On Reddit, in and amid all the shitposts and link posts to game vids and cute cats and cuddly kids and all the rest, occasionally interesting things come up. I mean, if you like games and shit and kids, I’m not judging. But I also like thinking about stuff.
So does Elon Musk. This was posted today, and I was impressed that it managed to actually spawn some good conversation among the Redditors.
In the clip, Elon muses about what happens to us, not the economy, but us, when robots can provide for all the things money is currently required to purchase. Post scarcity, in other words.
I did some thinking about that. And am copying my response here.
I think his point is, and it’s a fair one, a lot of people don’t currently have the mindset that they *can* do these things. That they can be creative, be artists, be makers.
Sir Ken Robinson has spoken about how ‘modern’ education across the western world focuses on training such things out of students. That’s several generations of people now, who have been taught to shut up, sit down, and work in the factory. Go to the office. Conform, be good, don’t let loose or waste your life on flights of fancy. And those generations have their own children and grandchildren who have gone through the same thing.
How many people put in their 40-50 hours a week at a job they hate, another 5 or 10 hours traveling to and from it. Do their chores, their shopping, then collapse in front of the tv. These days maybe the computer for Reddit or Youtube or Twitch. Week after week, month after month, years. Decades now in many cases.
Modern civilization has done a remarkable job of beating a lot of creativity out of people. The most creative typical ‘free spirits’ often get is wanting to be ‘famous’, so they try to get on the tv talent shows, or become a Youtuber or Twitch streamer. What do their parents, their *friends*, say when someone remarks “Gee, I wish I could just paint. I want to start dancing. I want to sculpt, act, perform, create. I want to live.”
“But you need a job. You have rent. You gotta buy food. Don’t be foolish. Don’t throw your life away. Be real, be serious. Don’t buy into the fallacy of art and culture. Go into science to make money, not explore and discover. Don’t waste your time on shit that doesn’t pay you.”
Parents are the worst at this. Everything’s about money.
Elon’s definitely right that we’re approaching a radical shift. Few political systems (governments) in the world seem to recognize this. Fewer still are even actively trying to test and address how to adapt to it. UBI isn’t about “free money”, it’s about post scarcity. When a robot can build the houses and stores, grow the food, make the goods, deliver and dole out all of it to the populace … that’s post scarcity.
Human economic value systems have traditionally arisen from scarcity. There’s only so much food, because there are only so many farmers, so many laborers, so many delivery drivers, shopkeepers, construction workers to build the stores and infrastructure, only so many other workers to supply the construction needs, and so on. To encourage and induce society’s members to participate in maintaining all these processes, a lot of “work or die” attitudes have settled in over the centuries.
In very scarce economies, when there actually wasn’t enough to go around, that even made a cold amount of sense. If you want to live, participate in the processes. Be part of the solution. These days, it’s arguable there is more than enough in many countries, but people are still in scarce-economy mode, so anyone who dares mention something like UBI is accused of “wanting something for nothing.”
Okay, fine. That’s another conversation entirely.
But when we enter post scarcity, when it’s such a small societal cost to maintain all the processes that support humanity’s needs, then it ceases to become anything other than “fuck you” to oppose something like UBI or an analogue. When there is enough food, shelter, heat, everything, for people to have a life … insisting those who can’t hack and plot their way into one of the few jobs remaining should wander off into the wilderness and starve is nothing but “fuck you.”
Money currently has value because of scarcity. When food and necessary needs are *so cheap* in terms of cost to produce and provide, that’s post scarcity.
Elon’s musing about “what will people find meaning in” demonstrates he’s skipped right past all the political moaning over “all these freeloaders, fucking bastards” and is thinking about the actual civilization impacts. The social-life aspects. When you can, truly and literally, chose what you do with your life, how do we adapt? When current civilization puts all the emphasis on “conform and participate in the economy”, how do its citizens roll into “okay, you have your life back; it’s just yours. Do what you want. Be free to explore life.”
Some people, as he mentioned, have placed their entire identity into their job. Into their work within the economy. We’ve seen it for centuries, where someone will retire, sometimes when they get crippled or disabled or ill, and can’t work anymore; and they just sort of waste and fade away. Because they can’t recast themselves, shift their mind and identity, into something other than defined solely by their work. Those people, and they’re out there, will find post scarcity a very large shock. “What do you mean there’s no job for me. What am I supposed to do? Sure I’m fine, I’m not starving, I’m housed and well kept, but what do I do?”
Others will embrace it.
Neil Gaiman invented the Library of Dream in Sandman. There’s very small section in it, tiny, almost unnoticeable; the stories that have been written. The rest of it, the endless vast expanse of the Library of Dream, is all the stories, all the tales and books and poems and dreams, that are unwritten. That lay fallow in the minds of their would-be authors.
What happens when people have to come around to the notion that they can paint, write, act, sculpt, research, construct, explore. When they can devote their lives to living and expressing themselves, rather than grinding their noses and fingers and asses against the wheel of commerce just to survive? Not everyone will be able to adapt, and some will fall away from the rest of us.
What happens to society as a whole when so much expression has the freedom and fruits to explode. When the painters aren’t discouraged from painting, when the coders aren’t told to be serious and do something that will get them paid. When the scientists can follow their thoughts, rather than the money. When humans can live for themselves, and make things happen. When the small section in the Library of Dream starts rapidly expanding with told tales, said stories, present paintings. When things that could be start being things that are.
It’s going to be a change that makes the Industrial Revolution, the Information age, even the shift from Hunter-Gatherer to Agricultural, pale in comparison.
Think of all that can happen when billions of people are given the basic resources to create. We laud ‘special’ people like Elon because they were lucky, clever, and fortunate enough to push through their dreams. What happens when the only dreams that don’t get pushed are those where the dreamer was just lazy. Sure there will be lazy people; there always will. Those who just pass time and enjoy themselves. No problem, have fun. Be free.
But all those other people? That’s a lot of dreamers waiting to cut loose.
Think of what can be. And they will.