What Would You Store to Maximize Value in 100 Years? A Thought Experiment

post by JohnGreer · 2021-05-17T20:46:18.933Z · LW · GW · 26 comments

This is cross-posted from my blog.

When I was a kid, I used to want to not take my action figures out of the packaging because I knew it would mess up the collector’s value of it.  After all, it might be worth a lot in the future! Beanie Babies, football cards, Pokemon cards - these were precious commodities to childhood John and to plenty of adults in the 90s.

How wrong I was. This is obviously not worth doing. You’d get more utility from just playing with them.


First, there’s the cost of storing the damn things for years taking up space in a tub in your attic. Second, it’s very unlikely they’ll be worth any real money in the future. For every one that’s worth hundreds of dollars, there are thousands that are only worth $5. You’ve likely paid hundreds of dollars for them in the first place. Now you have to do the work of listing and selling them, and you’ve made at best triple your money. The returns just aren’t worth it. If you just cared about making money, there are way better opportunities elsewhere (currently cryptocurrency).

If you wanted to store something that would be worth the most value in 100 years, what would you store?

Let’s say you had a budget of $50,000, or $100,000, or $1,000,000. 

The most straightforward thing to do is to store $100 bills. But will we use physical currency in a hundred years? Will we even use currency in a hundred years? Even if we still used USD, inflation would just depreciate its value. I doubt any of the cryptos today will be the main one used. Maybe they would be a collectible, though?

Gold, gems, and other precious metals are the most lindy but I don’t know how valuable they’ll still be besides their use in manufacturing. 

If I had to pick a precious metal to store, I’d probably pick rhodium which is going for a cool $16,650 to gold’s $1,907.10 and platinum’s $1,059.00. Funnily enough, in looking this up, I just learned platinum is currently worth less than gold. I always thought platinum was worth more than gold but apparently its price fluctuates more. It’s often worth more but not always.

You could store rare comic books or trading cards. Famous paintings. But if the world moves towards VR and such, then maybe people will care much less unless physical copies are still status items.

You could buy Action Comics #1 and hope the superhero franchises keep chugging along into the 22nd century, artistic merit be damned.

Or the T206 Honus Wagner and hope that the rise of blockchain esports cards don’t devalue it.

Certain types of art like famous paintings seem to store their value well but a lot of that might be due to money laundering and other nefarious purposes.

Unless you had a stupidly large budget, the famous expensive paintings are out of reach. You could buy a piece of art for under $1,000,000 but any art priced that low is unlikely to retain its value the way a super famous piece does.

It’s also important to consider actual rarity vs artificial rarity. Heroin is so expensive because it is currently illegal, not because it’s hard to manufacture. It’s smart to pick things that are intrinsically rare.

You’d also want things that are the least reliant on their value being dependent on trends. It's hard to predict trends, though.

It would have been hard to predict that elements critical to making computers would become important, or what would become a technology-critical element in the future. The past hundred years were harder to predict than the hundred before that and so on and so forth. Maybe one could have predicted something like LCDs would exist and they would need something like indium, but seems like a stretch to me.

You could pick the rarest stable elements that are likely to be useful, but the scarcity and cost could drop significantly if and when asteroid mining takes off. Actinium is one of the rarest stable elements but doesn’t have much current use. Transuranium elements are among the most expensive substances on earth. Weapons-grade plutonium costs around $4,000/gram and Californium costs more than $60,000,000/gram. Seems unlikely a non-billionaire could get Californium or some other element that is ridiculously difficult to produce. Plutonium would be interesting but it’d also be extremely difficult to acquire. It would also increase the risk to the receiver, and they would incur a cost to safely handle and/or dispose of it depending on future conditions. The half-life is also a problem but could be treated like standard depreciation, though.

Estimates of things running out are usually vastly over-pessimistic. And AGI would just figure out a way around needing what we ran out of.

Storing various types of IP would be interesting. Commission the artist/author you think would still be valued and have them produce a work that you think would be popular or valuable in the future. You can pray either they don’t get cancelled or cancel culture doesn’t last, haha. I can’t imagine an artist doing as good a job on something that wouldn’t be read by anyone for a century, but maybe they imagine everyone in the future opening it and don’t want to disappoint them. 

Maybe IP laws won’t be like they are now so people would be reticent to pay.

There are some weird expensive things like truffles or rhino horn. I don’t know how well truffles keep and they aren’t expensive enough. I hope the rhino horn alternative medicine bullshit doesn’t last into the 22nd century. Agarwood is a fragrant wood used in perfume and other good-smelling things. The highest quality stuff goes for $100,000 a kilogram. But the more virtual we become the less perfume we may use.

Every article cites antimatter as the most expensive substance. I don’t know how antimatter is stored but it seems like it falls into the Californium problem but way harder.

One thing that’s not on most lists is Botox which is apparently one of the most expensive substances. But its main uses will be over when we solve aging and disease. Also, it’s one of the most hazardous things to store and handle.

A smart strategy might be to combine some of these. Commission a piece of art by a prominent artist and have them make it out of rhodium, stick some gems on it, and store a Bitcoin wallet in it.

What I like about this thought experiment is it forces us to tease apart the different types of value, the reasons why things are valuable, and to note our predictions about the future.

Ultimately, if we hit a post-scarcity society, maybe “stores of value” will cease to be as meaningful.

Bonus: https://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-8677,00.html

There are some solid and cute ideas in this thread. Bless the people who said “cinema popcorn”, “printer ink”, and “wife in a divorce settlement”.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Dagon · 2021-05-17T22:51:14.060Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Value for whom?  Presuming I'm dead, this may come down to "maximize health and happiness of the remaining humans", which probably reduces to "follow GiveWell recommendations".  Without that presumption, every resource you have probably needs to go to your own longevity - the most valuable thing, to you, is you.

Keep in mind that, over large scales/timeframes, the concept of "ownership" gets fuzzy.  My favorite Steven Wright joke illustrates this: "I have the world's largest collection of seashells. I keep it on all the beaches of the world. Perhaps you've seen it."

Replies from: JohnGreer
comment by JohnGreer · 2021-05-18T04:53:18.949Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Re: value for who. It's a great point. If I was maximizing value for others, I'd probably go with AI safety.

Re: longevity. I'm right there with you. I wrote a whole series on it: https://www.johncgreer.com/the-three-buckets/

Re: fuzzy ownership. Yes, I think of things like the controversy with the British Museum's holdings.

The seashell joke is a good one! I'll have to look up his stuff.

comment by Robert Lynn (robert-lynn) · 2021-05-18T01:56:58.624Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: JohnGreer
comment by JohnGreer · 2021-05-18T05:03:45.316Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, definitely. I think rare elements are some of the safest bets.

comment by MSRayne · 2021-05-18T01:11:05.546Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is probably cheating since it's not a physical object, but there is one resource that will never cease to be valuable and worth "storing": reputation - your own, or that of your company or progeny if you're thinking particularly long term. If that's not a legal answer, then information, particularly about people's spending habits, is probably the next best thing - as the big tech companies are aware.

Replies from: JohnGreer
comment by JohnGreer · 2021-05-18T04:34:58.303Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like the out of the box answer! It'd be an interesting thought experiment of it's own to figure out how to best store reputation. I'm not sure how valuable 100 year old data about people's spending habits would be, though, except as a historical novelty.

Replies from: MSRayne
comment by MSRayne · 2021-05-18T23:00:11.273Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was thinking too short term with the spending habits. It's worth hoarding right now but probably not in a hundred years. Good point.

comment by 4thWayWastrel · 2021-05-18T00:16:00.094Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is stock in a managed vanguard index fund cheating 😅? I guess that's assuming vanguard will last to manage it and that there's no socialist style economic reform that makes owning companies less valuable.

Government bonds maybe?

Replies from: skot523, JohnGreer
comment by skot523 · 2021-05-18T03:58:34.986Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Assuming it has to actually be “physical”, I’d probaby buy some berkshire hathaway stock and pay to get the actual certificates sent. I’m not sure you could do the same for an etf or a mutual fund. Berkshire because 1: it is diversified, and 2: it doesn’t pay a dividend, which would be tricky if one has to have something physical.

Replies from: JohnGreer
comment by JohnGreer · 2021-05-18T04:41:25.343Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Berkshire Hathaway is another safe bet. It would be cool to get actual certificates too. Reminds me of old movies where people are robbing trains for bearer bonds.

comment by JohnGreer · 2021-05-18T04:40:20.373Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Vanguard isn't cheating, haha. I think it's one of the safest bets but it is so difficult to know what kind of government/economic systems will be around and negate the wealth.

Replies from: skot523
comment by skot523 · 2021-05-18T16:22:53.864Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If by “negate” you mean render irrelevant, very very low chance in my opinion. There will still be business, even if it’s just maintaining robots or peddling luxury goods. And you’ll have years of earnings compounding. And there’s REITs in indexes, they’re not making any more land anytime soon. Financial obligations are surprisingly sticky across regimes, Germany is still paying pensions for soldiers from world wars, and national debt from before the wars, too. What you’d really want to worry about with bonds is inflation. If we are talking pure finances, I’d buy VT with like 90% of the money, and put roughly 10% in crypto, especially crypto that you can stake and earn an income on

comment by skot523 · 2021-05-18T04:00:08.292Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I can’t do something lame like a stock, probably a basket of art, precious metals, and liquor/wine or cuban cigars. I think the alcohol bit is probably my best idea, as it actually improves in quality across time, not just in perceived scarcity. Even in post-scarcity, I find it hard to believe that people will flex with printed/conjured wine, we’ll all jockey for French 2020 wine or real old Kentucky bourbon while we sit around and smoke cigars all day. Of course it’ll actually be top tier racing horse jizz and we’ll all be kicking ourselves because it should have been so obvious.

I think the essence of the future pose scarcity value proposition is the signaling, especially of taste and status.

Replies from: JohnGreer
comment by JohnGreer · 2021-05-18T05:03:11.047Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You'd need quite the humidor to store the cigars that long, haha! I had a Cuban cigar once and couldn't tell the difference but I probably don't have the palette.

I wonder what the recreational drug scene will be like including tobacco and alcohol products -- if they'll still be popular. Wine is a good pick. I always think of one of my favorite Columbo episodes that features and winery owner who likes buying old and rare wines. 

Horse racing will probably be outlawed by then. 

Signaling post-scarcity does seem like one of the most resilient stores of wealth unless we figure out wireheading right and remove the need.

Replies from: skot523
comment by skot523 · 2021-05-18T16:04:47.245Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah I know absolutely nothing about cigars! You may well be right about horses, I’m just trying to think about rich-guy leisure activities. In a world of no work and a perfectly engineered environment, I imagine we’ll be doing a lot of sitting around, and God knows we’ll still care about status. Even if new printed wine or whisky is better, you’ll get a ton of credit for busting the old bottle out—it was never really about taste anyways.

comment by justin · 2021-05-18T16:01:02.636Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

100 years? So what will be valuable/interesting to a future AI or other transhuman intelligence? Maybe well-packed genetic material from highly endangered species. Most of them will probably have been preserved elsewhere, but if you have even one hit on a truly lost species, that would probably be of some value/interest to our future children.

Replies from: JohnGreer
comment by JohnGreer · 2021-05-18T19:52:55.268Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a cool idea! Plot of 2121's heist movie will be about robbing the San Diego Frozen Zoo

comment by maeril · 2021-05-18T13:05:34.694Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I’d say seeds. In my country, there currently are initiatives to keep ancient seeds alive, even though it is officially illegal to sell them (thanks, Mnsnto). They are the most precious things we have, in my opinion, as they mean both surviving a potential crisis and restoring the gradually decaying quality of produce yielded by hyper-modified species.

Replies from: JohnGreer
comment by JohnGreer · 2021-05-18T19:57:47.248Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, good idea! I wonder how much we'll end up needing stored seeds in the future or if we/AI will be able to mitigate any problems.

Is produce quality decaying? You mean where we maximize things like storage ability at the expense of flavor?

I want to visit the Svalbard Global Seed Vault sometime.

comment by tomNth · 2021-05-18T12:44:57.678Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The problem is guessing what future rich beings value , that we have.

Who knows if Provenance of artifacts (art or otherwise) matters to non Westerners of the future ?

A non physical value have to be both non generatable and worth to curious alien super intelligent beings.

Antiquities have information that can't be guessed and generated , and inform about the first natural intelligence being past.

Human minds before preservation is possible is an antique , an information ; even more then text or paintings.

Replies from: JohnGreer
comment by JohnGreer · 2021-05-18T19:55:34.494Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, it's really hard to predict what shifts will happen as we become more and more digital and advanced. Buying and selling human minds might be restricted, though. 

I wonder what antiquities will be the most valued.

comment by ejacob · 2021-05-18T07:17:35.538Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One could buy up s diverse portfolio of seeds of endangered plants/frozen embryos of endangered animals, focusing on ones with medicinal/industrial value or ecological importance.

Replies from: JohnGreer
comment by JohnGreer · 2021-05-18T19:54:13.338Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a cool idea! It'd be funny to have an index fund of the top n rare species. I wonder if anyone is doing/can do this now.

comment by JohnGreer · 2021-05-18T05:29:40.054Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, it's a good point -- people often ignore the storage costs.

I wonder what the future of antiques will be. 

The world of limited edition cars is interesting: https://www.jamesedition.com/stories/cars/the-vip-list-question-how-to-gain-access-to-a-limited-edition-supercar-1000117/

It's apparently discouraged to resell them: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aston_Martin_Valkyrie#Resale_policy

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-05-17T23:23:34.243Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: JohnGreer
comment by JohnGreer · 2021-05-18T05:49:50.210Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, authenticity matters so much. Original work is a good bet although I wonder where NFTs will bring things.

Re: financial fraud and art. It’s possible we will have AI that will stop that but it’s hard to say.

Yes, success stories in investing in art/collectibles seem like survivorship bias. There are probably ways to sift the wheat from the chaff but like startups, it seems really tough. You can follow the heuristics but even Y-Combinator’s success rate is still so low.

Do you think pre-NFT prints will still be a good bet?

Land is a good option. Technology would be interesting. 

I appreciate your analysis! Sounds like a Stradivarius in an ivory and pearl-studded case painted by David Hockney authenticated with film by Quentin Tarantino with the reel stored inside?

Do you collect art? What kind?

I’m curious what collectibles you would actually buy today!

Semi-related: Have you seen Velvet Buzzsaw?