Getting To Post Scarcity

A number of fictional and speculative works have talked about PostScarcity: the state at which humankind will no longer have to live 'by the sweat of [their] brows', simply because there are more resources (energy, human, etc.) than are needed. References, either incidental or central, exist everywhere from StarTrek to the GnuManifesto?. But with very few exceptions, very few people appear to have thought about where the road to PostScarcity winds before it arrives: what are the waypoints to PostScarcity?

One of the few exceptions is MarshallBrain?'s Manna story,, but even that uses a DeusExMachina (no spoilers) to dodge some of the more difficult parts. Otherwise, most of the stories and projections specify the enabling factor (nanotechnology, cheap abundant and clean energy, etc) without really describing what happens between now and then.

An example: in modern society, it's accepted that to live requires resources (e.g., money). To continue to live, one must either have a reserve large enough to cover the outflow until one dies, or else find a way to keep more resources coming into the personal resource pool. This works well as long as one has something worth bartering for those resources (usually one's own time, skill, knowledge, labor, etc.). As we become more and more efficient at producing resources for barter, there is less and less need for more people to work to produce those resources. Extrapolating, you could get to the point where all the resources needed are produced by a tiny fraction of the population, but there are just not enough resource-producing slots for the remainder of the population to generate the barter goods (money) they need to trade for the resources needed to sustain themselves.

For the purposes of this discussion, let's assume PostScarcity is a valid concept. What are some of the ramifications and side-effects of a society having reached it? I'm not so concerned with the obvious effects of PostScarcity itself--what must have happened along the way?

Perhaps people haven't described the waypoints to post-scarcity in such explicit terms, but they have certainly thought about them. For example, The AttentionEconomy, and PeakOil.
The question is, assuming PostScarcity can exist, how is it possible to get from here to there given existing social networks and constraints?

As a result, more resources are available to society, but fewer and fewer individual people have the work putatively required to barter for those resources. The end result of this is PostScarcity for some and HyperScarcity for others.

And all of this is a direct consequence of insidious capitalist greed; that people are paid for their work at the lowest possible rate instead of at a just rate.

What this all means is obvious. The stress on the current system of "work or die" in place in third world countries (like the USA) will rise to ever greater levels until something breaks. Can you spell REVOLUTION?

This isn't strictly an institutional issue--it's also an individual issue. When's the last time you went back to a store and told them, "That furniture I bought on sale last week at 70% off is so good, I don't think it's right for me to get it that cheaply. Here's some more money." Individuals tend to minimize cost, all other things being equal, so institutions do the same thing. It's a NashEquilibrium strategy, though, which means it's susceptible to falling into local maxima. --tl

It doesn't matter if it's institutional or individual, it's capitalist. Socialist, communist, anarchist and even fascist institutions do NOT behave the same way. Most of them WOULD say "Since your business is on the verge of collapse as a result of your selling me that last batch of furniture at 70% off, we'll pay you 150% the full price for the next batch."

Cite 3 instances in the last 100 years. -KirkBailey

That's what I mean by "right for the wrong reasons". The concentration of wealth may be caused as much by a movement to PostScarcity as it is by intentional control on the part of the 'haves'. --tl

Increases in productivity weren't motivated by some halcyon dream of post-scarcity. They were motivated by capitalist greed, hatred and oppression. The present collapse of the labour market was deliberately and systematically engineered. It's been the wet dream of the capitalist classes for EVER.

Don't conflate 'cause' and 'motivation'. I agree they were motivated by capitalism, but I'm wondering if the continued "advances in productivity" might not be at this point running on a PositiveFeedbackLoop?.

[One question: if the capitalist classes are deliberately engineering a collapse of the labor market, who do they expect to buy the goods that they produce in order to keep them at the top of the economic ladder? I always thought that the companies in charge had an interest in keeping the middle class afloat, so that there would be large numbers of folks around to buy the cars, cell phones, HDTVs, and other luxury goods that they produce.]

Hypothetically, they would all collectively realize the wisdom of this, but in practice, short-term gain predominates. This is why, for example, WallyMart? doesn't pay their workers enough to actually live on (see Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich ).

[Precisely: the collapse of wages may be the result of short-term strategies and feedback loops, but I wouldn't say that it's a deliberately engineered "wet dream" of the "capitalist classes" -- if anything, the capitalist classes should be shaking in their shoes at the prospect that they might be eroding away the very middle class that buys their products, even as they find themselves caught in the spiral and powerless to stop it.]

They should be but they're not, are they? (nope; they're all outsourcing to India or China. -KirkBailey) And that ought to tell you that it is their desire to achieve exactly what they've achieved; the powerlessness of workers. (Nah; they just moved away from union headaches and federal regulation. They don't think that deep or far in advance; they just want uncontested control to do as they please and cheap labor, and still retain access to juicy markets (USA, Canada, UK, Europe. For now, these markets still juicy, but living on cultural capital. when they collapse, the shit will hit the fan. Without those sales revenues, Japan and China DIE. -KirkBailey) You see, wealth to the rich doesn't signify necessities or even luxuries. You can't consume a billion dollars, it's utterly impossible. Wealth means power, and the less of it that other people have, the more of it they themselves have.
You folks need to research technocracy. The American-invented system popularized by Technocracy, Inc., unfortuately, hasn't really changed with the times, and seems quite despotic to me. Instead, I suggest looking at a slightly different angle taken by the Network of European Technocrats instead. There is also as well.


Albert Einstein said a long time ago: "The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker."

Today, where every digital watch (or certainly at least every cellphone used to check the time) probably has vastly more computing power than was needed to develop the first atomic weapons, even being a watchmaker cannot absolve anyone of the need to think about what we invent and its relationship to the wellness of our society and the rest of the natural world.

Einstein’s comment does not apply just to nuclear energy; it also applies even to solar energy, as well as nanotech, biotech, robotics, the internet, or even just bureaucracy. Einstenin also said that nuclear wepons don't crete new problems, they just make existing probems worse. All technology can be an amplifier, and technologies can then interact in synergistic ways to amplify things even more than one could by itself. So, cheap energy leads to even cheaper computing which leads to cheaper robotics which leads to even cheaper energy again from cheaper raw materials, and so on and so on. What vision and social aspirations do we have that we want amplified?

One can generalize Einstein’s comment to: "The biggest challenge of the 21st century is the irony of technologies of abundance in the hands of those thinking in terms of scarcity."

See also a knol called "Beyond a Jobless Recovery: A heterodox perspective on 21st century economics" that explores these issues further.

As that knol outlines, a combination of robotics (and other automation, all made possible by cheaper computing), better design (whether from cold fusion devices or thin-film solar panels), the accumulation of physical infrastructure (like railroads, roads, satellites, and undersea fiber optic cables), and voluntary social networks (especially with volunteers cooperating through the internet on free and open source digital public works), are decreasing the value of most paid human labor by the law of supply and demand. Cheaper computing and cheaper energy will only accelerate this trend, since often you can substitute computing or energy for labor and thought.

At the same time, demand for goods and services is limited for a variety of reasons. These reasons include some classical ones, like a cyclical credit crunch or a concentration of wealth (with that concentration aided by automation, intellectual monopolies, and the rich getting richer and buying up more and more resources like land for rent seeking). The reasons also including some heterodox alternative economics ones, like people moving up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as they get a lot of "stuff" and move on to other pursuits than materialism (including spiritual aspirations, self-actualization, and social connections in communities), and as people embrace a growing environmental consciousness of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" to protect the biosphere.

In general, mainstream economists ignore these issues or have very unexamined beliefs about them. Imaginative innovation, like economist Julian Simon talks about in "The Ultimate Resource", makes possible many wonderful potentialities if we think them through. Inventiveness sometimes gets blamed for any issues caused by unimaginative scarcity-based economic models held onto with almost a religious fervor by so many (see "The Market as God" by theologian Harvey Cox in the Atlantic). Mainstream economist have long used such scarcity-based models to apologize for an overly hierarchical social order that we probably did not even need in the past — search on "The Mythology of Wealth". Still, some degree of centralization can be a good thing; see Manuel De Landa on “meshworks and hierarchies”, and how they keep turning into each other and how all real systems are mixtures of both. So, we need to think and experiment regarding ways to allow our 21st century society to function in a healthy way given all the 21st century technology people are busy creating in all sorts of areas.

A New York Times article called: "They Did Their Homework (800 Years of It)" talks about the inbredness in the mainstream economics profession and how it is based on endless mathematical extrapolation on extrapolation, in the absence of much connection to history or broader cultural issues. Of course, looking at history may only be a start, as economists also need to look to the future and what abundance and cheap (or even free) energy means in terms of producing divide-by-zero errors in all their elegant theoretical mathematical equations that assume demand for endless junk is infinite, and human labor will always be very valuable, and energy and material will always be very scarce.

In order to move past this problem with mainstream scarcity-based socioeconomic models, something made only more urgent by cheaper computing or cheaper energy, our society needs to continue to develop in at least four interwoven areas: There are some bad "make-work" alternatives also that could prop up the status quo for a time and are best avoided, like endless war, endless schooling, endless bureaucracy, endless sickness, and endless prisons. All of those just keep people busy in an addictive or destructive or mindless way to little good end and to little human happiness. Unfortunately, people turn all too quickly to those bad alternatives sometimes to deal with social problems related to abundance or uneven wealth distribution. Endless entertainment like with video games is another thing that can burn up abundance, but whether that is good or bad depends in part on perspective.

Especially if cheap computing and cheap energy leads to an vast increase in the production of consumer goods, we also need to think more about things like the USA/NIST’s "Sustainable and Lifecycle Information-based Manufacturing Program ... to prepare for a future where manufacturing has a zero net impact on the environmen..." We also need to rethink a compulsory schooling system designed for the needs of a heavily centralized monarchial 18th century Prussian empire (as John Taylor Gatto talks about); we need to rethink education from a 21st century global perspective involving spreading universal abundance.

Simple attempts to prop scarcity-based economics up in the presence of cheap energy or cheap computing, like requiring higher wages to respond to declining demand for human labor and more wage-lowering competition for less jobs, will only accelerate the replacement process for workers. Higher wage requirements would just be more incentive to automate, redesign, use more energy in place of human effort, and/or to push more work to volunteer social networks. Even before cheap energy, we have been already seeing the "death spiral" of current mainstream economic models that were based primarily on a link between the right to consume and the need to have a paying job. There may still remain some needed linkage between access to resources and labor for higher-than-typical consumption rates in some situations, even with a basic income, a gift economy, cheap energy, etc.., but there would no longer be such a problematical situation where some few people are financially obese and billions of others are financially starving (and often literally starving, since without money a market will not hear their needs).

But, while this issue of abundance is ignored by most mainstream economists, you can find all sorts of people writing similar things, such as if you search on an essay "Robots, Jobs and our Assumptions" by Martin Ford, or if you search for a document from 1964 originally prepared for US President John Kennedy called "The Triple Revolution Memorandum". Marshall Brain mentionend above has also written about this in his novel "Manna" (about the consequences of cheap flexible robotics) and in his "Robotic Nation" essays. Charles Fourier wrote about these themes around 1800 (and was where some have said Marx took his better ideas from. :-) There are many more people talking about these issues, like at the Basic Income Earth Network, the New Economics Institute, the Venus Project, economist Richard Wolff’s "Capitalism Hits the Fan" discussions, the Institute for New Economic Thinking that Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa helped start, and so on. Bucky Fuller’s writings are another source of potential understanding about building a society that works for everyone (see his book "Utopia or Oblivion").

They may not all agree, but together they show that there are alternative perspectives to the mainstream economic models about the implications on technology and society.

Beyond the economics side, it is the military side of all this that is really problematical and ironic. People have long been using all these advanced technologies of abundance (robotics, biotech, advanced materials, advanced energy sources) from a scarcity perspective. This had led to engineers creating weapons using advanced technologies, with these weapons intended to be used to fight over the very scarcity that, ironically, these technologies could alleviate if used differently to address the underlying material scarcity issues. So, we ironically get, say, the spread of military robots (drones) whose primary role is essentially to enforce a social order based on forcing humans to act like robots in the workplace, rather than instead supporting the same engineers so they can just build robots to do the robot-like work, so people be more like people than robots during their working hours. The USA, one of the most abundant places in the world materially, ironically seems to have the greatest fear about scarcity, in part from lack of a good social safety net perhaps, and has been driving a lot of this misuse of such technologies of abundance.

The same is true for the misuse of nuclear energy, nanotech, rockets, and biotech — which can all be used from a scarcity paradigm to make terrible weapons. But, why not instead use such technologies to produce energy, to produce stuff, to produce space habitats, and to produce health, with the resulting prosperity shared by all? Ultimately, health and joy is a social thing, as much or more than an individual thing.

See also an essay called "Recognizing irony is key to transcending militarism".

Still, we must accept that there is nothing wrong with wanting some security (or prosperity). The issue is how we go about it in a non-ironic way that works for everyone (including other creatures in the biosphere). Key here are ideas of "mutual security" (Morton Deutsch) and "intrinsic security" (Amory Lovins in Brittle Power, and many others).

For another example, collectively, we have created an abundant internet that could inform us all and help us design "Blue Zones" of health and abundance for everyone (like through informing people about the need for adequate vitamin D, eating more vegetables and fruits, getting enough iodine, having strong social networks, living in places where exercise like walking is built into daily life through better infrastructure, finding work to do which has personal meaning, and so on). But instead of emphasizing using the internet to bring about global prosperity, sadly, some people talk about using it for cyberattacks to destroy other countries’ infrastructure. And there are spammers who are working from an old economic paradigm who clog the internet up with financially-driven spam so the internet has more trouble functioning to bring abundance to all of us (even, ironically, the spammers).

(This is adapted from stuff I wrote and have previously posted elsewhere.)

--Paul Fernhout
CategoryBigPicture CategoryScienceFiction

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