We have recently seen increased interest in the issues of workplace automation,technological unemployment, and Basic Income Guarantee (AKA Universal Basic Income). Some observers have been perplexed by visceral and sharply divided public opinion, with people viewing these phenomena as inherently positive or negative.
We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.
- R. Buckminster Fuller
My own view is that when people see technological unemployment as intrinsically good or bad, the side they fall on probably depends on whether they’re focused on the possible future, or the problematic present. Most jobs are only valuable insofar as they earn money to live, but if our needs could be provided without the jobs then it would be a good thing to have the option of not working for money. Thus, in an ideal world technological unemployment would be a good thing. The problem arises when such unemployment takes place in a Capitalist context; i.e. in a world like ours, where if you don’t have a job you may well be unable to afford healthcare, you might lose your home, even starve.
We live in an interesting time, in which our society has not yet finished exploring the consequences of Capitalism on a trajectory spanning hundreds of years, but at the same time is heavily pregnant with a new civilizational paradigm. We don’t know exactly what the new paradigm will be, but we can be fairly sure that its dawn will be heralded by a cascade of disruptive technologies rendering 19th Century ideas about trade and governance entirely obsolete. That has the potential to be a very good or bad thing, but in the meantime there is a pressing issue we must contend with.
1. Capitalism is a machine with no off-switch
Well, capitalism is a big problem, because with capitalism you’re just going to keep buying and selling things until there’s nothing else to buy and sell, which means gobbling up the planet.
- Alice Walker
Capitalism might be thought of as a machine, or a process. In my opinion it is a machine – an engine of sorts – which has yielded great value for society. It has made a high-technology future possible. Unfortunately, the engine’s operations have also yielded some unfortunate side-effects. The sensible move at this point would be to optimise the process; to maximise the engine’s efficiency, and minimise its negative societal effects (not to mention ensuring that the role of the engine is not confused with that of the flight crew). Unfortunately, however, it would appear that if Capitalism is a machine, it is a machine with no off-switch or pause button. It is a runaway process.
In other words, Capitalism has no mechanism for reversing itself when its effects become a problem. For example, now that automation is making it possible for people to use their time and energy for something other than meaningless labour – indeed it is taking away jobs whether people want them or not – Capitalism cannot suddenly make ‘opting out’ a viable course of action. People who opt out of Capitalism cease to be able to support themselves within modern society.
In this way, it would appear that the old system has no capacity for gracefully giving way to a new way of doing things where people want that. The old system would strangle the new in its cradle, given the chance. Consequently, anyone who wishes to employ new technologies in the creation of a progressive society must be ready to force the old system to relinquish its grip on their lives.
2. The Social Futurist alternative
Usually the first problems you solve with the new paradigm are the ones that were unsolvable with the old paradigm.
- Joel A. Barker
As I’ve mentioned above, there is a broad space of post-Capitalist alternatives potentially enabled by new technologies. I am an advocate for a single category within that broad space, which I call Social Futurism. Right now, Social Futurism simply refers to the intelligent and compassionate application of new technologies to individual and societal improvement, with an emphasis upon voluntarism and personal freedom. At this stage, therefore, Social Futurism could be considered a synonym for Techno-Progressivism, although no-one knows if that will continue to be true as these schools of thought evolve.
WAVE is a Social Futurist movement, its ideas and concerns being explicitly compatible with Techno-Progressivism. We believe in positive social change through technology, and so are firmly on the side of the emerging new paradigm. My own view is that there will always be a place for responsible trade in emergent commodities, and that healthy private competition drives innovation, but so far Social Futurism leaves such questions open. Capitalism as it currently exists, however, will soon be faced with challenges unprecedented in its history. If Capitalism is incapable of graceful reform to adopt a place within the new paradigm, as I strongly suspect, then Social Futurists and other post-Capitalists will be forced to take a revolutionary stand. To forcibly unplug a machine loose in our lives, which never had an off-switch.
3. Revolution means never being alone
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
- R. Buckminster Fuller
But what does it mean to speak of “revolution” and “force”? Of course we can easily conjure images of violent political revolutions, and there is no denying that public rebellion is back in vogue. I personally believe that violent revolution is not something to be desired or fetishised, both because it seldom ends well or as predicted, and also because the deepest revolutions are inclusive and take time to play out. Here I am referring not to minor political revolutions so much as major paradigm shifts like the Industrial Revolution. Now, we are facing a techno-cultural shift on that scale (if not much larger), but at the same time it is likely to spark various social, economic, and political conflicts of the sort associated with violent revolution. We must ask ourselves how best to proceed, with the probability of such events looming large on the horizon.
At least two answers to that question might be suggested by the Zero State (ZS)community, which is part of the WAVE movement. The ZS idea is to create a virtual, distributed State which adheres to a set of ethical principles including limits of governmental jurisdiction. The first answer is that Social Futurists’ engagement in violent situations should be governed by principles, such as an imperative to do so only in self-defence. The second answer is to focus on building new communities, new infrastructure, and new paradigms rather than attempting to fix broken systems. In short, we need to build principled networks and use them to apply the latest innovations to our highest ideals, to the benefit of as many people as possible.
If we can do that, then I believe we will indeed be seeing a revolution unfold. New social and economic models will evolve and emerge from within the old, which will compete with older systems to provide high quality of life. Where people are not offered freedom of choice between these alternatives, and where the remnants of the older society seek to destroy its offspring, we must stand ready to fight for our freedoms. If we are hardworking and organised, then we will have the chance to contribute to the shape of the future. If we are lucky, then that future will unfold peacefully for all.