Yesterday, I started writing about post-scarcity economics as they appear in Star Trek. The medium is a sort of socratic exercise good-naturedly carried out with a fellow Star Trek fan on a popular Star Trek Facebook group. The names have been redacted to protect the innocent and many of the comments altered and combined with others I’ve seen to create an ur-text for this kind of discussion. Part one of this strange thought experiment can be found here.
ANONYMOUS: YOU HAVE GOOD EXPLANATION FOR ALL OF THE ABOVE, I GUESS, BUT DOESN’T IT ALL STRIKE YOU AS FAINTLY RIDICULOUS?
Oh, yeah. It’s optimistic as hell. But if you ask me, Star Trek does present a decent if pollyannaish model for how human society will have to start working. Because the alternative is too awful to allow. Automation is effectively already a post-scarcity technology in that it will erode the relationship between value and human labor. In that sense, you only have two choices: one, a society in which money holds less sway over our lives than it does currently, or two, a society in which the mechanisms of value generation are almost entirely in the hands of a select few.
ANONYMOUS: I THINK WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IN REALITY — IF ALL RESOURCES WERE MADE INFINITELY AVAILABLE AT ZERO COST — IS THAT HUMANS WOULD IMMEDIATELY OVER-INDULGE IN ALL ASPECTS OF OUR LIVES, LIKE THE FAT AND MECHANICALLY-INFANTILIZED CREW MEMBERS IN WALL-E.
Me: Well, it’s certainly possible. I honestly don’t think it’s a scenario you have to put too much worry into, though. Most people enjoy working more than they enjoy hedonism. People want to feel like their lives have meaning. The meeting of their physical needs would do nothing to satiate their curiosity or ambition — any of their higher-order functions.
I do, however, believe turning up the dial on automation and scarcity reduction carries with it substantial existential risks for humanity (and that those risks are closer than we think), I would just disagree about what those risks are. Regardless, I’m trying to be an optimist and plan for the worst, while hoping for the best. I like to believe humans usually arrive at the best versions of themselves — or at least better versions than we used to be, even if it means a lot of pain and struggle in the interim.
ANONYMOUS: “MANY PEOPLE ENJOY WORKING MORE THAN THEY ENJOY HEDONISM AND MOST PEOPLE WANT THE FEELING THAT THEIR LIFE HAS MEANING.” WHAT YOU’RE SAYING HERE DOES NOT MATCH UP WITH WHAT I’VE SEEN OUT IN THE WORLD!
Me: Then look again! Try to keep in mind that post-scarcity doesn’t happen all at once. Even in Star Trek, replicators don’t just spring into being over night. The original series didn’t even have replicators. And yet they still talked about themselves as having the values of a post-scarcity society. As human technology increases, the need for human labor decreases (see: The Jetsons). This is the rule of automation, going all the way back to Henry Ford and the assembly line. (Unfortunately, while Ford decreased the work week, benefitting workers as a whole, capitalism in general has no incentive to share these gains.) Still, while the general trend will be one of displacement and unrest, it’s not like people will find themselves with infinite peace and free time over night. In fact, there will most likely be a long and gradual period of social and cultural realignment that will probably be quite violent. (See: 2024 and Sisko’s experiences with makeshift ghettos for the unemployed and mentally ill.)
I mean, dude. Think about it. Some people work for charity organizations. Some become teachers, even though it doesn’t pay well. Scientists and astronauts do not receive comparatively high rewards, either in terms of money or prestige and yet competition for those positions is fierce. I myself am a writer and I can promise you, even if you gave me all the money in the world, I wouldn’t stop writing. I might change how I worked — take more time with projects, work on things that meant more to me personally. And none of that would be a bad thing, necessarily.
And that’s the point. Look at how many people hate their jobs or the way they work, but are forced to continue by circumstance. Viewing it from the outside, I can see how you’d think those people would rather stay home. But what if they could pursue the work they wanted, without fear of ending up homeless or hungry or dead? Look at how many people get depressed or angry on workers comp. or unemployment.
I’m not saying everyone. There are undoubtedly some people who just want to relax and enjoy their time with friends and family. And that’s okay. But I think if you really think about it, it’s pretty far from the majority. People like to feel useful — they want to feel like their lives have meaning. The real challenge comes when half or more people are put out of work. What happens then? You either manage to shift the culture, in regards to the American puritanical view that your work is equal to your value, or you’re going to have a big problem on your hands.
ANONYMOUS: MAYBE. BUT DON’T FALL INTO ANY NAIVE OPTIMISM ON HUMANITY’S ACCOUNT — I THINK YOU’D BE MAKING A MISTAKE.
Oh, I completely agree with you. Look, there are tremendous existential risks in what we’re talking about. But I think what you have to worry about far more than a lazy, self-indulgent populace leading to the destruction of our culture, is the scenario in which Elon Musk and the Koch Bros. own all the replicators and the public owns none. (In this case, just think of replicators as a metaphor for hyper-automation to see just how quickly things could go wrong. That’s when future human society either gets really bad, really violent, or both.)
Oh, and one more thing that’s maybe relevant to your point: I would argue a reduction in scarcity norms and an increase in automation are inevitable. Some might disagree on the time frame it will take to reach crisis point, but I think it’s reasonable to assume we’re close. So whether we agree or disagree on what the risks might be, we should all be talking about it. And not as some bit of far-off science-fiction. But a problem we’ll be seriously facing in our lifetimes!
And there you have it. My weird-ass politics laid out in the context of my weird-ass fandom — feel free to keep it coming on those naming ideas. I’m going to need to call myself something. (Or maybe I’ll just show people this blog post whenever they ask about my politics. That’ll send them running away screaming.)
Here’s a picture of Spock with a cat.