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If you know any transhumanists or other forward-looking folks, you've probably encountered the notion of a "post-scarcity society."

I just got back from a two-month writing retreat in a cabin deep in the heart of rural Washington, many miles from civilization. The squirrels at the cabin are quite talented at stealing birdseed from the bird feeders around the cabin, and that taught me a lesson about transhumanism and post-scarcity society.

This might make me a bad transhumanist, but I think the hype about post-scarcity society is overblown, and i think the more Panglossian among the transhumanists have a poor handle on this whole matter of fundamental human nature.

I've written an essay about it over on Think Beyond Us, which includes a video of squirrel warfare. Here's a teaser:

We're moving toward the technology to do things in a completely different way: using tiny machines to build stuff from a molecular or atomic level. In the book Engines of Creation, K. Eric Drexler envisions a time when we will be able to fabricate almost anything we can imagine from simple raw materials and energy.

And on this foundation, futurists say, post-scarcity society will be built. If we can make anything from any raw materials cheaply or free, there is no longer a divide between rich and poor. Think Las Vegas where everyone is a millionaire whale. Want a car? A sofa? A cup of tea? Program assemblers with the characteristics of the thing you want, push a button, and presto! There it is.

In a society where everyone can have whatever stuff they want and nobody has to work, entertainment becomes very important indeed. And those who can provide it—those who can write, or sing, or perform—well, they control access to the only resource besides land that means anything.

So what, then, do we make of a society where the 1% are determined not in accordance with how many resources they control, but how creative they are? A Utopian might say that anyone can learn to be creative and entertaining; a look around the history of humanity suggests that isn't true.

Those who own land today command one of the few resources that will matter tomorrow. Those who can entertain command the only thing that can buy that resource. And the rest of humanity? Suddenly, Utopia starts to look a whole lot less Utopian to them, and a whole lot more like the same old same old.


Check it out! You can read the whole thing here.


Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
peristaltor
Jun. 10th, 2016 04:41 am (UTC)
Interesting. Not new, by far, but interesting.

I've been thinking a lot about "post" scarcity lately. I put the "post" in scarequotes simply because we have for decades been approaching a mechanized world where machines take the place of arduous labor, yet we still work almost as much as our toiling predecessors. We have better stuff, yet work almost as much.

Why? Simply, for me, was the opinion of Rosseau in 1754: "The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society."

The claims of those who claim an item, be that a ruling entity or a scrappy squirrel, defends the basis for a created scarcity, no matter how scarce resources "really" are.

As to nano-assembly, a question: What drastic changes in society do you envision to prevent these assemblers from being owned wholly by a class of people that simply prevents we Mere Mortals from enjoying the fruits of their labor? For that is exactly what it will take, a drastic change.

If you haven't already, I'd recommend a glance at John Maynard Keynes' 1930 essay, "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren." He makes some leaps of faith there that are truly the most required for his vision to be completed, yet he seems to so totally avoid the question of what will make such leaps of faith possible without violent changes to society that it beggars the imagination.

Which means that your society of talent is a really, really dubious claim. Yes, there will always be those who will entertain and live well doing so. But how many talented people will be forced to do [insert humiliating dystopian forced activity here] and never realize their talents (you know, like today)?
khall
Jun. 10th, 2016 06:12 pm (UTC)
Also...the worlds of art, writing, and video production are highly politicized today...if they become the only source of power in society...how much worse will they be? I know several very, very talented artists who gave up art because of the politics...I'm willing to bet if someone with the best idea ever, walked in off the street, no studio would make it, because they have an entrenched method of doing things, etc, etc. someone wouldn't want to risk losing their 'shot', all these things make...the status quo more likely.

K.
tacit
Jun. 11th, 2016 09:26 pm (UTC)
That is a very good point, and human beings being what we are, it's hard to imagine that post-scarcity would change that.
tacit
Jun. 11th, 2016 09:29 pm (UTC)
The claims of those who claim an item, be that a ruling entity or a scrappy squirrel, defends the basis for a created scarcity, no matter how scarce resources "really" are.

Indeed, that's a great way to put it.

As to nano-assembly, a question: What drastic changes in society do you envision to prevent these assemblers from being owned wholly by a class of people that simply prevents we Mere Mortals from enjoying the fruits of their labor? For that is exactly what it will take, a drastic change.

I think they likely would for a time, though the thing about technology is it's a genie reluctant to go back into its bottle. Given sufficient time, I suspect such magical assemblers would become widespread in their use. But the road to that point might be bumpy.

Which means that your society of talent is a really, really dubious claim. Yes, there will always be those who will entertain and live well doing so. But how many talented people will be forced to do [insert humiliating dystopian forced activity here] and never realize their talents (you know, like today)?

What tasks could people be forced into, if their survival isn't at stake? I suspect this question underlies a lot of objections to universal basic income. Can you force someone to work minimum wage in a meat-packing plant if their survival doesn't depend on it?
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