Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Singularity, Economics And Getting There From Here

Cross Posted to MemeBox/Future Blogger.

Phil Bowermaster has a post up at The Speculist examining the state of the progression of human society from it's present structure to one more closely tracking the various expectations stemming from the concept of The Singularity:

[The following is an expanded version of an e-mail I sent to Stephen in response to some reflections he had on our most recent FastForward Radio -- that show with guest Joseph Jackson discussing the possibility of a post-scarcity world. I think Stephen was going to post some additional thoughts, too -- to which I would have added comments -- but time's up!]


My issue is more practical. By what means could we possibly get to the kind of society he's describing? The assumption seems to be that it would be the federal government (or the Earth government or -- my fav -- the Committee of Robot Overlords) doing the distributing. But we don't have a working model of how a government can guarantee the material welfare of its population without ripping its economy to shreds and putting individual rights on the back burner. That doesn't mean it can't happen, but Joseph doesn't have a model of how we would get there, or at least he didn't articulate one Wednesday night.

I sympathise with Phil's dilemma, unfortunately Mr. Jackson's lack of specific insight isn't unique to him; nobody really knows how we get to "there" because we still haven't really articulated the starting point for the needed change(s) to progress from with any sort of degree of engineering specificity. It's all well and good to simply proclaim the need for a systemic advancement, but what specific mechanism achieves that to actual advantage - and to whom? It seems a bit solipsistic perhaps, but market pressures actually are the least disruptive mechanism to stimulating that process. This doesn't make for speedy adoption of course, but does assure wide-spread acceptance of the process within the production industry(s) generally once the never-ending search for competitive advantage resorts to such comparatively radical technological innovation. Until business profitability (with it's concomitant influence on tax collections) forces executives and governmental legislators to commit to some technology there will remain resistance to doing so. Despite the potential for individual developments altering the current production structure and economy, the likelihood of such a development actually forcing early change is slight for a variety of reasons - only some of them technologic in nature.

One aspect of the problem Phil notes - quoting fellow Speculist contributor Michael Darling - in particular is one I've examined several times in recent years, as Phil himself might recall:

The vocabulary we use to talk about economics and scarcity has to change. Economists and those who take their classes and read their books are not equipped to discuss abundance. It just makes no sense.

On the one hand, Mr. Darling is correct that economics - as a science/intellectual discipline - doesn't seem to offer many objectively testable assertions that claim any real universal application. The degree of sociology and psychology that permeates this supposed theoretic codification of conflicting accounting methodology is truly astonishing to those who haven't examined the topic closely. What I have discovered is that economics has less to do with financial considerations then it does with the societal manipulations that are occasionally accomplished via that mechanism. Not to mention the to-be-expected "who's is bigger" competition between economists themselves - I'm not aware of any studies of the question, but I do have to wonder how many economic theories result from the pursuit of professional advantage rather than actual theoretical insight. :)

On the other hand, Mr. Darling seems to be making a common mistake among non-economists; to wit, that the concept of "scarcity" has very much of a tangible nature to do with the actual quantity of something.

Scarcity is a little understood aspect of the cost/price determination and is always at least in part the result of deliberate human manipulation of transactional processes, so will always exist to some measurable extent in human societal interactions - whatever the technologic capabilities might otherwise allow. If Eric Drexler's much-abused Nano-Fabricator should ever finally be achieved, there will still be local examples of "scarcity" due to the efforts of humans to achieve advantage for themselves in some fashion.

Which illustrates some of the difficulty of these types of speculative discussion; there is simply no way to objectively measure the impact of these types of societal and technologic change absent some practical example to observe.

One final issue raised by Phil's post:

I don't see any straightforward way to convert our current very powerful, entrenched, and bureaucratic government into something open and abundance-friendly. Certainly, they will be slow to adopt those kinds of models on their own.

I believe even a cursory examination of human history will lead one to accept that no previously ascendant entity, whether governmental or corporate, will ever accept change - particularly of such disruptive nature - until such time as doing so works to the pre-existing structure's perceived advantage to do so. The trick, then, becomes arranging circumstance such that this occurs more quickly than not, I suggest. Sorry Phil, but the "next logical step" mostly isn't; you generally can't get there from here, you've got to go to some other there first. :)

I look forward to Stephen's response as well, and still hope he and I can arrange a luncheon on one of his future peregrinations through this part of Texas.