First Steps Towards Post scarcity: or Why the Current Financial Crisis is the End of the World As We Know It (And Why You Should Feel Fine)

It’s never easy to see your hard-won earnings disappear. When you open your 401K and see it’s just lost another 30%, you think: Holy moly, there goes my retirement. Yeah, it’s a natural reaction, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right one. We live in a world of accelerating change. Tomorrow won’t necessarily look anything like today. Not even slightly. In fact, it looks to me like the current financial crisis is the first step from a scarcity economy to a postscarcity scenario.

Let’s be clear on this. We’re not going to wake up in a magical world where iPods and McMansions grow on trees overnight. Before that can happen, every part of today’s value chain has to be overturned. Everything. Production of raw materials, transport and refining, design and engineering, manufacturing, distribution . . . even our own sense of worth. So, if today’s financial crisis is the first step, where do we go from here?

Keynesian? Marxist? With derivatives and CMOs and other abstractions propping up the value of investments, neither school of thought may be entirely valid. And with global population growth slowing, we’re going to have to re-evaluate the “good companies will be growing at 5% a year, forever” assumption that’s been the basis of corporate valuation.

We’re also already starting to see some examples of near post-scarcity. Consider computers and communications. If you’re willing to use a computer that’s a couple of years old, you can probably find a hand-me-down for free, and then happily talk to your friends around the world on Skype using free public wi-fi.

Or consider that in the last Depression, the main worry was simply getting enough food. Today, the marketplace is more worried about maintaining the marketing budgets of 170 different kinds of toothpaste than about ensuring that everyone has toothpaste. There’s a lot of padding in the system. Couple a financial crisis with this overweight, inefficient system, and you have the stage set for the first transition to post-scarcity: a comprehensive rethink of our concept of value.

Today, rappers sing about driving Bentleys, living in hotel-sized mansions, and drinking thousand-dollar bottles of cognac. Soon, they may be saying, “And that don’t mean shit unless you got viz and virt and rep!” We’ve already seen the beginning of this: divorce cases in which World of Warcraft’s internal currency is named as an asset; the growing importance of reputation systems such as eBay feedback; the proliferation of corporate “points” or “bux” systems that can be exchanged for real goods; the monetization of attention via friend-spamming on social networks and advertising on popular blogs. Our concept of value is expanding; it will expand even more in this phase.

Think about it. If real currency, virtual currency, corporate points, visibility, and reputation all have value, exchanges will soon crop up. Think of a FOREX (a market in which foreign currencies are exchanged) for all things we consider of value. As point examples of near post-scarcity grow and these value systems become interlocking, we’ll move beyond a single monetary value system. You’ll be able to live well under any number of value systems: reputation, visibility, network, rewards points, or even “old-fashioned” currency.

The second phase of the transition to post-scarcity is the scariest, but only if you look at it from today’s POV.

What’s hard to accept? Well, multiple interlocking value systems require comprehensive metrics and tracking. Read: surveillance. We could easily find ourselves in a propagational economy, where a person’s entire value is based on their Attention Index (their visibility to other people) and Monetization Effectiveness (how well they sell.)

Yuck," you say.

…divorce cases in which World of Warcraft’s internal currency is named as an asset; the proliferation of corporate “points”… our concept of value is expanding.

But what if advances in manufacturing efficiencies make it possible to live well, simply by interacting with friends and going about your life? What if below-replacement-level birthrates and advances in biotechnology meant you could check out of the system by claiming a piece of unused desert and planting a house? This surveillance economy might be a very easy place to live.

The end of this phase would come rapidly if Drexler-level nanomachines (molecular manufacturing) made the production of material stuff essentially free, and took the future worth of the entire value chain to zero. If it costs nothing to make the machines to find and refine the raw materials, or to grow the transportation network, two of the “insurmountable” obstacles to post-scarcity disappear. Even without this near-magical technology, bioassembly and other methods will slowly erode the value of raw materials refining, transportation, and manufacturing. In either case, this is an even bigger economic rethink than the one we’re going through today.

True nanotech is limited only by the energy we put into it. In this time, unthinkable mega-engineering projects become feasible: growing a global network for finding, refining, and transporting raw materials; producing hundreds of space elevators for easy access to extraterrestrial resources; assembling magical factories along every coastline.

In this phase: we are truly free to dream and big ideas are the currency. The dreamers and designers who can imagine the best ways to change the world will become the “economic” giants of their time. The big issue will be how to coordinate these visions, and to eliminate or minimize disruptive ones.

This phase ends when the systems for effortless production of all our dreams are in place. Artificial intelligences or powerful semantic processing make this unlimited capability accessible to anyone. We are now free to imagine what we want — and have it delivered on demand.

Speak your wishes to the air and it will deliver. The seamless nanotech/biotech skeins distributed through the earth and the solar system make every wish possible. The only remaining question: where do your rights end and someone else’s begin?

Now, sit back and think: even without life extension, I might see every phase of the transition to true post-scarcity in my lifetime. And remember that thought the next time you check your brokerage account. It is the end of the world as you know it. And that is perfectly fine.


16 Responses

  1. Trenlin says:

    I absolutely agree…

  2. Khani says:

    Some ultra-rich people read this article. Probably the Koch brothers. They look at one another…

    “..damn we need to hurry. That’s 95% of humanity we need to euthanize in the next 20-30 years…!”

  3. Ivan says:

    “In fact, it looks to me like the current financial crisis is the first step from a scarcity economy to a postscarcity scenario.”
    When you wrote this two years ago, at the height of the crisis, that might have been a plausible outcome. Now that the crisis is somewhat under control, would you say that we’re heading in that direction, or did it all snap back to reality?

    I sourced this article when I wrote Exiting Industrialism, so I’d be intrigued to see where your projections end up.


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