Issue #4: work

Prosperity paradox

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by Tim Dean on June 21, 2014

Picture for a moment a world where technological innovation and industrial automation have finally brought us an era of unprecedented material prosperity. Picture it powered by virtually limitless clean energy, perhaps derived from massive orbital solar arrays or from terrestrial nuclear fusion reactors. With abundant cheap power on tap, a society can achieve prodigious feats. The atmosphere can be scrubbed of excess carbon dioxide. Seawater can be made drinkable. Food can be grown anywhere. Recycling becomes ubiquitous.

Picture a world built from resources harvested from asteroids, the Moon or even other planets. Where we presently scratch the surface of our own world, we could dig deep on others and make even the most precious metals and gasses common. Virtually limitless energy also means that alchemy becomes a reality as we readily transmute one element into another.

Picture a new industrial revolution driven by nanotechnology, 3D printing or matter replicators. Virtually anything that can be rendered on a computer screen can be assembled on spec, on demand and on location – even in the home. And without the need to ship goods across land and sea, our roads and waterways become freed up for leisure rather than commercial traffic. Even objects of vast complexity or sophistication constructed in this way become so inexpensive that it’s not worth putting a price on them.

Picture computing power continuing on its present exponential path. Artificial intelligences of many kinds become embedded into all manner of objects. Our world becomes smart everywhere. Robots in myriad forms handle virtually any physical task. They become appliances, labourers, companions, experts and trusted professionals.

Picture a hyper welfare state, where the government doles out to every citizen a generous annual stipend, perhaps metered in energy rather than currency. These gigajoules are more than sufficient to sustain an individual in a state of wealth over their lifetime. Picture a world where every material need is satisfied, where there is no hunger or starvation, no homelessness, no pollution, no waste and any object you desire is at the push of a button.

In such a world, human labour is largely unnecessary. There are precious few tasks that require human intervention. Even politics is mostly automated, as one of the prime functions of government – to manage the equitable distribution of scarce resources – has been rendered trivial by boundless prosperity. And economists become little more than historians and theoreticians as their discipline withers from a lack of material want.

In this post-scarcity world, what would we do with our time? The economy no longer requires us to toil for its benefit. Work has become optional. So would we work at all? Would we focus our energies on personal betterment? Would we devote our time to learning, to the arts, to philosophy? Would we pursue collective feats of greatness, such as exploring the cosmos? Or would we pursue more base ends such as chasing sensory stimulation, sex and status?

At the apex of economic achievement, we enter a black hole where all the laws and forces that drive our society and compel our action cease to function. We have worked for millennia just to survive. Then we worked for centuries to prosper. But once we reach a point where we have vanquished scarcity, no one knows quite what we’ll do.

Probably one of the few things that John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx agreed upon is that when a society can eliminate scarcity and satisfy all our material needs, when humanity is finally liberated from toil and want, we would at last be freed to pursue the “higher pleasures”. Instead of chasing our base urges, driven by a deep-rooted instinct to survive and get ahead in a ruthless world dominated by scarcity, we would instead seek more elevated ends: we would embrace intellectual, philosophical and artistic pursuits, and devote our time to self-enrichment.

We can only fantasise about what prodigious creative feats a population freed from work could achieve. Every aspiring artist, musician or poet who in times past would have sidelined their calling in order to lock down a desk job could devote their entire life to their passion, free from fear of poverty or distraction. Schools and universities could be filled with those eager to absorb and create knowledge up until the day they die. The media could become a vehicle for enrichment rather than an escape from the drudgery of earning a crust.

Maybe people might want to work, even if they didn’t have to. Aristotle observed that fulfilment doesn’t come from passive consumption alone. He saw that it involves activity and is found in striving for excellence. As much as we have a primal desire to soak up pleasure, we also have a compulsion to meet and overcome challenges. Marx also saw work – of the right kind – as one avenue to find fulfilment that cannot be found in consumption alone. Work in and of itself can be intrinsically valuable.

But where would that work come from? Self-established goals are all too easily overridden when necessity – the mother of compulsion – is eliminated. Yet in a world of abundance there are simply no more “jobs.” This is the stark reality that has faced countless workers made redundant by the march of technology. It could one day face us all. Whatever it is you contributed to the economy, there will be a machine, a robot, a computer or a nanotechnology assembled device that can do it better and cheaper than you can. You’ll no longer be needed.

Then again, we can also readily imagine what vulgar feats a population wallowing in opulence and freed from the responsibilities of work might achieve. Mill, Marx and Aristotle may have grossly overestimated the inclinations of our species of hairless ape towards enrichment and endeavour, and underestimated our propensity to pursue sensory titillation and passive consumption. Hedonism is in our genes, after all.

A world of material abundance is also not a world entirely without want. There are some goods that are eternally scarce, whether limited by the strictures of space and time – such as the number of hours in a day or the number of houses that can fit on a coastline – or by competitive escalation. Status, attention and respect are forever in short supply.

Perhaps a post-scarcity world will see our energies turn from chasing material wealth to chasing fleeting intangibles. Imagine a universal high school playground of status envy, cliques, rivalries, sexual competition and popularity contests. Without the prospect of work to occupy us we may come to toil just to keep our heads above the churning waters of other peoples’ judgements and expectations.

We don’t even need nuclear fusion and nanotechnology to start to feel the effects of a post-scarcity society. We are beginning to catch a whiff of its turbulent winds today. We are already fantastically wealthy compared to most humans who have ever lived, at least in material terms. Technology and industrial automation have already consumed countless jobs. Productivity and manufacturing output are at historically high levels, and rising.

The last great recession in developed countries was precipitated not by a scarcity of supply but rather a deficit of demand; we had enough stuff, just not enough people to buy it. Strain as they might, not even advertising and cheap credit has been able to stimulate enough demand to keep us consuming as much as our economies of oversupply want.

As material scarcity diminishes our society approaches an event horizon – a singularity where the laws of economics predicated on material scarcity break down. In a post-scarcity society we will no longer need to work, which is probably a good thing because there simply won’t be any jobs left anyway. This is what happens when we all become rich. This is the paradox of prosperity.

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