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Some thoughts on post-scarcity societies

dragonpoly
One of my favorite writers at the moment is Iain M. Banks. Under that name, he writes science fiction set in a post-scarcity society called the Culture, where he deals with political intrigue and moral issues and technology and society on a scale that almost nobody else has ever tried. (In fact, his novel Use of Weapons is my all-time favorite book, and I've written about it at great length here.) Under the name Iain Banks, he writes grim and often depressing novels not related to science fiction, and wins lots of awards.

The Culture novels are interesting to me because they are imagination writ large. Conventional science fiction, whether it's the cyberpunk dystopia of William Gibson or the bland, banal sterility of (God help us) Star Trek, imagines a world that's quite recognizable to us....or at least to those of us who are white 20th-century Westerners. (It's always bugged me that the alien races in Star Trek are not really very alien at all; they are more like conventional middle-class white Americans than even, say, Japanese society is, and way less alien than the Serra do Sol tribe of the Amazon basin.) They imagine a future that's pretty much the same as the present, only more so; "Bones" McCoy, a physician, talks about how death at the ripe old age of 80 is part of Nature's plan, as he rides around in a spaceship made by welding plates of steel together.


Image from Wikimedia Commons by Hill - Giuseppe Gerbino


In the Culture, by way of contrast, everything is made by atomic-level nanotech assembly processes. Macroengineering exists on a huge scale, so huge that the majority of the Culture's citizens by far live on orbitals--artificially constructed habitats encircling a star. (One could live on a planet, of course, in much the way that a modern person could live in a cave if she wanted to; but why?) The largest spacecraft, General Systems Vehicles, have populations that range from the tens of millions ot six billion or more. Virtually limitless sources of energy (something I'm panning to blog about later) and virtually unlimited technical ability to make just about anything from raw atoms means that there is no such thing as scarcity; whatever any person needs, that person can have, immediately and for free. And the definition of "person" goes much further, too; whereas in the Star Trek universe, people are still struggling with the idea that a sentient android might be a person, in the Culture, personhood theory (something else about which I plan to write) is the bedrock upon which all other moral and ethical systems are built. Many of the Culture's citizens are drones or Minds--non-biological computers, of a sort, that range from about as smart as a human to millions of times smarter. Calling them "computers" really is an injustice; it's about on par with calling a modern supercomputer a string of counting beads. Spacecraft and orbitals are controlled by vast Minds far in advance of unaugmented human intellect.

I had a dream, a while ago, about the Enterprise from Star Trek encountering a General Systems Vehicle, and the hilarity that ensued when they spoke to each other: "Why, hello, Captain Kirk of the Enterprise! I am the GSV Total Internal Reflection of the Culture. You came here in that? How...remarkably courageous of you!"

And speaking of humans...

The biological people in the Culture are the products of advanced technology just as much as the Minds are. They have been altered in many ways; their immune systems are far more resilient, they have much greater conscious control over their bodies; they have almost unlimited life expectancies; they are almost entirely free of disease and aging. Against this backdrop, the stories of the Culture take place.

Banks has written a quick overview of the Culture, and its technological and moral roots, here. A lot of the Culture novels are, in a sense, morality plays; Banks uses the idea of a post-scarcity society to examine everything from bioethics to social structures to moral values.




In the Culture novel, much of the society is depicted as pretty Utopian. Why wouldn't it be? There's no scarcity, no starvation, no lack of resources or space. Because of that, there's little need for conflict; there's neither land nor resources to fight over. There's very little need for struggle of any kind; anyone who wants nothing but idle luxury can have it.

For that reason, most of the Culture novels concern themselves with Contact, that part of the Culture which is involved with alien, non-Culture civilizations; and especially with Special Circumstances, that part of Contact whose dealings with other civilizations extends into the realm of covert manipulation, subterfuge, and dirty tricks.

Of which there are many, as the Culture isn't the only technologically sophisticated player on the scene.

But I wonder...would a post-scarcity society necessarily be Utopian?

Banks makes a case, and I think a good one, for the notion that a society's moral values depend to a great extent on its wealth and the difficulty, or lack thereof, of its existence. Certainly, there are parallels in human history. I have heard it argued, for example, that societies from harsh desert climates produce harsh moral codes, which is why we see commandments in Leviticus detailing at great length and with an almost maniacal glee who to stone, when to stone them, and where to splash their blood after you've stoned them. As societies become more civil more wealthy, as every day becomes less of a struggle to survive, those moral values soften. Today, even the most die-hard of evangelical "execute all the gays" Biblical literalist rarely speaks out in favor of stoning women who are not virgins on their wedding night, or executing people for picking up a bundle of sticks on the Sabbath, or dealing with the crime of rape by putting to death both the rapist and the victim.

I've even seen it argued that as civilizations become more prosperous, their moral values must become less harsh. In a small nomadic desert tribe, someone who isn't a team player threatens the lives of the entire tribe. In a large, complex, pluralistic society, someone who is too xenophobic, too zealous in his desire to kill anyone not like himself, threatens the peace, prosperity, and economic competitiveness of the society. The United States might be something of an aberration in this regard, as we are both the wealthiest and also the most totalitarian of the Western countries, but in the overall scope of human history we're still remarkably progressive. (We are becoming less so, turning more xenophobic and rabidly religious as our economic and military power wane; I'm not sure that the one is directly the cause of the other but those two things definitely seem to be related.)

In the Culture novels, Banks imagines this trend as a straight line going onward; as societies become post-scarcity, they tend to become tolerant, peaceful, and Utopian to an extreme that we would find almost incomprehensible, Special Circumstances aside. There are tiny microsocieties within the Culture that are harsh and murderously intolerant, such as the Eaters in the novel Consider Phlebas, but they are also not post-scarcity; the Eaters have created a tiny society in which they have very little and every day is a struggle for survival.




We don't have any models of post-scarcity societies to look at, so it's hard to do anything beyond conjecture. But we do have examples of societies that had little in the way of competition, that had rich resources and no aggressive neighbors to contend with, and had very high standards of living for the time in which they existed that included lots of leisure time and few immediate threats to their survival.

One such society might be the Aztec empire, which spread through the central parts of modern-day Mexico during the 14th century. The Aztecs were technologically sophisticated and built a sprawling empire based on a combination of trade, military might, and tribute.

Because they required conquered people to pay vast sums of tribute, the Aztecs themselves were wealthy and comfortable. Though they were not industrialized, they lacked for little. Even commoners had what was for the time a high standard of living.

And yet, they were about the furthest thing from Utopian it's possible to imagine.

The religious traditions of the Aztecs were bloodthirsty in the extreme. So voracious was their appetite for human sacrifices that they would sometimes conquer neighbors just to capture a steady stream of sacrificial victims. Commoners could make money by selling their daughters for sacrifice. Aztec records document tens of thousands of sacrifices just for the dedication of a single temple.

So they wanted for little, had no external threats, had a safe and secure civilization with a stable, thriving economy...and they turned monstrous, with a contempt for human life and a complete disregard for human value that would have made Pol Pot blush. Clearly, complex, secure, stable societies don't always move toward moral systems that value human life, tolerate diversity, and promote individual dignity and autonomy. In fact, the Aztecs, as they became stronger, more secure, and more stable, seemed to become more bloodthirsty, not less. So why is that? What does that say about hypothetical societies that really are post-scarcity?

One possibility is that where there is no conflict, people feel a need to create it. The Aztecs fought ritual wars, called "flower wars," with some of their neighbors--wars not over resources or land, but whose purpose was to supply humans for sacrifice.

Now, flower wars might have had a prosaic function not directly connected with religious human sacrifice, of course. Many societies use warfare as a means of disposing of populations of surplus men, who can otherwise lead to social and political unrest. In a civilization that has virtually unlimited space, that's not a problem; in societies which are geographically bounded, it is. (Even for modern, industrialized nations.)

Still, religion unquestionably played a part. The Aztecs were bloodthirsty at least to some degree because they practiced a bloodthirsty religion, and vice versa. This, I think, indicates that a society's moral values don't spring entirely from what is most conducive to that society's survival. While the things that a society must do in order to survive, and the factors that are most valuable to a society's functioning at whatever level it finds itself, will affect that society's religious beliefs (and those beliefs will change to some extent as the needs of the society change), there would seem to be at least some corner of a society's moral structures that are entirely irrational and completely divorced from what would best serve that society. The Aztecs may be an extreme example of this.

So what does that mean to a post-scarcity society?

It means that a post-scarcity society, even though it has no need of war or conflict, may still have both war and conflict, despite the fact that they serve no rational role. There is no guarantee that a post-scarcity society necessarily must be a rationalist society; while reaching the point of post scarcity does require rationality, at least in the scientific and technological arts, there's not necessarily any compelling reason to assume that a society that has reached that point must stay rational.

And a post=scarcity society that enshrines irrational beliefs, and has contempt for the value of human life, would be a very scary thing indeed. Imagine a society of limitless wealth and technological prowess that has a morality based on a literalistic interpretation of Leviticus, for instance, in which women really are stoned to death if they aren't virgins on their wedding night. There wouldn't necessarily be any compelling reason for a post-scarcity society not to adopt such beliefs; after all, human beings are a renewable resource too, so it would cost the society little to treat its members with indifference.

As much as I love the Culture (and the idea of post-scarcity society in general), I don't think it's a given that they would be Utopian.

Perhaps as we continue to advance technologically, we will continue to domesticate ourselves, so that the idea of being pointlessly cruel and warlike would seem quite horrifying to our descendants who reach that point. But if I were asked to make a bet on it, I'm not entirely sure which way I'd bet.

Comments

pazi_ashfeather
Apr. 8th, 2012 05:16 am (UTC)
Re: Bear with me, this is long.

Regarding Flower Wars: There's actually some openness to interpretation here. One of the first things I'd point out is that Flower Wars probably have at least some antecedent in a more general, common North American practice: counting coup. Essentially, tons of Native American cultures had, whether independently-developed or diffusing from a common source, a kind of side-practice in warfare where the object was to get the better of the enemy...without killing them. You might sneak into their camp and touch 'em with a stick, you might kidnap 'em, whatever. Sometimes counting coup was enough to end a war by itself. Indeed, the Aztec forces generally tried to capture rather than kill their foes -- they were rather surprised by the conquistadores "kill everyone" approach.

It should also be known, we don't know exactly why the Flower Wars occured. One popular interpretation, based on accounts in the Duran codex, is that they were arranged by treaty between the heads of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, Tlaxcala and Huejotzingo, to ensure enough sacrifices after a period of great famine. Another recent interpretation is that the idea of a mutual treaty is overstated and the Aztecs were trying to wear down the Tlaxcalteca through low-level, sustained conflict as a prelude to outright conquest. Yet another theory is that it was a terror tactic, although I consider this unlikely given the role of sacrifice within Mesoamerica and the perceptions thereof. (If you sacrifice somebody's famous, beloved leader, that has a lot of significance -- it's not comparable to executing heads of state in a Western-style war). All we know for sure is that, whatever Flower War was, it was fairly distinct from "mortal" war, linguistically and culturally.
pazi_ashfeather
Apr. 8th, 2012 05:21 am (UTC)
Re: Bear with me, this is long.
Also: Re: Desert societies:

The Hopi and Zuni, Pueblo and many other Southwest desert cultures put the lie to the idea that desert cultures tend to breed harshness. It's more contextual than that. In Eurasia, particularly the periphery of Bronze- and Iron-age Fertile Crescent big-scale farming civilizations, pastoralism or transhumance was the normal way of making a living -- herding animals like sheep and goats onto seasonal grazing grounds. It's a mode of economics that tends to breed long-standing territorial conflicts and tragedies of the commons, but even then not universally so -- some herder cultures are quite peaceful, like the Ladakhi of the Himalayas.
aztecknight
Apr. 8th, 2012 06:58 am (UTC)
Re: Bear with me, this is long.
Thank you for writing all that. I play an Aztec in the SCA and while I admire tacit 's work a great deal, there were so many holes in his comparison of the Aztec society to one of post-scarcity that I was shocked. You seem to have covered all of them. Mesoamerican societies are very complicated and we do a lot of guessing about them.
rowanf
Apr. 8th, 2012 04:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Bear with me, this is long.
Thank you for this!
tacit
Apr. 8th, 2012 06:55 pm (UTC)
Re: Bear with me, this is long.
Interesting. So essentially you're saying that the wealth of the Aztec empire wasn't sufficient for it to be used as a model for the direction a post-scarcity society might take, from the sound of it.

My memory of Aztec culture back in my school days is fairly fuzzy, but I seem to recall that the Aztecs faced little in the way of food stress; it was common for everyone, even commoners, to have small plots of land where they could grow their own food, and the business of agriculture had been raised to an art in Aztec civilization. (I remember hearing about their ingenious system of floating farms, which produced what was for the time an astonishingly high quantity of food per square meter--not only corn but a wide variety of other foods as well.)

I don't know enough about Aztec civilization to comment on how wealthy the commoners were, but it does seem--again if my recollection is correct, and I will concede that it's been a long time--that the society as a whole enjoyed a stable and sufficient supply of food, something that's fairly uncommon for pre-industrial civilizations with little metalworking skill.

The notion that there were folks who didn't mind being sacrificed doesn't rebut the point that Aztec society was nothing if not ferociously bloodthirsty; in fact, I think it underscores it. Human sacrifice was so common, and contempt for human life such an ingrained part of the social mores, that people didn't even value their own lives...which is more or less the reverse of what people tend to think of when they talk about transhumanist, post-scarcity societies.

Granted, the Aztecs are a very rough guide to what might happen in a post-scarcity society; I'm not trying to suggest that they're a model for how such a society would work. The point is that many folks seem to think that a post-scarcity would inevitably move toward greater respect for human agency and human worth. I don't think that's inevitable at all.
pazi_ashfeather
Apr. 9th, 2012 12:18 am (UTC)
Re: Bear with me, this is long.

So essentially you're saying that the wealth of the Aztec empire wasn't sufficient for it to be used as a model for the direction a post-scarcity society might take, from the sound of it.

Precisely.


My memory of Aztec culture back in my school days is fairly fuzzy, but I seem to recall that the Aztecs faced little in the way of food stress;

That's inaccurate.

First of all, the ruling Aztecs at Tenochtitlan levied tribute against their conquered neighbors in order to get enough maize and beans to eat. Remember that "Aztec" is not synonymous with "the Mexica people as a whole", and that when we talk about the Aztec Empire, we're talking about an alliance of three city-states that wielded political control over a much larger region.

The economy was directed by the nobles and the Emperor, who controlled the food supply. They didn't grow enough food locally to feed the huge population; they had to import it from their vassals. They demanded huge tributes of maize and beans from the surplus generated by those vassals -- which means when a famine hit, they were hit pretty hard. Commoners didn't grow most of their own food in the Triple Alliance.

and the business of agriculture had been raised to an art in Aztec civilization.

Certainly this is true for many civilizations in the Americas, including the Mexica generally, but they had a *huge* population to feed in the city-states of the Triple Alliance and they didn't produce most of that supply locally. Very often when talking about this, folks confuse "the Aztecs" for Mesoamerican civilization in general, which is a big mistake. The Aztecs were relative newcomers who set up an empire which hadn't even been around two full centuries before Cortez showed up.


I don't know enough about Aztec civilization to comment on how wealthy the commoners were, but it does seem--again if my recollection is correct, and I will concede that it's been a long time--that the society as a whole enjoyed a stable and sufficient supply of food, something that's fairly uncommon for pre-industrial civilizations with little metalworking skill.

Actually, pre-industrial civilizations vary greatly on that too. Forager civilizations usually enjoy a great abundance, thanks to their low population density. Pastoral herders, and some horticultural or intensive-farming civilizations are the first groups of humans, organized by lifeway, to experience critical dependencies, and shortages, on a regular basis. Foragers just pack up and move with the season, or (if they're in a really abundant area, like the Pacific Northwest) stay put, moving at most within a narrow circuit of their region depending on whether it's summer or winter.

As to wealth of the commoners: chocolate, meat, fruit and veggies were mostly restricted to the warrior class and the nobles. The commoners only got maize, beans, fish or vegetables on occasion, and during festivals, maybe a treat normally reserved for the upper classes. They were critically dependent on tributary states for maize and beans, and that's why famine hit the Triple Alliance hard hard. In point of fact, a plague of locusts, a famine and a valley flood in the 1440s-1450s combined to make the commoner ration just 1 tamal a day -- and a drought hit not long after. This resulted in the selling of children for sacrifice or slavery, often for maize itself rather than cacao beans. The resulting nastiness made them *very* unpopular with their vassals, their neighbors and the commoners -- part of why Cortez had such an easy time.
pazi_ashfeather
Apr. 9th, 2012 12:19 am (UTC)
Re: Bear with me, this is long.

The notion that there were folks who didn't mind being sacrificed doesn't rebut the point that Aztec society was nothing if not ferociously bloodthirsty; in fact, I think it underscores it. Human sacrifice was so common, and contempt for human life such an ingrained part of the social mores, that people didn't even value their own lives...which is more or less the reverse of what people tend to think of when they talk about transhumanist, post-scarcity societies.

You're suffering from a bit of cultural myopia here. There's altruistic suicide and self-sacrifice to consider; these aren't big factors in the time and place and culture you're from, but they matter rather more in societies that suffer major food uncertainty, frequent military conflict, or especially high rates of disasters that aren't immediately lethal for anyone but those directly hit, but can cascade to destroy a resource base easily. And that's where religion comes in: "If we kill this person, they lose their life and we lose them, but (we believe) it will make the gods happy enough that they won't destroy our harvest. That's a good trade, since without the harvest we might all die."

That might seem like small comfort if you're the individual chosen to be sacrificed -- and for you or me it's no comfort at all as we consider the prospect of being chosen for something like that, which we know to be ineffective in the first place -- but if you genuinely believe that it'll work, then you're not looking at it from *our* point of view, and even if your world-model is mistaken, if it's the one you've got then you'll evaluate such prospects in terms of it. And people do sacrifice themselves to help others, or to protect something they consider to be more important than just their own life and experiences. Your intuitions are not those of a member of a culture where everyone is taught, rightly or wrongly, that they should at any time be prepared to join the 100 people killed to save 1000...and that this death has a more direct, positive effect than one at home, in bed, surrounded by one's loved ones.

The average Mesoamerican farming-civilization individual didn't live far from the reality that their lives were vulnerable, prone to be suddenly and irrevocably extinguished whether they liked it or not. The weather alone could kill you on a bad day; when you concretely conceive of that inevitability, in a basic way divorced from existential dread, it's going to color your decisions and perspective. If you know in an utterly blase sort of way that you have to go sometimes, and experience the personal conviction, instilled by your culture, that sacrifice is trading your life for others' wellbeing, you look at things very differently than a person from one of the wealthiest intersections of time and place that Eurasian civilization has given rise to -- let alone such a person who also expresses an especially-indulgent, self-focused, individualistic and atomized variant of that culture.

(Those aren't pejoratives -- I'm just saying, you're a massive outlier on humanity today, let alone compared to the average person in the Aztec Empire.)
pazi_ashfeather
Apr. 9th, 2012 12:19 am (UTC)
Re: Bear with me, this is long.

Granted, the Aztecs are a very rough guide to what might happen in a post-scarcity society;

How is a scarcity-driven, aristocratic agricultural society that experiences periodic, intense famines and relies on conquest to make up its bare minimum even vaguely a guide to what might happen in a post-scarcity society? I'd argue their case is not even vaguely applicable, for any model that starts from the presumption of economic fundamentals.

I'm not trying to suggest that they're a model for how such a society would work. The point is that many folks seem to think that a post-scarcity would inevitably move toward greater respect for human agency and human worth. I don't think that's inevitable at all.

I don't think that's inevitable either (frex, what about a society that's post-scarcity for material goods and resources, but imposes harsh rent-seeking measures on IP?) -- I just think your analogy doesn't hold together. The Mexica didn't have a post-scarcity society, and your reading of their society lacks critical context, leading you to mistaken analysis.
the_failed_poet
Apr. 9th, 2012 05:43 am (UTC)
Very interesting.
Thanks tacit and pazi_ashfeather for giving me a lot to think about. :)
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