There’s a recent blog article by Tim Worstall which has some bearing on my post about HS2 and also the one about the circular economy; it was in response to a Guardian article by Nick Cohen about the dangers of a high-tech borderless future.
Sensible economists worry about automated manufacturing replacing factory workers, Google’s autonomous cars replacing lorry and taxi drivers, and automatic online writing and translation services taking on tasks that only humans have been able to perform since the invention of literacy.
Tim Worstall responds:
Imagine the end state: machines do everything. Machines make the machines that repair the machines that make machines….and we don’t need to iterate any further back than that I think.
What happens to living standards here?
Clearly, no one has a job. Machines quite literally do everything. The robots act for us, the software writes the scripts and the machines make the 3D holo machines that we watch them on.
What happens to living standards here? They soar, of course.
As several commentators on Tim Worstall’s blog have pointed out, this is the scenario underpinning Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, the Culture being a future civilisation in which no-one has money but everyone nevertheless enjoys the good life, as all goods and services – from basic necessities to unimaginable luxuries – are provided by self-sustaining technology. This chimes with some old-fashioned socialist ideals (such as Sylvia Pankhurst’s “great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume”) – although, I hasten to add that the socialist reality has, to put it mildly, not exactly delivered on this. Capitalism, on the other hand, has delivered, to a certain extent, although we’re not anywhere near the promised land just yet.
Commentator IanB makes some good points:
It is also quite hard for those of us living under the tyranny of scarcity (and by this, I mean me) to think about, because one tends to bring in all sorts of scarcity-based assumptions without realising it.
… in the economy as described by Tim, there is no scarcity of raw materials either. Because a robot can always build a new robot to go fetch some more. Even from the asteroid belt.
One aspect that interests me in particular is that many people presume that demand would escalate without limit. I don’t. I think there is actually a limit to human wants. There is no use me having a hundred loaves of bread. I can only eat one. But in particular, it would presumably mean the end of demand for status goods, because if anyone can have them, there is no status to be had.
It seems to me that “the tyranny of scarcity” is a good way of describing the dominant mindset among today’s political and cultural elite (not just the greens, and not just the left.) And I think IanB is right to say that without it, there would be actually less conspicuous consumption. If everyone was well-shod, why would anyone (to use Lord Skidelsky’s example in my HS2 post) want 2000 pairs of shoes?
Clearly, capitalism has delivered in a way that state-controlled collectivist methods of production haven’t, although it has been anything but a smooth or a safe ride. And technology has, of course, been the key to capitalism’s relative success. If the ancient world was run on slave labour and the medieval world was run on serf labour (and animal labour!), today’s world is powered by a modern-day slave workforce which includes ubiquitous electrical power and the dense energy sources of fossil fuels. And, increasingly, it is not necessary to be a member of society’s elite to enjoy the fruits of this labour, such as air travel or the use of personal wheeled conveyances.
There’s a very good article about this on Graham Strouts’s SkeptEco blog, entitled “Earth Hour: We will Never Give up our Energy Slaves”. Look out for the comments and a link to another article about “turnspit dogs”, a fascinating example of how child labour and then animal labour was pressed into performing a service (turning meat on a spit) which technology now provides at the touch of a button.
Another very good article is this one by Colin McInnes on the Perpetual Motion blog.
It will be interesting to see whether the trend continues. Will the “limits to growth” people and the tyranny of scarcity prevail? Or will developments like 3D printing and molecular nanotechnology start to usher in a world where, eventually – for all of us – robots build robots and machines do everything?
I hope it will be the latter. And if something like Iain M. Banks’s Culture ever came into existence, I’d probably sign up in a heartbeat.
While drafting this post, I heard the extremely sad news on Wednesday that Iain Banks has terminal cancer and has only months to live. A century from now – hopefully sooner – we should have full-blown molecular nanotechnology, with fleets of tiny medical slave-machines patrolling our bodies and zapping cancer cells wherever they can be found. Roll on the day.