From Scarcity to Abundance

by Eric on May 9, 2017

I suppose I should begin by saying few things have ever made me feel as old as this book does; Doctorow’s idea of utopia seems to be something that maybe some kids would like—but I wouldn’t. I’ve no interest in uploading myself and living indefinitely as a meta-stabilized simulation, even if it means downloading myself someday into some new, buff, handsome body. I find it impossible to believe that either the sim or the physique too sexy for its shirts would ever be, in any meaningful sense, me. I don’t just happen to inhabit my body, which is aging and will someday die; I am it—and that is not just okay; that is me.

That aside, let me say that what I take to be the basis for the book is one I find intriguing indeed: how do we navigate the shift from a society premised on scarcity to one premised on abundance? The recent burst of writing on the roboticization of labor has brought home the imminence of an era in which most of us will be economically surplus. Keynes had an idea that the abundant society would be one of leisure and widespread artistic endeavor, one toward which we should aim and for which we should plan; his was a fetching optimism, which appears to have no purchase on the zero-sum, inequality-hugging societies of our time. But abundance, and the values that recognize it, is where Doctorow wants to go—a future in which acquisitiveness might still exist, but is not only no longer laudable, but has become shameful.

Doctorow’s novel envisions a utopia that takes the blogosphere and wikis and other online communities (probably not metafilter though) as the basic model for how an abundant society might organize itself. Physical spaces are as cheaply furnished in his book as virtual ones now are, online. You could live in a world as sleek and spare and instant as a Squarespace site, only less lonely. The key move in establishing such communities is, in Doctorow’s imagined future, turning passive-aggression into a virtue—if someone has screwed up, someone else will just fix it; don’t bother trying to hold the erring party responsible. Doctorow sketches for us these functioning societies formed by walkaways—self-deportees from a reality not unlike our own. These are real-world spaces, as easily pioneered as a new WordPress blog. They would be just as easily infested by trolls, too—but Doctorow seems to think that community norms could quite readily expel such infestations. My own experience of trying to moderate comments sections makes me less optimistic than I take him to be.

Does this sound as though I’m reviewing a philosophical essay, rather than a novel? I hope I’m not being unfair if I say that Doctorow pretty clearly intends this to be a novel of ideas, in which plot and character are secondary to intellectual development. How much you like it will depend on how much you want to turn the ideas over in your head. Doctorow writes of one of his characters, after she is walked through an intellectual thicket, “This discussion killed her horniness.” As the kids say these days, “it me.”

{ 11 comments }

1

Zamfir 05.09.17 at 6:13 pm

2

Peter K. 05.09.17 at 8:34 pm

“The recent burst of writing on the roboticization of labor has brought home the imminence of an era in which most of us will be economically surplus. “

Knowledgeable economist like Krugman don’t see it in the productivity data even if there are anecdotal examples of self-driving cars and fast-food kiosks.

The proliferation of stories on the roboticization of labor seems to be more of a reaction by corporate media editors and thought leaders to the successful attacks on globalization, trade policy and corporate outsourcing by Trump and to a lesser extent by Sanders. (And there’s Brexit, Le Pen etc.)

“It’s not trade (or NAFTA or China)” they argue, it’s technology. And nothing can be done about.

If a democratic leftist movement like we’ve seen with Sanders got a hold of fiscal policy and the Federal Reserve, we’d be much closer to that economy of abundance they had in Picard’s United Federation of Planets. As it is, the center left’s Yellen is raising rates, rationing demand/credit and killing jobs without any sign of accelerating inflation.

3

Maggie 05.09.17 at 11:46 pm

At the risk of showing myself six kinds of a fool, may we know which of E.L. Doctorow’s books you are discussing here? I haven’t read them all, but don’t recognize any in this discussion — and you’ve made me want to read this one. b

4

Gabriel 05.10.17 at 2:32 am

Maggie:

I’m pretty sure they are responding to ‘Loony Lake’.

5

bianca steele 05.10.17 at 2:39 am

The key move in establishing such communities is, in Doctorow’s imagined future, turning passive-aggression into a virtue—if someone has screwed up, someone else will just fix it; don’t bother trying to hold the erring party responsible.

I’ve always had a theory that the world in MacLeod’s Cassini Division is actually like this–the narrator thinks it’s a socialist utopia where everyone does whatever work’s in front of them, and looks for work if she doesn’t see it, because she does that herself and forces everyone around her to do the same, but in reality, no one else is picking up after themselves at all. (It’s possible a second reading wouldn’t support this.)

6

bianca steele 05.10.17 at 2:40 am

Maggie . . . They’re discussing Cory Doctorow, Walkaway.

7

Neville Morley 05.10.17 at 4:27 am

The problem with the delayed comment approval system is that we may now get ten different responses to Maggie, making the same point – or none, as everyone thinks that someone else will reply. Any chance of approving just one, if there are several?

It’s Cory Doctorow rather than E.L., and this is part of the ongoing CT seminar about his new novel Walkaway.

8

Neville Morley 05.10.17 at 4:29 am

Come to think of it, some of the posts in said seminar have specified that they’re part of it; given that they’ve been spread out over a fair amount of time, this might be a good default practice…

9

William Berry 05.10.17 at 4:30 am

@maggie:

The novelist in question is Cory Doctorow. No relation to the esteemed E.L.

If you are not familiar with his novelistic oeuvre , you might know him from “Boing-Boing”, a tech and tech-art website he was (still is?) involved with.

10

BruceJ 05.10.17 at 2:10 pm

They would be just as easily infested by trolls, too—but Doctorow seems to think that community norms could quite readily expel such infestations.

Just to point out the obvious, not only do ‘community norms’ not fend off trolls (as Doctorow must surely know) troll communities have ‘norms’ too. As 4chan, Gamergate and the redpillers have shown, virtual gangs are perfectly capable of real-world violence and intimidation, and given their chance to manifest themselves in reality, like Doctorow’s walkaways, would tend to drive the world becoming less Utopia and more Mad Max.

11

Matt 05.11.17 at 6:54 am

About that post-scarcity. Without magic we can’t eliminate positional goods. Without might-as-well-be-magic we also can’t have as many atoms of each chemical element as we might like. And for that matter, “unlimited” anything will turn out to be quite finite if you press hard enough. What’s left of post-scarcity after all the caveats and real-world physics kick in?

Real-world post-scarcity, “weak” post-scarcity, would be something more like “almost everything is sufficiently available that sustained acquisitiveness is unusual and marks low social status.” By analogy, consider hoarders who fill their houses floor-to-ceiling with discarded newspapers. Discarded papers aren’t truly unlimited, but sufficiently abundant that a private individual can collect them quickly and quickly look unhinged if they keep going at it. Jay Leno, collector of automobiles, looks as weird as House-Full-of-Newspapers-Guy if cars become easy to duplicate.

A system where primary energy comes from the sun and wind — as it does among the walkaways of Doctorow’s novel — has a much more equal geographic distribution of energy resources than a world powered by fossils. There’s about a factor of two difference in annual solar energy received in Seattle vs. Honolulu. There’s nearly a factor of infinity difference between fossil energy that can be extracted from a petroleum reservoir and a randomly selected square mile of dirt located at the same latitude.

Manufacturing systems that don’t need much human skill as input (fancy Nth generation 3D printer descendants, von Neumann machines in the form of industrial parks, or whatever) also boost the availability and flatten the distribution of goods in the world. Maybe services too, depending on what sort of systems we’re talking about. (Not just SF “strong AI” but powerful narrow AI like self driving vehicles.)

Since we can’t just manufacture atoms of arbitrary chemical elements, do ore bodies and mineral rights still matter? Somewhat. There are only a few elements that have significant industrial utility and pretty rare and are hard to design around and are concentrated in terms of viable terrestrial resources. I’d say that the platinum group metals, rhenium, indium, and maybe helium count. For everything else you design around it, substitute, or extract it from low grade resources using tireless machine labor powered by the tireless sun.

That brings me to the last great scarcity: time. You have to wait longer for machines to extract trace elements from low grade resources. You have to wait for the sun to supply each day’s allotment of energy rather than getting to decide to burn a lot of oil this month and a lot less next month. If you were immortal, waiting would hardly matter for most things and people with ownership claims on better resources that provide time-shortcuts would have scant leverage. But I think that human immortality is significantly less plausible than a weakly post-scarcity complex of renewable energy and machine labor. What are you willing to wait for? What are you willing to do to wait less? Those questions, and time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near, locate struggles that can persist long after mass-participation human labor and fossil power are both obsolete.

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