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Secession in the Valley, and the End of Politics
Jamais Cascio   Oct 30, 2013   Ethical Technology  

Andrew Leonard has a short, sharp piece in Salon entitled "Silicon Valley dreams of secession," about a recent talk by tech entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan calling for the Valley to secede from the US on a wave of 3D printers, drones, and bitcoins.

Here's Leonard's capsule of the talk, along with Srinivasan's money quote:

Virtual secession, argues Srinivasan, is just natural evolution. Once upon a time, people seeking better lives left their broken states to immigrate to the U.S. Now, it is time for their descendants to emigrate further, except this time they don’t need to go anywhere physically, except into the cloud.

“Exit,” according to Srinivasan, “means giving people tools to reduce the influence of bad policies over their lives without getting involved in politics… It basically means build an opt in society, run by technology, outside the U.S.”

​Long time readers will have guessed what part of Srinivasan's quote bothered me the most: "without getting involved in politics."

In 2009, I wrote a piece entitled "The End-of-Politics Delusion," about a broadly parallel set of arguments emerging from the bowels of Silicon Valley. Democracy is bad, and what we really need is a technology-enabled society to get rid of politics, or so the true believers would have us think. I reacted with this:

Politics is part of a healthy society -- it's what happens when you have a group of people with differential goals and a persistent relationship.

It's not about partisanship, it's about power. And while even small groups have politics (think: supporting or opposing decisions, differing levels of power to achieve goals, deciding how to use limited resources), the more people involved, the more complex the politics. Factions, parties, ideologies and the like are simply ways of organizing politics in a complex social space -- they're symptoms of politics, not causes.

Calls to get rid of politics can therefore mean one of two things: getting rid of persistent relationships with other people; or getting rid of differential goals. Since I don't see too many of the folks who talk about escaping politics also talking about becoming lone isolationists, the only reasonable presumption is that they're really talking about eliminating disagreements.

It's the latest version of the notion that "a perfect world is one where everyone agrees with me."

Anyone calling for an end to politics, whether via secession or technocracy or singularity, either has no understanding of how human societies work (the generous interpretation) or has an authoritarian streak itching to show itself (the less-generous version). Srinivasan's version is even worse due to its dependence upon a thoroughly unreliable, opaque, and politically-biased substrate, "the cloud."

Here's what I mean: technologies fail, sometimes briefly, sometimes disastrously, whether because of physical damage, bad code, or intentional attack; telecommunication systems, in particular the commercial telecom carriers in the US, are notoriously unwilling to divulge operational details and abide by network neutrality; and all of these technologies embed norms and choices that are inherently biased [just as one example, the vast majority of home internet connections in the US are asymmetric, with much faster download (consumption) speeds than upload (creation) speeds -- that's a choice, not an inherent fact of the technology]. Using this as the basis of a political system seems... unwise.

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.



COMMENTS

Jamais,
I’m not familiar with what was proposed in Silicon Valley, but I am with several techno-Utopian visions that propose the elimination of government; namely the Venus Project, and its cousin The Zeitgeist Movement. Those proposals are not based on the simple elimination of government, but a change to the socio-economic system in such a way as to eliminate the need for a governmental and political body to define the rules by which people must live.

Their proposal begins with the assumption that technology is able to produce an abundance of resources to meet all human needs without the need for significant human labor. If all human needs were abundantly met, then there would be no need for money to ensure the equitable distribution of scarce resources. If we eliminate the use of money and just make all resources freely available, then there would be very little crime, and very little need for a governing body to make rules that control the distribution of goods to society.

While I believe in the long term goal of these movements, I also acknowledge a few flaws. Number one, is the problem of getting there from here. To achieve a society that does not need to concern itself with the distribution of scarce resources, one must first eliminate the scarcity of all resources. We may eventually get there, perhaps even in our lifetimes, but were not there now, and the road to get there is going to be very difficult. The very nature of a market system abhors abundance. In economics, an abundance of something means essentially an unlimited supply. In our current system, things must stay scarce enough to create a price point that will yield enough profit to whoever supplies that item that they continue to supply it. If they can’t make a profit, they will stop producing it until it until it becomes scarce enough to bring the price up to a level where a profit can be made.  By its very nature, abundance cannot happen in a market economy.

There will be a time of progression that may become very difficult for society in general. As automation replaces the need for labor, people will lose their purchasing power. This will be deflationary as demand drops. Deflation is death in an economy that lives and breathes on debt. There must be enough growth in consumption and GDP to pay back the principle plus interest. If not, debt will grow until the interest cannot be paid and society goes into default. We will need more leadership to help navigate our way out of this quagmire, not less.

Even if we survive the transition to a society of abundance, we may not need the traditional government structures we have today, but there will always be a need for people to collaborate and find consensus on divergent ideas. Decisions, like where to build that dam, or whether or not to have a space program will require people to have an organizational structure that permits working together toward common societal goals.

Hi Kelly

Thanks for this. There’s quite a bit in your comment to unpack, so let me start by calling out a couple of salient points.

I do believe that you are correct with the ultimate trajectory of human civilization—we are definitely heading towards a world where various technologies will allow us to eliminate most forms of scarcity. And you are also correct to recognize that the pathway there will be difficult, both politically and philosophically.

This won’t eliminate all forms of scarcity, however. A desire for aesthetically-pleasing environments and in-person social connections will leave land and physical space an economically scarce product. Absent a truly radical reconfiguration of the brain, we will still have limits on available attention. And as the ability to create becomes more widely available, novelty and true innovation will be even more highly prized.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some of the studies of the economies of online worlds (e.g., Julian Dibbel’s PLAY MONEY) show that there’s more creativity and desire for engagement in worlds with some levels of artificial scarcity. I suspect that an engineered post-scarcity political economy will actually have some level of “soft scarcity” as a behavioral stimulant, even beyond the limits I mention above.

But it’s your last paragraph I want to call out. What you’re saying aligns perfectly with the point I was trying to make in my brief essay: even a society of abundance will still have politics, disagreements needing moderation, and conflicting values. We don’t make those go away just by embracing more technology.

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