The road to post-scarcity

Paul Raven @ 15-04-2009

geodesic architectureIt seems that nothing can prevent Futurismic fiction regular Jason Stoddard from looking for the silver lining to every cloud – even beyond his fictional output. [image by dno1967]

Point in case: his recent article for transhumanist/futurist organ H+ Magazine, which glories in the sprawling title “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)“.

A lot of the ideas Stoddard raises will be familiar to science fiction readers, and many of his points are made by looking at the current situation from a different angle to the fashionable mode of doom and gloom. For example:

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.

You could easily accuse the piece of being Panglossian, but I’m inclined to think that’s a deliberate rhetorical gambit on Stoddard’s part – countering an excess of negativity with a big slice of sf-nal optimism. I’m not that confident that we’ll end up in a nanotech-powered utopia devoid of all wants and needs within my lifetime, but then I’m also not convinced that we’re going to slouch our way into a scenario of global misery and decline. As usual, reality will probably end up somewhere in between the two idealised poles of punditry… but I’m not ashamed to admit I hope it ends up closer to Stoddard’s vision than many of the others.

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3 Responses to “The road to post-scarcity”

  1. Screen Sleuth says:

    I agree with what he wrote; using his example, how many different types of toothpaste (or deodorant) do we need? Are the various kinds THAT different than one another?

  2. Anthony says:

    Indeed. One thing that post-scarcity will lead to, I expect, is an expansion is home produced goods. Not because people need to, but because they want to try their hand at making their own toothpaste, clothes, etc. Etsy.com is expanding quickly at this already.

    Also, I wonder if on some of the little things, we couldn’t stand for a bit of central management. As ‘Screen Sleuth’ writes, above, what if there were just two or three kinds of proven effective toothpaste. Could the resources spent on producing the other dozen different kinds that are on my grocery store shelf be spent more productively?

  3. Ivan says:

    Wow, etsy.com looks like a pleasant way to go. I like Jason’s vision, because it levels the rift between overproduction and poverty. (I sourced it pretty heavily while writing Exiting Industrialism: http://tappinginto.org/exiting-industrialism-post-scarcity) I definitely believe that we will see a slow landslide shift towards viewing reputation as a value. There’s a huge value system out there, in SEO (search energy optimization) which is essentially an algorithmic reputation consultancy business. I can see the general framework applied to other industries, physical and abstract.