I spent the better part of the day yesterday at Singularity University, teaching and talking with the students after a kind invitation from Brad Templeton. Our session went for two and a half lively hours, which astonished me. I can talk about the ideas in Race Against the Machine forever, but I didn’t think anyone else would care to. But the SU students were engaged throughout, asked probing questions, and hung around to talk even more over lunch. Clearly, the concepts of exponential technological progress and its implications for work, the economy, and society touched a nerve with them.
Some questioned whether tech progress really would lead to serious levels of unemployment and under-employment in the future, but many seemed willing to concede that this would in fact be the case. They then pretty quickly turned to the question ‘what do we do about it?,’ which is where things got really interesting for me.
More than a few of the SU students advocated doing away with our current practices of using currency as a medium of exchange, and of having prices for things. Their reasoning was that as exponential, technology-enabled progress increases abundance and makes scarcity itself scarce, there will be so much stuff available that we should just stop charging for it.
This is an appealing notion in many ways, but it’s hard to me to see, even in the long-ish term, how food, clothing, housing, and health care (to name just a few) are ever going to be so cheap as to be essentially free. In addition, a big part of the motivation to produce stuff is the promise of being able to make money from it.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. Volunteerism and altruism are powerful forces, and people produce plenty of Wikipedia articles, blog posts, and restaurant reviews without a profit motive, but I’m cautious about reading too much into these phenomena. It’s hard for me to see how enough people are going to be willing to plant and harvest a crop (or buy and maintain the robots that do the harvesting) without the allure of revenue and profit.
One could argue that the government, in this future scenario of abundance, can and should do the producing so that we can all do the consuming. Well, we tried that last century. It was called communism, and it was an abject failure. Some places, like North Korea and Cuba, are still trying it. And they’re both places that people are frequently willing to risk their lives to escape. I think that should tell us something. And I don’t think that anything about technological progress will change the fact that massive state-owned enterprise is a bad idea.
Some of the SU students were pessimistic about the ability of the our elected leaders to intelligently and successfully manage the transition to a post-work / post-labor economy. Given the levels of bluster and polarization in political discourse these days I deeply sympathize with their frustration. But I don’t have much sympathy for their fixes, which largely consisted of departures from democracy — from the ground rule of ‘one person, one vote.’
A lot of the proposals I heard were about appointing or finding an elite – a group of smart and enlightened philosopher kings – to guide their societies through the transitions that lie ahead. Such proposals are. by definition, anti-democratic, and as such they scare the hell out of me. I opened my book Enterprise 2.0 with this quote from Jefferson, which I still believe:
I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education.
I think that as technologies continue to race ahead they’ll put capitalism and democracy to some tests — quite possibly significant ones — but I still think they’re our best hope for meeting future challenges. To embrace and extend a great Winston Churchill quote, they’re the worst possible forms, except all the others that have been tried.
What do you think? How ready, willing, and eager are you to move away from democracy and capitalism (which is quite distinct from corporatism, mind)? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.