I got an interesting write up on the unemployment / mechanization / income angle from my friend Nathan Koren (he does collaborative futures with Noah Raford at Futurescaper). Nathan’s basic argument is that Ford’s innovation of “make a car your workers can afford” has now been displaced with “race to the bottom” feedback loops in manufacturing, and that only a fairly comprehensive rethinking of how we distribute value can stabilize our social order.
In the UK we have a long history of struggle over access to land and the value of labour. My own ancestors were cleared from their land in Ayrshire to make room for sheep enclosures, and another very nearly deported to Australia as a Tolpuddle Martyr for labour organizing (the family legend is that he missed the raid by 15 minutes, having left for the pub.)
There’s an ongoing historical debate about the role of education in the industrial revolution. The common mythology is that the school system we have now (fixed starting times, bells, lockstep production in class rooms) was instituted to condition the children of farm labourers for work in factories. Whether that’s historically true or not, there’s fair evidence that availability of primary education was a bottleneck in industrialization in some countries.
I think that all of this comes down, in the end, to access-to-capital, including education and know-how. If subsistence agriculturalists have good access to land, and markets where they can sell produce in return for manufactured goods like solar panels, their basic self-sufficiency gives them certain political freedoms. This is the Jeffersonian model. If, on the other hand, their access to capital is contingent because the land is rented / mortgaged, or they are industrial workers working on machines they do not own, in times of hardship or rapid chance, they are left disenfranchised. This is the downside of the Hamiltonian model.
(A short Alexander Hamilton break)
(annnnnd we’re back)
Nearly every challenge faced by today’s developing world was first faced by America.
The Chinese alternative is the most dangerous. Chairman Mao’s “Combat Liberalism” frames the internal struggle within agrarian communism as being between those with nothing, and nothing to lose, and those who have attained a little comfort and status and want to feather their nests. In the long run, of course, Liberalism won and China is left vulnerable to a second revolution of some kind if their growth slows below the current 7%. The stability of society, even under those conditions, is still based on people who have a little something to hang on to, a little something to lose. It’s the small fences built around each back yard that, collectively, form the great walls of cultural stability.
“You only have power over people so long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything, he’s no longer in your power – he’s free again.” - Solzhenitsyn
There’s a new round of argument against the Free Culture movement from thinkers like Bruce Sterling and Jaron Lanier that, in fact, the sharing economy is simply disenfranchising the middle classes from the fruits of their labour from their traditional intellectual toil. I’m not sure buy that argument, but certainly a good case can be made for it. Sterling’s argument is that disintermediation and disruption (“creative destruction”) is wiping out value faster than it is creating it (last 5 minutes) leaving us net-poorer. Lanier suggests that the middle classes can’t survive without the ability to create “micro enclosures.”
Is it simply pumping wealth from the middle classes into a global commons that differentially empowers the poor? Or are we breaking the ladder that gets out of poverty (through the middle class) and turning the world into a Global Brazil, with open source at the bottom, and boutique capitalism at the top?
We have to find a mode which is not classical capitalism or communism, which is realistic about the global constraints and risks we face, that has the authority to effectively police nanobio while, at the same time, not being prey to cultural whims and excesses, from beard taxes to the war on drugs.
Oddly, I’m not pessimistic about our odds of getting there. An entire generation is growing up with always-on networks, and the concept of “I don’t know” is rapidly becoming history, replaced by “let’s look it up.” We have to have faith that the generation coming, with such incredibly different experiences growing up, will be capable of finding a perspective which will maintain our core values, stabilize the damaging discontinuities, and keep the ship afloat.
We have another shot at the big picture today. The dual dividends of fracking, and the very real prospect of a second “peace dividend” as we recover from the huge costs of the wars now ending, plus the all-important re-opening of the skies as the private space flight industry repaints people’s ideas about the future (“one day I could go to orbit and see the stars, and the earth!” is becoming real for entire generations) – together these things give us a shot at another 1990s-style round of optimism, openness, and technological expansion.
If there are answers, they are in the future. We have to get there as fast as possible.