The Post-scarcity Economy: What is it & how do we get there?
– An interview with Jason Stoddard
Edge of Tomorrow Report – 4.18.2010
By Wade Inganamort (@swadeshine)
Jason Stoddard is a writer, blogger, and self-proclaimed “evil marketer”. He is a Writers of The Future contest winner and has two books: “Winning Mars” and “Eternal Franchise” due for publication this year – as well as the story “Overheard” in “Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic SF“.
EOT: Hi there, Jason. Could you please define a scarcity economy and how it might differ from a post-scarcity economy?
Stoddard: Well, I can be flip and say, “A scarcity economy is when you have to work to buy some things you want, and a post-scarcity economy is where you don’t have to work to have everything you want.”
But it hides the nuances. Right now we all think we’re living in a scarcity economy: you have to work to get money, which there never seems to be enough of, and then you have to use your money to buy stuff, which always has a price tag, and even after you buy stuff, you might wonder how your consumption is going to affect the environment. Everything is presupposed to be scarce: money, things, resources.
If you step back and look around, you might be surprised. Even today, there are point examples of a de facto post-scarcity economy; we produce so many technological gewgaws that if you’re OK with being a couple of generations back in computers or phones, your effective cost could easily be zero. Manufacturing efficiency has soared to points undreamed-of only a generation ago. Prices have cratered, even in non-constant (inflationary) dollars–and even in light of significantly higher energy costs.
Of course, these are only point examples. Nobody is going to leave their job because they can get an old computer for free. And that’s probably the primary difference between a scarcity and post-scarcity economy: the need to keep working to live. When the time comes that we’re unshackled from traditional work and income, and can have all the things we reasonably want, and not have to worry about whether or not our consumption is sustainable, we’re in a post-scarcity economy.
EOT: Tell us about the potential transition process to a post-scarcity economy. How do we get there? What are the hurdles?
Stoddard: Ha! This is something I think about a lot (and have explored in fiction.) Let’s look at the main challenges:
1. How the heck do you keep everyone happy and out of trouble as we move towards post-scarcity?
2. Can we avoid depleting all our scarce resources (rare earths, etc) before we reach a place where iPads fall from trees?
3. Where do we get the energy to make all this stuff?
Admittedly, most of my thought and energy has been devoted to the first challenge–how to keep people happy–mainly because it creates lots of neat conflict for fiction. Whether we end up with massively automated factories churning out crowdsourced products based on real-time, artificial-intelligence-mediated assessments of what people want through datamining of the social networks, or if we end up with personal manufactories, the end result is the same: many, many people out of work. In a scarcity economy, no work = no income. And lots of people with no money in a scarcity economy usually isn’t a recipe for a happy ending.
And even if we manage to cobble together a “transitional” economic structure based on reduced scarcity, we’ll still run into the same problem if bio-mimetic technology or true nanoassembly becomes practical and we enter a true post-scarcity state. What do we all do? How do we keep from degenerating into worship of the all-powerful, magical machines? (More thoughts on that later.)
The second and third challenges I’ve spent less time thinking about–mainly because I believe the social aspects are more challenging. Yes, some resources are scarce, but the more scarce and costly they become, the more incentive we have to find alternates. We, as a species, tend to think linearly–“If this goes on for XX years, we’re all doomed.” But it doesn’t go on for XX years. Technology is driven by market forces, so when lithium and molybdenum and other scarce substances become too expensive, we’ll find new ways of doing things–because the economic reward will be huge.
Energy-wise, we have more than enough for all of us, streaming down on the planet every day. When traditional energy sources like oil become too costly, again, the market will dictate a move to nuclear, solar, and other alternates. We’re seeing the beginnings of this right now.
EOT: Assuming that everything is not always definitively Utopian, what are some good and bad scenarios?
Stoddard: Again, I’ve explored many of these in fiction, so excuse me if I use story synopses as examples.
From good to bad:
Jack’s Gift (Futurismic). Full Drexler-level nanotech transforms Alaska into a true Santa’s workshop, growing abundant goods for everyone in the world–a truly utopian bedtime story, told by a father to his daughter. This is almost pure fantasy, since we’re still far from nanomachines. Nanotech may end up looking a lot more like life science–slow and steady, rather than fast and hot.
Monetized (Interzone). A “propagation economy”–think Google ads, but in real life, with instant rating of your Attention Index and Monetization Effectiveness–allows most people to live a good life without working, simply by going about their daily lives–and then real nanotech arrives. Scary on the “advertising is evil” frequency, but a fundamentally pleasant world overall. This is an example of a transitional economy. It’s amazing how many people found this story utterly terrifying, and kept searching for the poor, downtrodden masses they assumed *had* to be part of any economy.
Willpower (Futurismic). In the midst of an early transition to post-scarcity, the USA declares Willfare, where the unemployed must do the scut-work of the still-employed. Not a happy scenario, but people are fed, housed, and still relatively free. This is another transitional economy, trying to spread around a limited amount of work among too many people, without addressing the underlying changes.
Overhead (Shine). Colonists on the far side of the moon discover that a “metastate” regime on Earth has simply declared post-scarcity by spreading a thin layer of resources among its growing population. Ugly and draconian, but people are still eating. This is one of the most dangerous scenarios–post-scarcity by decree. Although the fundamental idea of equal distribution of resources amongst all the world’s population is well-meaning and altruistic, I don’t want to envision the entity that could enforce such a distribution.
White Swan (Futurismic). Takeover by the elite puts society into a brutal meritocracy in a “Long Run” down to one billion population in 100 years–post-scarcity but extremely ugly, with significant societal engineering. Also, in the words of one of the characters, this is the “kind” option–the other was to simply wipe out 95% of the population in one shot. This is the most terrifying scenario that I can envision.
EOT: Regarding those bad scenarios, what steps can we take to avoid them?
Stoddard: I’m going to be controversial, because I think there’s only one step we can take to avoid the truly ugly futures: get into space in a big way, now.
Here’s why: the ugliest post-scarcity futures are the ones that assume it’s a zero-sum game. And on one planet, eventually it *is* a zero-sum game. Especially if we’re looking at post-scarcity with transhuman ideals like radical lifespan extension. We either have to start talking pie-in-the-sky ideas like fundamentally changing human behavior (How? Drugs? Brain implants? Eugenics?–any way you look at it, the answers aren’t pretty) or monolithic, iron-fisted control (declaring that everyone has enough, and should be happy now.)
The only way out of those traps is to make it a non-zero-sum game–to start using the resources of space, and to start doing it in a big way.
EOT: What are some of the deeper implications of a post-scarcity society?
Stoddard: Wow. Post-scarcity, as a subject, is so deep that I don’t know that anyone could imagine all the potential implications. However, I’ll give it a shot–and I’ll try to break it down into digestible chunks.
Human nature. Assuming true post-scarcity (anyone can have anything they want), how do we keep a handful of greedy people from consuming the planet or enslaving the rest? Assuming partial post-scarcity (anyone can have anything they’d rationally want), how do we define “rational”–and how do we ensure everyone is happy with it? Both of these questions go deep into the question of human nature. How do we know when we have “enough?” How do we prevent power blocks from accumulating, and how do we keep these power blocks from subjugating the rest of humanity? The question of human nature is by far the toughest I’ve considered–I must admit I have no good answers about how we might temper greed, without destroying what it means to be human.
Control. In a post-scarcity society, who pulls the levers? Who determines who can have what? This question is intimately tied in with the question of human nature. We’d better be very careful when we decide who gets to pull the levers, though, else we could end up with subsistence-level post-scarcity (or worse.)
Stasis. In a true post-scarcity economy, what motivation do we have to create new things? If we reach a truly magical level of post-scarcity where every wish is granted, how do we avoid a lotus-eater scenario, where nothing changes for thousands of years? I’ll go back to my previous answer: let’s get into space, so we have somewhere to explore.
Degeneration. After a few thousand years of a magical post-scarcity society, how do we avoid degenerating into dumb animals worshipping the magical machines? Again, this scenario is easy to envision if we’re confined to a single world. If we are a heterogeneous society spread across the solar system, I think it would be easier to avoid this.
Reinvention. I sold a story entitled “True History,” where I explored a magical post-scarcity society spanning the solar system, thousands of years in the future. Everyone had anything they wanted, as well as almost unlimited power. The catch? They were so powerful they could literally change the makeup of their world. They’d forgotten their history, and reinvented an Earth that never really existed–and were about to do it again. Can we get so powerful that we destroy everything we are?
EOT: You’ve mentioned working with these themes in your fiction. Could you tell us a little about what you’ve been up to lately?
Stoddard: I think I’ve covered that in the “good and bad scenarios,” question. But, if anyone’s still interested, check out the Shine anthology, edited by Jetse de Vries, which has several “road to post-scarcity” futures in it (including my own.) You can also look forward to the release of Winning Mars, my first novel, published by Prime Books. It’s available for pre-order at Amazon.
EOT: Any last thoughts?
Stoddard: Thanks again for the (amazingly tough) questions! Remember, I’m not a scientist, just a science fiction writer . . . I hope I can help light the path ahead.
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