At the very beginning of this book, we argued that the true promise of abundance was one of creating a world of possibility: a world where everyone’s days are spent dreaming and doing, not scrapping and scraping. Never before has such promise really been in the offing. For most of human history, life was a constrained affair. Just finding ways to survive took most of our energy. The gap between one’s day-to-day reality and one’s true potential was vast indeed. But in these extraordinary days, that chasm is beginning to close.Of course, technology historically does not destroy jobs in aggregate so much as free people to do higher-level jobs.
Much of that involves learning more advanced skills or dealing with more complexity. But what if the greater value option this time does not look like a traditional job?
“At a high level,” says Second Life creator Philip Rosedale, “humans have consistently demonstrated an ability to find new things to do that are of greater value when jobs have been outsourced or automated. The industrial revolution, outsourced IT work, China’s low-cost labor force all ultimately created more interesting new jobs than they displaced.”
In addition to training up, others might simply retire. SU AI expert Neil Jacobstein explains, “Exponential technologies may eventually permit people to not need jobs to have a high standard of living. People will have many choices with how they utilize their time and develop a sense of self-esteem—ranging from leisure normally associated with retirement, to art, music, or even restoring the environment. The emphasis will be less on making money and more on making contributions, or at least creating an interesting life.”
The greatest line in the bookAnd here is the greatest line in the book - almost at the end.
And this is also the problem with the book, too. Technologists can point to where the problem is. But they don't have much to say about how to solve it, because the solution is not primarily a technological issue. It's an ethical, political and economic problem.
Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff—it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.
We've seen this before with other brilliant writers on technology like as W. Brian Arthur, who also stops at much the same point. if you follow the link to the older post, Arthur said:
This suggests to me that the main challenge of the economy is shifting from producing prosperity to distributing prosperity. The second economy will produce wealth no matter what we do; distributing that wealth has become the main problem. ... The system will adjust of course, though I can’t yet say exactly how.The problem, say Diamandis and Kotler, is how you move beyond scarcity economics.
So we need a different resource allocation system (not to mention a revolution in the discipline of economics). But, as I've said so often, our traditional broadly liberal approach completely lets us down when we try to think about resource allocation.
Part of the problem is that most contemporary thinking about money and markets and such has its roots in the scarcity model. In fact, one of the most commonly used definitions of economics is “the study of how people make choices under conditions of scarcity, and the results of those choices for society.” As traditional economics (which believes that markets are equilibrium systems) gets replaced by complexity economics (which both fits the data significantly better and believes that markets are complex, adaptive systems), we may begin to uncover a postscarcity framework for assessment, but there’s no guarantee that such thinking will result in either more jobs or a different resource allocation system.
It's a problem for the left, who either stress procedural justice or varieties of equality but whose 20th century welfare state has produced unsustainable fiscal problems and stunted lives. The whole notion of "redistribution" has failed.
It's a problem for libertarians and the market-oriented right, because markets will not allocate intangible goods as effectively as the port wine or better mouse traps. The boundaries of the market could move back sharply and make market exchange a less central part of the economy, whether we like it or not.
It's a problem for economics, which is still stuck with a thin welfare economics based on revealed preference, pareto-optimality and other vestiges of Viennese positivsim. And it's a problem for traditional conservatives because technological change is shaking up communities and transforming society.
In fact, it's a problem for the whole liberal tradition as it has evolved since its birth in the enlightenment response to the carnage of the Wars of Religion. We have to think about what the purpose and ends of life are again, what flourishing means, what the good life is, rather than just adopt a neutral stance. And we have to rethink some of our fundamental institutions, such as the 19th and 20th century models of "the job." Most of our mental furniture is arranged so that we feel proud of not answering the most important questions.
When people have material abundance, what do they do next? Suppose you were told all your shelter, energy, food, healthcare and education costs were taken care of for the rest of your life. Hard to imagine, but try it. What would you do?
And how do we run an economy if that choice is open to most people?