Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Fallacy of "Post-Scarcity"

The boys (and girl) at The Speculist are producing a series of audio interviews over the course of the summer with a variety of guests discussing some aspect of anticipated change in the future. On their Fast Forward Radio program's latest episode, the topic was "The Coming Era of Abundance" which somehow seems to often be portrayed as being a "post-scarcity world". No offense to anyone (particularly Stephen and Phil), but the very notion of scarcity in this context is a strawman argument.

Abundance is a result of human capability, whether individual or societal, whereas scarcity is the result of a corresponding lack of capability or an artificially imposed condition, whether deliberate or unintended consequence. Conflating the two conditions simply works to further confuse an already speculative topic.

Leaving discussion of abundance for the moment, the condition of scarcity isn't quite as obvious a concept as might be supposed. A scarcity of something has to be recognised as being determined within a set of often quite arbitrary conditions, the very arbitrariness of which is often not recognised or taken adequately into consideration when making the valuation of availability. Because a given quantity of some material or capability might exist under particular conditions is not a reasonable measure of availability, nor even of value necessarily.

I contend that scarcity is almost always an imposed condition, the result of either an act of will by some other or a deficit of ability within oneself. Considered in these terms, the possible advent of future technology as commonly discussed on the Speculist blog should more properly (or at least more fully and practically) examine how the particular technology will supersede the pre-existing and societally entrenched mechanism it displaces. Such a disruptive grounding of the discussion is necessary to fully understand the changes such technology implies as well as to prevent the conversation drifting off into utopian fantasies and illogicality's (a sub-set of a different genre). Often overlooked in any examination of a given technology is how it's course of development and acceptance by human society is effected by the actions of the adherents of pre-existing or alternative technologies. Providing a discoursive mechanism whereby people can take such resistance into account is a still-to-be-arrived-at format that continues to hamper such discussions as those hosted on the Speculist blog and Fast Forward Radio program.

One of the most common such fallacies that distort future technology considerations is the general lack of understanding regarding the concept of "money". Money is arguably the most intuitive and nuanced construct humans have (by comparison, the concept of "deity" usually best compares to a super-parent construct suffering from bi-polar disorder to the nth degree). Money is a (so far) universal system of classification and communication that pre-dates all known human records; indeed, the earliest records found in the Mesopotamian and Indus regions are all concerning classification of people and things by various measures and communication regarding their disposition by some figure of assumed authority. More properly still, by some figure speaking as agent for some figure of authority (the vast majority of whom seem to divide their time between enjoying said authority and seeking more, but decidedly not in accounting it all themselves [see: enjoying above]). I submit that the advent of money was the Singularity event that catapulted humanity onto its present course of evolutionary development. Needless to say, any event which doesn't eliminate the human need to classify and communicate won't displace this concept from human society or intellectual pursuits.

Scarcity occurs because some human(s) gain advantage to themselves by imposing such a condition upon others - OR - some human(s) fail to perform the actions necessary to satisfy such a demand and deny the opportunity to themselves and others. These two human traits will continue to exist whatever technology humans might also contrive; failure to account for their influence will only cause disruption and distortion to the development process and further continue the imposition of scarcity as well.

The ability to manipulate the molecular structure of matter to satisfy our particular desire of the moment seems a logical extension of current scientific research and the veritable definition of "abundance". This only holds true, however, to the extent our existing societal structures don't impose inhibiting influence on the development process. Reduction of scarcity equals a commensurate reduction in the degree of influence and outright control that can be imposed upon groups by individuals. Similarly, providing the means to achieve individual abundance offers a single instance of opportunity to the provider. Neither of these near-universal human considerations is obviated by the development of technology or recognition of a human need - however genuine - that development satisfies. Recognition of opportunity and a desire for personal security isn't limited to potential despots after all.

To any possible technologic development, there will be both direct and indirect opposition as well as passive acceptance and outright indifference to contend with. Any examination of future potentialities that fails to adequately take these conditions into account simply fails. Blogs like the Speculist and their Fast Forward Radio production are on-going examinations of human technology development and, as such, remain ever a work in process. I recommend their efforts to everyone and anticipate continued development of the examination process they utilize to contemplate the future.

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