Techno-utopians and extreme abundance

In the April 23rd issue of the New Republic Tim Wu published a review of Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler’s book  Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think and compared its theme – “more is better” –  with Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. In sum, the issue for Wu is that we have been overburdened by the choices that material abundance delivers and this exactly has led to an inability to define our real needs, a condition addressed in Roy and John’s book.

Wu is a Professor of Law at Columbia University and he is famous for coining the term “net neutrality.” Further, according to Business Week Wu “provided the intellectual framework that inspired Google’s mobile phone strategy.” In other words, we have someone here who believes in the free market, in the traditional sense of the term, not as a shibboleth with which to beat skeptics over the head, but still someone who assumes the permanence of the market society, and simply wishes to tame its excesses.

This explains his perspective regarding Abundance, Diamandis as Wu mentions, “[is] a space entrepreneur and the co-founder of “Singularity University,” – an institute that attracts rich fools for tools (not his term, but mine) in great numbers, and has great influence in the same pond that Wu swims in.

The extreme techno-utopians, like Diamandis, imagine a world where technology acts as an autonomous force, unrestrained except by the creative geniuses that guide it. And so, for them it is completely plausible that within a decade or two we will arrive at “a world where everyone’s days are spent dreaming and doing, not scrapping and scraping.”

A world, undoubtedly, that resembles The Land of Cockaigne where pigs wander around with knives stuck in their backs to make carving easy. One could be inopportune and inquire about the nature of the economic system that would provide this idyllic life, or sustain it. But to ask questions introduces complications that reveal the cognitive defects of the pessimist, as Diamandis says, “the “linear brain cannot comprehend our exponential rate of progress.”

Wu is not convinced. Yet, instead of addressing the theoretical suppositions of Diamandis’ utopia, he accepts the premise that our technology produces abundance – he calls it “extreme abundance” – and assumes, referring to Baumeister and Tierney, that this surfeit of goods tempts us to become obese, debt-ridden consumers, overwhelmed by too much infotainment and material goods and vainly trying to control our addictions by fad diets and 12-step programs.

The authors of Willpower have no easy answers to this conundrum of perverted desire. They recognize that doubling-down on self-control, as fundamentalists of all stripes dictate, can lead to unpleasant social results – Hitler, they say, was willpower’s supreme advocate. Their advice? Avoid situations where the overabundance of choices leaves one’s critical faculties exhausted (they think of willpower as a muscle that can be strained and become dysfunctional). I hope that they don’t expect folks to pay for that advice.

Wu says that Baumeister and Tierney would agree with him that –

It is time . . . to think systematically about the human environments that we are creating with technological powers only imagined by previous generations. At this point, using our powers to create still more of everything—the prescription of Abundance—is simply to add fuel to the fire. It is time to take seriously the problems of overload and excess as collective, social challenges, even though they may be our own creations.

Further on Wu offers a prescription:

. . . it is increasingly the duty of the technology industry and the technologists to take seriously the challenge of human overload, and to give it as much attention as the abundance project. It is the first great challenge for post-scarcity thinkers.

On “the other side” of the superabundance that Diamandis advocates, Wu maintains –

. . . will be the technologies of self-control, which seek to augment humanity’s powers to deal with too many choices and with too much of what we want. It may sound crazy, but our technologies are always extensions of ourselves, and humans are strange and conflicted creatures.

And he ends with these odd sentences:

So advanced are our technological powers that we will be increasingly trying to create access to abundance and to limit it at the same time. Sometimes we must create both the thesis and the antithesis to go in the right direction. We have spent the last century creating an abundance that exceeds any human scale, and now technologists must turn their powers to controlling our, or their, creation.

I am reminded of my book review of Autopilot and the “science of idleness” that another techno-academic reviewer, like Wu, characterized as the subject matter of that book. Are we talking about sound-proof flotation tanks, or space-music, or meditation caps?

I don’t know.

I do know that this whole discussion of abundance (and its supposed opposite, scarcity) hovers somewhere near the Van Allen Belt and not in the realm where I live. Actually, I live in California not too far from Silicon Valley, but a bit closer to San Mateo where Stewart Brand opened his first Whole Earth store and by so doing became the precursor of today’s techno-utopians. It’s true that he was pushing atoms and not bytes then, but he quickly re-tooled and became the founder of The Well, a techno-community that prefigured the Singularity University. We have a long line of utopians in these parts. Today’s Annual Makers Faire, coincidentally, takes place not far from that first Whole Earth store. I only mention that for those who have an interest in psychogeography.

Maybe the Makers are the slow-technologists that Wu thinks we need for balance, but more realistically they are the old-fashioned hobbyists re-made by a clever PR campaign initiated by their ‘trade journal’ Make magazine. The creative impulse that lies behind the pursuit of hobbies and the pleasure that ensue and more, the bonds between hobbyists, are to be celebrated, I just find the marketing of Make debasing these desires.

It comes as no surprise that subjectivities are ignored – where’s the profit in that? Or rather, though subjectivities are not monetized, they are manipulated. That’s why we have a so-called movement of makers: by creating roles for individuals they are transformed into consumers. This was one of the insights of Debord expressed in The Society of the Spectacle over fifty years ago.

Recently, The Kitchen Sisters, with their latest project – “The Making Of…” affirmed this aspect by noting that the Makers where as much about enriching subjectivities as about making things.

“Jim Fleming, To The Best of Our Knowledge (ttbook.org): Do you think that’s its homemade that is the key to this? Is that what makes a community?

KS: Not necessarily homemade. I think it’s that energy that comes with ideas and innovation. And it’s not just about things. I think that was something we found out pretty quickly with this whole project, that the things were important but really, it was kind of the community that was built around doing things like this either in a family or the neighborhood or the larger community. I feel like those kinds of things where people are really putting their mind towards something that they have a passion for whether it’s making a jar of jam or, you know, building a 3D printer, it all kind of comes from that same urge to create and to share that creation with others.

Before the 19th C. the nobles could indulge in art, music or sports on a grand scale, while the poor had lesser diversions, but hobbies became popular with the rise of industrialism – with abundance. In the US, the expansion of hobbyist culture occurred in the 50s when a booming economy provided time for leisure, which really meant time to develop interests and find ways of expressing them that required time away from jobs. The hobby, while an escape from the daily tedium of earning a living, became a means of satisfying a desire to discover a vein of joy in an otherwise bleak life. The greater quest was to make one’s hobby a lucrative business, and a whole sector of the economy – consultants, educators, publishers and so forth – developed to mine that vein. A goodly number of failed businesses each year testify to the ongoing seduction of being one’s own boss, for gaining control of one’s economic fate. To escape the tedium of a job, what other route is there to follow to enjoy a pursuit one relishes than to “go into business?” Control of one’s time is first, wealth second.

What we have here is another conundrum. Abundance precedes the growth of personal pursuits and at the same time circumscribes the extension of these pursuits, first because we need to keep working to buy our time, or secondly, if we wish leave the job, we are stuck into predictable economic avenues of small business development. It is ironic that when this latter course is followed the initial creativity of the pursuit becomes layered with the dead weight of market imperatives. The original desire, monetized, leads to a restriction of experimentation due to either lack of time or financial factors, and the adoption of tasks that contradict the free-wheeling intent behind the whole idea in the first place – the job returns through the window that was to open to a new life.

What is missing in this whole discussion about the nature of abundance, with its proponents like Diamandis and Kotler, its skeptics like Baumeister and Tierney and its philosophers like Wu, is that they don’t recognize that achieving material abundance changes the nature of the our society by creating choices previous generations could only fantasize (not to mention the ancients who dreamed of cooked chickens running around). If we do not understand these changed circumstances, I am fearful that we will devolve (further) from the masters of machines to their servants.

Abundance for the techno-utopians refers to the material, and even the immaterial world, but not to our desires, though the link is assumed and intellectualized, or better, academicized, into Happiness Studies. However, the reference to the material is oddly ethereal. Abundance as a concept used by these authors stands aloof from the real world. Even as a cause for social maladies, the presumption seems to be that abundance acts as a natural force, a given like the rocks in the garden.

But where does abundance come from? What are its presumptions? Where is the discussion of resources? And what about the work it takes to create the abundance? I am not saying that all these aspects are totally ignored or dismissed, but when they are addressed, for instance with resource depletion, there’s a ready answer – we will simply replace natural resources by using nanotechnology to create synthetic substitutes. Work? Machines will replace the workers. Discussion finished. If you persist, the ready answer is that new highly sophisticated jobs will flow from the technology. And those who aren’t building new machines, will be servicing the innovators. I grimace at the thought of more dog walkers.

The productive forces, one assumes with these techno-utopians, are like clay that creative geniuses form into more stuff. Supposedly for them the economy simply is an act of will. This should come as no surprise given that these Silicon Valley types have little interest in manufacturing, and why should they, when for example one 120 gallon vat of synthetically created goop can replace the entire vanilla production of Madagascar? They only focus on what they call “cutting-edge innovation” and, of course, the jackpot at the end.

The techno-utopians unfortunately are not unique in their reluctance to be concerned with the future of work, or rather, the lack of same. To question the premise of future abundance – that it must continue to grow to provide jobs for all – betrays one as a fringe element, or maybe even a dystopian! The unanimity of the political spectrum arraigned against those who raise this issue is remarkable.

Some of this reaction must be blamed on the proponents of the “end of work” going back to the late 50s. On hindsight it would have been best if those who questioned the rise of automation had posed the issue more as the end of “good-paying jobs” because the vast majority of the surplus of workers created by the mechanization of manufacturing found employment alright, but at jobs with no future of establishing a middle-class life-style. If it weren’t for the mass entry of women into the labor force, the metastasized credit card debt and financial bubbles the consumer society would have crashed long ago. Like a 100 year flood, at some point the sand-bagging fails and the inevitable economic disaster must be faced. I believe we are there now.

What to do? I think incomes must be divorced from jobs. Some sort of mechanism needs to be created to provide everyone with a guaranteed income to sustain a modest, but adequate life. No means testing, no limitations. The democratic political right, needs a complementary, and equally empowering, economic right to a livelihood.

And here lies the revolutionary situation we have arrived at with the triumph of the material world: that world of abundance, based on sacrifices of time and blood, is undermined by its realization. Sacrifice under the conditions of scarcity can no longer be the premise upon which we construct a (repressive) society. The tables are turned on the entire deformity of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic worldview and it stands revealed as inherently a ravaging fundamentalism.

Of course, abundance is a term fraught with distortions –the poverty rate in the US is inexcusable. Abundance is not causing obesity, poverty is. Abundance is not the reason we have too many choices, the market is. Abundance is not causing the increase in sociopathic behavior, repression is. We need to be straight here. Reviewers for the New Republic, the faculty of Singularity University, authors of best-sellers and celebrity academics of all sorts will not park their cars at Walmart. They will not be in unemployment lines, nor will they show up at food banks.

The idea of creating a basic income for all will not magically eliminate the effects of poverty, inequality and disenfranchisement. It will however begin to unravel the net of oppressive circumstances that exists in the economy and by extension the political sphere. I see no other reform as radical, with implications across a spectrum of issues, than the demand for universal basic income.

Those troglodytes who characterize basic income as hopelessly unattainable, have no alternative but their fruitless call for full employment. Or their Plan B, which is to demand better pay for miserable jobs. If we all had economic security, then debasing employment would disappear overnight as bosses introduce the latest technology, or alternatively they would have to be value jobs at a rate to attract laborers. Those who wanted to increase their income by taking on a job could then be in the position of strength to negotiate a reasonable wage. And for jobs that are stressful, they could be shared.

The society that would take shape with this move to create economic security addresses Wu concerns about run-away technological expansion, not by imposing limits on it directly, but by circumventing its consumerist appeal that accounts for a large portion of the so-called abundance the Singularity crowd celebrates. It is hard to imagine people who had the time to explore their creativity, devoting much time to shopping, especially if it meant adding non-free hours of working at a job their day to accumulate more stuff. If they shop, it is for those items that further their interests, and those might be purchased not from mega-stores, but from small developers with a niche market. Think antique car restoration. Or woodworking. Or any manner of leisurely pursuit of today’s makers

If Wu wants to see the growth of a slow technology, he should support a guaranteed universal basic income, so that possibly a “slow” technology can develop in basements, garages and in the shared community spaces where real innovations develop. If we want to put the brakes on a venture capitalist future masquerading as some glorious utopia of abundance, we should support basic income, and release the creative potential from the drudgery of stoking the furnaces of corporate America.

We need to steal the future from the true dystopians, those who have a vision of lucrative investments determined by technologies in the service of profit.