Contrary to the Popular Believe, Resources Are Infinite

Infinity isn’t only making infinitely more of something.

Adam Reich
4 min readMay 7, 2023
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Around 1453, Johannes Gutenberg created the printing press. He could fit a whole book into a book. He could also reprint it.

About 550 years later, some other enlightened individual(s) created a USB stick. 4GB. About the size of a thumb. You could fit there about 1300 books. And provided you have a functioning computer and a printer, you could also read them and print them.

10 years after that, the amount of information you could fit within the same thumb-sized storage device doubled every two years.

The cost of information

I learned those first three paragraphs from Wikipedia (the unprinted encyclopedia), I’m not an information expert. But I do remember phones the size and robustness of a brick, and the internet doing strange beeping noises as it dialled through the landline. And I read books both on my phone and from actual books. I don’t like passive consumerism, but I like stuff that makes the impossible possible while looking cool.

You can fit more information into less space and at the same time, you can manufacture that space cheaper. In 2000, 1GB of memory in a USB stick would cost you $8000. In 2023 it’s $0.94. Accounted for inflation, $0.94 would be around $30 in 2000 — still a good deal. You may argue that we’re just better at exploiting nature and human rights. Maybe. If I can sustainably exploit something or someone while increasing living standards, is it still bad? I think we’re better at reorganizing atoms and making people work smarter, not harder. Is that bad?

Material limits

We (the collective humanity) are still operating on the same planet Gutenberg used to operate, with pretty much the same amount of resources, we are just getting better at using the resources to make more with less. With all of Gutenberg’s ingenuity, he could only make so many printing presses before running out of the resources to make them. We can do way more printing presses because we can utilize our resources more efficiently.

Gutenberg was limited to copper (for letter plates), timber (for press frame), and other minor resources to build his printing press. He was also limited to the network of other smart people he could consult ideas with.

Whereas the moder printing press builider would be limited to a large number of alloys for plates, and pure timber, glued timber, a huge range of hydrocarbons, and metals for the frame. But the best thing is, humans innovated the whole process of the printing press to use lasers or just digital copies without the need to print at all, because we figured out a way to collaborate more efficiently than 550 years ago. Humanity’s current technology allows the delivery of a huge number of books to a huge number of people — something that would 550 years ago seem like a near-infinite number of people.

Infinity isn’t only making infinitively more of something. It’s also fitting infinitively many things into a finite system — like the Zeno’s paradox.

I haven’t spoken with Gutenberg (yet), but my guess is, despite being creative and imaginative, his worldview was constrained by the knowledge of his time. He saw impossibility in things that are ordinary for us. What would be for Gutenberg a very very very long time, say, sending a note to a stranger on the other side of the planet, is for me done in a matter of seconds. The world’s resources seem finite, but human ingenuity (and its counterpart stupidity) to reorganize the resources seems limitless.

Immagination is infinite

One way of looking at the world is as a closed system with finite resources. That’s certainly true. I’m not claiming we can break the laws of physics. Another way of looking is that there are near-to-infinity many ways how to rearrange finite resources. Today’s garbage may be tomorrow’s gold.

A twelve-year-old girl, a distant cousin of Gutenberg, say, uses AI to design a 3D printer to print microorganisms that eat plastic and crap gold. I don’t know — it’s not impossible. I’m not a scientist, I’m a builder, but even I see emerging new construction materials and new ways of building. I’m excited about the possibility that one day I could use genetically engineered bamboo to grow house frames, use spider thread-reinforced mycelium instead of brick and mortar walls, and grow chitin roofs.

The beauty of innovation is that we can make what we can imagine. The resources seem finite if you imagine that only what we currently call resources are the only resources. Circular economies prove that resources can be pretty much anything if you find something that can eat it. Biochar can capture carbon and fertilize lands. Bees vomit and we eat it. Dinosaurs die and cars love to drink it. Someone is right now thinking how to turn all the microplastic in oceans into a bussines.

Infinity isn’t just a material property. It’s also immaterial property. The cynic in me sees that we are still primitive creatures that can barely understand what drives us. The dreamer in me sees that we’re doing some impressive stuff. I’ll side with the dreamer, this time.