The Tumultuous Transition to Post-Scarcity

I read science fiction. A lot. It goes hand-in-hand with the reasons I fell in love with science, as I posted about a while ago. One of the most fascinating concepts in science fiction in recent years (being since the 1970’s that I’m aware of, though probably much older than that) is the idea of a post-scarcity society. They’re all over the place in science fiction (just check out this list on io9). I always found the idea of post-scarcity alluring (who wouldn’t want to live in a world where you don’t have to work?), but even more fascinating to me is what the transition from our current society to a post-scarcity society would look like.

What is Post-Scarcity?

There are a crazy range of possibilities when it comes to defining post scarcity. You could have a society where every possible need is met, much like Iain M. Banks’ Culture series.

Consider Phlebas - Iain M Banks

If you haven’t read any of his Culture books, I highly recommend them. The Culture is essentially run by hyper-intelligent AIs that take care of all the needs of the intelligent beings in their society. Despite running everything, the AIs in Banks’ Culture are more like partners of humanity rather than competitors or overlords. Everyone in the Culture is not only free to do whatever they want; they are empowered to do whatever they want by the society they live in.

Or you could have a society where everyone’s basic needs are met, but that doesn’t mean that they have nice things. People could chose not to work and be lazy all the time, but that doesn’t mean that their lives will be fulfilling or full of the finer things in life.

The Diamond Age - Neal Stephenson

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson is a great example of this. The main character in The Diamond Age is a girl from the slums named Nell. Her mom is almost never home, not because she is working but because she is out partying (if I recall correctly). Nell doesn’t have a problem getting food and shelter, though, as they are free. But that doesn’t mean her home life is any good. There’s a lot more to raising a kid that making sure they eat and have a roof over their head.

Similarly, in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, all basic needs are met, but there is a literal social currency that determines who gets the few scarce items, like the best apartment or being first in line. Under systems like these, just because the basic needs are met does not mean everyone lives in paradise.

The idea of post-scarcity is not limited to science fiction. Philosophers like Karl Marx and Murray Bookchin dreamed about making such a society. Even economists such as Robin Hanson have tried to speculate on post-scarcity societies. A world where no person, no matter their race, gender, ethnicity, size, shape, rank, class, clan, creed or so on, would be without adequate housing, food, or health care. A world where no one has to work for a living, but is free to spend his time as he wishes, either doing nothing or doing what he wants to do.


The Tumultuous Path to Post-Scarcity

The idea of a post-scarcity society is pretty fascinating in and of itself. But I have one question about post-scarcity that I haven’t seen explored very much: how do we get there? And I’m not talking about what technologies will bring about post-scarcity. I’m talking about the effect that the introduction of these technologies will have on our society, our economy, our nations and our world before we actually reach that theoretical state of post-scarcity. Especially as I presume that not all the required pieces will fall into place at once. Rather, they will come at different times. And the transition will then happen in fits and starts, lurching us along toward the eventual post-scarcity dream.


You could argue that we are inching our way along the path to post-scarcity right now. 3-D printing is really taking off, making home manufacturing much simpler and more accessible. The open source software movement is a huge part of online life. Self-driving automobiles are right around the corner. These technological marvels will make life so much easier for all of us, freeing us up for more leisure time, right?

Maybe, but how will these people pay for housing and food and medical care? Advances in technology could increasingly put people out of work and there won’t be other sources of income for the newly jobless to shift over to. For example, automated cars will be great, but it will practically put truckers out of a job.

Mercedes-Benz Future Truck

Same with bookkeepers. And paralegals. And so many others. Basically any task that is highly predictable and easily reduced to a series of “if this, then that” type algorithms is at risk of automation. There are arguments that this has happened before (i.e., the Industrial Revolution) and it won’t be a problem because the innovation will lead to new jobs, just in different fields of work. I really find that hard to believe, though. It’ll be hard for the next generation of workers to find work when so many fields are getting automated at nearly the same time.

It’s hard to believe that the displaced workers will find new jobs to replace the ones they lost. Who is going to want to spend the money to retrain a 50 year old trucker into an office assistant? In our current time, they’re more likely to be placed on disability. A couple years ago, This American Life and Planet Money teamed up to do a phenomenal investigation into skyrocketing disability rates throughout the country. In many places, the workers on disability are not truly disabled, but there just aren’t any jobs available for them. Going on disability is a way to help these people get by without jobs. These people aren’t freeloaders; they just don’t have any other choice for income.

This concern about scads of unemployed people has lead to arguments for a basic income or universal employment. That way, everyone would have some sort of income to live on, usually in the form of cash or a negative income tax from the government. Where the money for basic income or the jobs for universal employment would come from, or even if a basic income would actually work, I don’t know. But many people, especially people in the tech industry, see these as necessary options to keep people fed and alive as we move into an era where there are far fewer jobs than those who need them.


Once jobs begin to evaporate, how will the economy evolve? Surely, there will be rough patches at least. If the monetary incentive to produce goods for the world (such as housing, food, consumer goods and such) no longer exists, why would anyone make any goods? Our entire world economy is based around money. Corporations are organized to generate profits, goods are made and processed and services are provided to be sold at a profit, and we work to earn money to spend on those goods and services. Money is the grease that lets it all happen and not grind to a halt.


So what would happen if the jobs went away? Would people stop having money to buy things, which would mean corporations would stop making things, bringing the whole economy to a screeching halt? Left to its own, maybe.

Maybe a basic income will take care of it. People won’t have to work because they get money for nothing and can still spend it. Those who want to earn more money can provide goods and services to earn more than their basic income. Such a world could look economically somewhat similar to our current world.

Some people advocate for a gift economy, thinking we can live productively without money at all. There’s even something of a gift economy among the poor in Detroit. Or perhaps instead of money as we know it, we will somehow shift to money based on something else, like monetized social capital such as in whuffie from Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

Or maybe something more like what the Incas had, where there was no money. You paid “taxes” by providing labor to the state and the state provided all the food, clothing, health care, etc. I know, that sounds a lot like communism. But if there’s no reason to make products any more because there’s no profit in it, someone would have to step in and provide those services. And generally, when there is a needed service or good that no one wants to provide because there is no profit in it, that service or good becomes the domain of government. Think lighthouses: they are absolutely necessary for shipping, but it’s almost impossible to make any money off of them.

Regardless of how we transition, there will be volatile periods of recessions and bubbles, booms and busts. And not just for countries or the world as a whole, but also for certain geographic areas or industries. Just like the Industrial Revolution or the transition to the Information Age, there will be instability and uncertainty in the economy and many people will suffer great losses and poverty (and many fewer will profit greatly, I’m sure) because of it.


How will the transition to post-scarcity affect nations? As in, will they continue to exist? I could easily see them continuing through the periods of unstable transition. During times of instability, many goods and resources become scarce. (Just realized that I’ve talked a lot about scarcity in a post about post-scarcity, but it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want. :-P)

Resources scarcity, especially in times of economic unrest (such as the turmoil that is sure to ensue from so many people being out of work as automation begins, but before actual post-scarcity), will lead to conflict and war. Wars are fought by armies and armies need states to support them. So, certainly, through the transition to post-scarcity, I see nations remaining powerful influences.

Short of international war, I imagine that nations during the transition to post-scarcity will have a fair amount of internal instability. If there are a lot of people out of work, you have the makings of civil unrest on your hands. There’s historical precedent for this, too.

Revenge for thee is on the wing from thy determined Captain Swing.

In the 1820’s, new threshing machines were introduced in England that put a lot of laborers out of work. This wave of unemployment coincided with two really bad harvests in a row (meaning hungry winters) that were basically the cherry on top for declining conditions for agricultural workers. It culminated in riots, which were “lead” by the mythical Captain Swing.

Captain Swing Letter

These riots occurred when a small class of workers who had experienced a lot of economic hard times started losing jobs. Imagine the worst case scenario of a lot of people losing their jobs and general economic hard times for all. I think with that much larger of a problem, you’ll be more likely to have a revolution than just some local riots.


Post-scarcity societies are a really fascinating setting for science fiction stories, but I feel like there is a crazy time of unrest, tumult, and drastic change to be found in the transition to post-scarcity. Quite probably everything I’ve written here is completely wrong (after all, I’m not expert and even experts recognize their fallibility). But I can’t imagine that it is going to be easy. I’m quite sure that we will reach post-scarcity one day. I just worry about how hard it will be to get there.

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