants so that they protect against cancer, like this broccoli.

Could you find the false item? If you have doubts, feel free to discuss about it in the comment section.