Planet Ulrich

A Dangerous Subversive Takes on the Future, with Movie Reviews!

The Singularity and Abundance

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Indeed that’s true (the Singularity is all about abundance, or The Big Rock Candy Mountain).  I don’t believe it will be accomplished, of course.  I’m not convinced that solar cells  or other such technology will ever become cheap enough/efficient enough to scale to the point of providing essentially free energy.

Now, I don’t think that some government or corporate conspiracy will stop that, I just don’t think we’ll figure out a way to do it, and no, we certainly have not thus far.
I’ll note that the technological wonders of the last two centuries have increased the stock of human wealth, and improved the quality of human life, but they most definitely have not brought about abundance.  It’s important to make that point, because every now and again some guy who plays with his telephone for a living writes a little blog about how the Singularity is already here, since we all have such nice telephones to play with.
I strongly suspect we will see quite a bit of scarcity in the next few decades, particularly as populations continue to explode in places that have thus far proven incapable of sustaining the burden of exploding populations (such as Africa and the Middle East); I suppose it will be incumbent upon us to support such populations ourselves, though it’s always been unclear to me why that is our responsibility.  Perhaps we can give them 3d printers and magical solar cells that produce effectively free power, then they’ll stop burning down the jungles, obliterating wildlife habitat and otherwise exterminating most of the non-domesticated animals.  Right, we’ll have to invent those things first; not to worry, once the computers are fast enough, they’ll just invent everything for us.
The future, like the past, is scarcity.  Your gadgets and your big pools of processed data won’t change that.  (Having a lot fewer people might produce relative abundance, but current trends don’t seem to favor that outcome).
You’re right, it was careless of me to say that would never happen.  I try to be more precise with my words.  How could I know whether something would “ever” happen?  What I meant, or should have said, was that I didn’t think such solar cells would be developed in the reasonably foreseeable future (say the next century); I also lack confidence in the various alternatives to hydrocarbons and nuclear that crop up whenever this topic is raised, none of which are real substitutes (wind, geothermal, biomass, etc. etc.); all of which are currently crippled by scaling issues, net-energy negative, and/or otherwise arguably more environmentally harmful than what they are supposed to replace (like biomass).  Could that ever change?  Well, I don’t know, I suppose that it could.  Will it change any time soon?  I doubt it.
About the word abundance: I use that word in its technical economic sense (which I should have made clear but thought was understood).  Abundance, in economics, is the absence of scarcity.
Air, for example, is generally abundant on the surface of the Earth (the supply is effectively unlimited, so breathing is free, or rather, a person can breathe all he’d like and not affect the ability of anybody else to breathe as much as he’d like).  Most other resources are subjected to various kinds of scarcity; economics used to be understood as the study of human action within the context of scarcity, or human responses to it.
Technology has not created abundance thus far, what it has done is reduce certain kinds of scarcity for many people.  You could call this a kind of relative abundance (things are generally less scarce now then they used to be) but it is not actual abundance, and use of the word that way gets murky.
I make fun of certain Singularitarians because they talk as though the Singularity will bring about actual abundance (the absence of scarcity, for all resources that matter, the ability of people to gratify any effective impulse without constraint, without having to work/produce, etc.)
To me that is millennial crazy talk, difficult to distinguish from any other utopian eschatology (Christian, Gnostic, Marxist, etc.; Marx in particular believed that technology would bring about actual abundance, though he was very fuzzy about the specifics of how this would happen; it was always presented as a sort of necessary culmination to the historical Process he believed animated everything; Fourier talked like this too).
I think we are actually in agreement about “abundance” (whatever does happen, in the foreseeable future, “Singularity” or no, there will be no “abundance” as I have used the term, people will still live under conditions of scarcity).  You think that people will be subjected to less scarcity in the future than now, which is to say technology will make things cheaper for them and generally improve the quality of their lives.
I used to think so, I used to actually believe in a kind of generalized reduction of scarcity brought about by technology and the operations of the market.  I’ve changed my mind, over the last few years.  I now think that such things are cyclical (quality of life improves and degrades, as civilizations blossom, grow, then stagnate, decline and collapse), as I’ve been saying, not linear; and that, while gains are not necessarily zero sum, they can be (some can win, while others, or even most, lose); a central conceit of most modern schools of economics is that, given the right market process, over time, everybody gains; I no longer believe that is always true.   Not that I think everybody should gain “equally” or has some right to a given share of whatever is produced; I do think that it would be better, all else being equal, for more to prosper than fewer.  (I tend to temper an elitist, hierarchical view of human abilities with the idea of noblesse oblige, those who can do better seeing themselves as having a responsibility to look after those closest to them who can’t; to the extent possible, I would rather that were a question of cultural expectation than force).
I think the societal gains of the technology developed in the last twenty years are overstated and the costs of that technology’s adoption ignored or dismissed.  Real per capita median income in the United States has been flat to declining since the 70s; people who do work commute further, in worse traffic, to work longer hours, husbands and wives now need to work to produce a comparable income to that husbands gained alone a few decades ago, etc. etc. etc.  I just don’t see quality of life improving here (apart from advances in medicine); people are shallower, more distracted, busier, though I don’t see much evidence that they get all that much more done, that what they do even matters that much in itself, or that whatever value they do produce isn’t largely captured by a tiny senior executive/financial class.  I think the near future will be a kind of greater Brazil, a globalized labor market within which a small financial/managerial elite amasses vast wealth, while driving wages down as far as possible (using the combination of unlimited labor and automation).  I think such societies will be both inherently unstable and subjected to omnipresent surveillance/corporate/state control (anarchy invites tyranny, in a positive feedback loop, generally not lost on the tyrants).
But everybody will have really nice telephones, and all the streaming pornography, reality infotainment, and simulated violence they care to immerse themselves in.  They’ll have 4500 friends online to chat with, anywhere, about the latest celebrity breakup or the scariest new torture film, but nobody will actually know anybody, not really. or much of anything, their lives will be largely spent absorbing and responding to an infinite stream of manipulative noise.  There will be exceptions (people like us, actually, among others), but that’s the rule I see.
I don’t know, it’s not the world I’d choose.

Written by ulrichthered

February 22, 2013 at 6:25 pm

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