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Some thoughts on post-scarcity societies

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.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 8th, 2012 01:12 am (UTC)
This is an excellent essay.

I've been contemplating the Culture books; thank you for the informative and encouraging recommendation.
Apr. 8th, 2012 04:16 am (UTC)
Wealthiest of the Western countries? Really? By what metric?


Apr. 8th, 2012 06:14 am (UTC)
In terms of total size of the economy, rather than per capita.


Per capita is a different story, of course; the US is fabulously wealthy in toto, but the distribution is incredibly lopsided (I believe among the most lopsided, if not the most lopsided, of the Western countries), and we are not as wealthy per capita as some other countries.
Apr. 9th, 2012 03:32 am (UTC)
Hmm. I don't agree with using total wealth as a measure of the wealthiness of a country. Most definitions of wealth involve not just what you have, but whom you must support with what you have. There's a reason most calculations of class account for family size; a single person could be happily middle-class on an income that would have a family of five on the edge of poverty. And a rapidly expanding population is a pretty reliable way to impoverish a country, even if the resource base also grows (though not as fast as the population).
Apr. 9th, 2012 05:38 pm (UTC)
When you're talking about a nation's political power, its total wealth is more important than its per-capita wealth. Luxembourg is the wealthiest of all nations per capita, but it's a tiny nation with only a small handful of people; it is hardly a major player on the world stage. A tiny nation whose citizens are wealthy but small and undefended is not necessarily a secure nation, if its less wealthy but much larger neighbors take a hankering to it.
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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.
Apr. 8th, 2012 04:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Bear with me, this is long.
Thank you for this!
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.
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Apr. 9th, 2012 05:43 am (UTC)
Very interesting.
Thanks tacit and pazi_ashfeather for giving me a lot to think about. :)
Apr. 8th, 2012 04:21 pm (UTC)
I have seen the name Iain M. Banks but haven't read him, I will go look for Use of Weapons now. Thanks for introducing me.
Apr. 8th, 2012 06:56 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I'm not much into post-scarcity myself, but interesting still.

Have you read Stross's Accelerondo? It marks the start of a post-scarcity boom, but with some scarcity to make it interesting.
Apr. 9th, 2012 02:24 am (UTC)
"A Few Notes on the Culture" aside, I think the Idirans illustrate that Banks agrees with you at some level. Being equiv-tech to the Culture, they're also clearly post-scarcity, yet have a thoroughly non-Utopian society. Unshockingly, it happens to also be a society driven by religious fanaticism.
John-Paul Cleary
Apr. 10th, 2012 01:09 pm (UTC)
Great post.
Iain M Banks is a favourite of mine too.
Apr. 10th, 2012 09:02 pm (UTC)
I've seen it argued that the behavioral differences we see between chimpanzees and bonobos are pretty much entirely ascribable to the fact that the bonobos' habitat is much richer in food sources than those of chimpanzee populations. More food means less competition among bonobo groups and more ability to develop a protoculture based on intragroup bonds and cooperation rather than the intragroup violence and dominance hierarchies usually associated with chimps.

I still maintain that our present culture is probably about the closest thing to post-scarcity that has ever existed, except possibly for some pre-agricultural human groups living in particularly abundant areas. A few resources like oil and rare metals are still reasonably difficult to mine, but for the most part, our experience of scarcity comes from the difficulty of acquiring imaginary resources like money and "jobs," which are only scarce because they're manufactured to be that way.

Will definitely be looking into this author.
Apr. 15th, 2012 06:33 pm (UTC)
You may consider looking at the safety of geographical surrounds to account for the bloodthirstiness of religion rather than the relative scarcity of food stuffs or wealth however you define that. The jungles of what is now lower Mexico are not places that anyone would survive on their own for long. Too many bloodthirsty predators and other dangers. Religions all over the world developed to give people a feeling of safety and the ability to make sense out of senseless. If giving their daughter to sacrifice meant that the rest of the family would have plenty and the animals in the forest wouldn't eat them as they hunted then it was worth it. If someone did get eaten in the forest, maybe she wasn't a good enough sacrifice and they needed to do better next time.

I guess my point is that there is more to determining the pacifistic or violent nature of a culture than just level of scarcity. As you describe it, Culture side steps most of the variables by removing them from the picture.
Apr. 16th, 2012 09:06 am (UTC)
not so alien
Just read Use of Weapons after hearing so many people go on about it. While it's by no means a bad story, I was rather let down by it's 'alieness'. Granted, I might have had too high expectations. After your statement

"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.) "

I was hoping to be surprised by an imagining of a mixture of more truly alien forms of societies or lifeforms, but was presented with mid 20th century earth cultures, interspersed with some more conveniently advanced tech, but even a lot of of that was stuck around turn of this century (guns? tanks?). And one might have to read more of the novels, but so far, even the drones or ships are not anymore alien than, say, a denizen of Williamsburg.
I know your point is more the Utopia of post scarcity society, but 'imagination writ large' should be more than the 'otherness' dial turned a nanofraction of a degree up from Star Trek.
Apr. 17th, 2012 10:28 pm (UTC)
Apr. 3rd, 2013 03:55 pm (UTC)
I don't know if you've heard, but Iain M Banks today announced that he's suffering from terminal cancer, so his next book will be his last. Full statement: http://www.littlebrown.co.uk/a-personal-statment-iain-banks.page.

I had the privilege to see him speak at two literary events over the last two years, and he really engages with the audience. He'll be sorely missed.
Apr. 3rd, 2013 08:40 pm (UTC)
That news was the first thing I saw when I woke up this morning. I'm very sad to hear it.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )