Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The "Resource Based" Economy

Old ideas in new clothing:
One Friday afternoon someone brought a pair of virtual reality goggles hooked up to a laptop to the shop. Mr. Foster exhaled a cloud that smelled like a Popsicle. He said he had been reading up on the idea, explored in the “Zeitgeist” movie, of a “resource-based economy” — a system in which, he said, “There’s no money and everything is controlled by computers and resources are equally distributed and there’s no ownership or anything like that.”

“The system we have now is going to collapse,” he said. “And technology, the automation process, is going to keep taking over and over.”

That, he said, would free up people to do what they wanted.
My sons and their friends were watching this video or some other in the same genre a few weeks ago. I watched a bit before deciding that I had heard all of these arguments before: this is just Leninism with the techno-futurism brought up to date.

People failed by neo-liberal capitalism are intrigued by this language: if money is the root of all evil, get rid of it and just distribute resources in an equitable way. Sadly this elides all important questions, from how things are produced to who decides what "equitable" means. I suppose it is predictable that such ideas will surface when people are frustrated, but let's hope they never escape from the fringe world of vaping shops in dying industrial towns.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

You seem a bit too eager to dismiss this topic outright. Automation progresses at an impressive rate, and it is going to gradually undermine existing systems as time goes on.

We're working on self driving cars, a technology which - once mature - will completely restructure how we go about moving people around in automobiles, and will have direct effects on industries such as insurance, as well as on law and how we enforce it.

We're building robots and drones which are getting more impressive (and more troubling and unsettling) by the day. Robotics is moving ever closer to the capacity to produce human-equivalency, or even to surpass it, spurred on largely by new developments in mobility and balance. We're teaching robots to traverse terrain and obstacles that they never could have managed just a mere decade ago. And the military is already at work on mobile "pack mules" that can cross any terrain and can come replete with fully automatic turrets.

Sensors and artificial intelligence progress steadily. We're teaching machines to recognize and identify objects by "sight", allowing them degrees of autonomy previously unheard of. This is what allows cars to drive themselves, and it is what will allow military drones to hunt and kill on their own, but it also has countless other potential applications.

Amazon and other companies already use a high degree of automation in their warehousing systems, managing untold millions of shipping parcels and pieces of inventory. As technology advances, it's only going to get cheaper, more efficient, and more capable. We're not just teaching robots how to do single things anymore - we're teaching them how to be versatile, and how to adapt to changing situations and to learn from experience. We're creating automatons that can alter their own behaviors without human input. Think about what that means.

Now, do I believe these continuing advances are going to translate into a moneyless economy any time soon? No, I highly doubt it.

But in a century or two, who knows? Automation is going to keep getting better, and eventually it's simply going to make more sense to replace human employees with robotic ones. Why hire a window washer when you could just buy a maintenance robot instead? Why pay someone a salary and give them benefits and let them stop working after 40 hours a week when you can have a machine that only costs electricity and mechanical upkeep and will work 24/7?

Of course, certain kinds of jobs will always require, or at least "prefer", human workers. Anything creative, of course, and plenty of vocations which are more abstract or cerebral will definitely favor humans. And of course, even in fields where automation almost completely takes over, there will still be a need for human supervisors and absolutely the need for technicians to service and repair. But that still translates to huge numbers of jobs lost, both in terms of menial labor and in terms of managerial positions. And, yes, even those supervisors and technicians necessary to keep the robotic workforce operating smoothly will still not be a very large number.

Is this a concern for our lifetimes? Probably not. But is it something our children and grandchildren may have to take very seriously and learn how to cope with? There's a very real chance of that. Maybe not to the point of all money disappearing, but certainly to the point of human labor in developed nations becoming largely obsolete in many fields.