There is now an almost constant stream of articles saying what was politically incorrect to state out loud just 5-8 years ago – Technological Unemployment is certain, it is imminent and ‘something like a basic income’ will be necessary. I have said so much on this societal issue in the last ten years that it quite often feels like an obligatory rehash of the arguments in favor of a basic income. The best and most authoritative arguments are still being voiced by Martin Ford and I suggest everyone to check his level-headed and well researched presentations on the topic. In my understanding Martin blows arguments against out of the water.
Nonetheless we may argue that we have seen paradigm shifts in both Europe (social-democratic) and the US (leaning center right oligarchy) where the corporate sector of society has experienced more leeway in society in terms of privilege (with top bracket earnests and CEO’s garnering hundreds of times more than blue collar, low education workers), as well as in terms of political control. It has become extremely obvious that especially in the US there is no more functional democracy, and top donors completely control the electoral decissionmaking feedback cycle. There are studies saying the US is functionally an oligarchy, and voters have no discernible influence on political issues, aside from the Picketty and Panama papers respective bombshells.
This opens up a range of future scenarios where we will have massive unemployment due to technology, and in short order. The estimates in long-term timescales are now well over 50% job destruction, with very little discernible job growth for all but the most highly educated, connected and talented. So we are indeed talking Greece level unemployment (40% mean, 80% youth unemployment) as plausible under these circumstances.
This gives us a range of scenarios where we can start to contemplate a society with vastly more technological means of pacifying a highly impoverished electorate, very lean or nonexistent social security or welfare protections and we can ask ourselves, what would be the consequences.
Implicitly the question is – if the rich of society opt to not ‘allow’ for mass redistribution, and the calculus of the elites suggests to these people that to maximize their luxurious standards of living, massive personal security (armored cars, alarm systems, automated sentry systems, drones, barbed wire fences, et.al.) and societal repression infrastructure (overcrowded prisons, a police state, strict caste perimeters and divided compounds, mass surveillance and more drones) as well as state force (extralegal renditions, executions, extreme right-wing policies, targeted drone assassinations, et.al.) then the expense to all of the above may in fact turn out to be less than a complete redistribution of wealth in order to create a basic income. If that will be the face – bunkerization is cheaper than socialization – than the vast majorities of humanity are in everyday vernacular – royally screwed.
Trends on technological unemployment will not reverse and will no doubt escalate even further. By 2100 the amount of available work will be negligible. Technologies allowing for repressive infrastructure will become more effective and cheaper.
Quips such as “The movie Elysium was a documentary” aside, such a society is the staple of modern and recent cyberpunk dystopian fiction, and was earliest depicted in classics such as “soylent green” and “blade runner”. But fact remains is that right now about half of human beings already live under conditions I described above, and the societies they are in may mostly be pretty draconian right wing kleptocracies, most often these societies are stable. So if the worst case does in fact occur, what should we expect?
Extreme Technological Volatility
There will always be some sort of enterpreneurialism. Even when societal disparity becomes massively worse than it is today, there will always be people in ‘lower’ classes who aspire to more, and supply-and-demand mechanics will determine the available range of alternatives for these people to exhibit plausible ambitions. In other words – people will become extremely ruthless, as a societal rule, and they will constantly be trying to force existing and available technologies to allow them to make money. In a world where nearly everyone is ‘third world levels’ of poor, all of society world-wide will be cutthroat desperate to get out of this nightmare. Generally this opens up a vista of types of dystopian pathology, where many succumb to despair, but I believe that will be the case only for 1-2 generations. Those who are weak in such environments will very quickly evaporate from the competition pools due to hastened attrition. We are already seeing that happen right now. A world where everyone with a shred of ambition becomes a blend of hacker, gangster, entrepreneur and garage scientist at the same time is a world of extreme volatility, in terms of technological change. You will seeing massive teeming, sprawling and byzantine black markets, and the law enforcement apparatus prioritizing only illegal issues that are actually damaging the fabric and greater stability of society. In other words, “who cares about heroin addicts? they cause negligible problems”. The big potential will be in development of miniature and small robotics, and progress in that area will be terrifying and breakneck.
In such a world there will be sharply increased incidence of epidemics, and it seems completely reasonable that some of these diseases will be engineered to cultivate compliance. It seems implausible to assume that “the elites” will unleash “killer bugs” against the 99%, as an all out strategy will create a level of desperation no amount of policing and security infrastructure is capable of constraining. But the natural emergence of transmitted parasitic ailments, viruses, infections and such will be already gruesome, especially with globalization and climate change. This will have a very interesting effect on how the elites will choose to live. In other words, we will see the emergence of enclosed cities, arcologies and such where privilege pays for sterile conditions and quarantine.
Insane climate change, insane mass-migration
Climate change is a function of emission of carbon compounds in to the atmosphere, and therein lies a painful truth – impoverished nations use more carbon-emitting technologies to survive. Have a look at India right now, which seems to be an almost ideal canvas for the kind of society we may see world wide after 2075 – hot, massively overcrowded, very divided in income, deeply traumatized, very dirty and extremely competitive. With no basic income anywhere people will migrate at the drop of a hat, and will do so in almost absurd numbers by today’s measurements. This will create a completely new kind of global society where countries and borders have sharply diminished relevance, where people will globally form enclaves based on ethnicity and where people from all continents will have a presence mostly everywhere – and in absurdly high numbers. I remain torn on population growth levels. It can go either way, as examples of dystopian environments in Russia and Western African contrast with each other. A major player in this arrhythmic will be the spread of Islam – frankly christian values are ill-equipped to deal with a hot, crowded, extremely violent and desperate reality – not that the bible is anything less vicious in its core values – it’s more that right now Islam is already pretty radical in most Islamic countries, and it is already primarily a poor people’s religion. Islam will no doubt spread and multiply in to new forms of activism, social organization and territorialism. If things get really bad, by 2075 half the world or more will qualify as a failed state by today’s standards (think Libya, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, etc) -p and the other half will be corporate dictatorships. It takes only a very modest level of population growth to quickly produce insane results. Even with low birth rates of about 3, we see doubling rates over a few decades. That leads us to the inescapable conclusion that the world will have absolute maximum populations by 2100 – probably about 14 billion. In such a world to have offspring is one of the few remaining values, and those who don’t play that game will experience displacement, and those who do indulge will quickly see their value systems spread. It should be self-evident, again, that Sharia Islam as a societal paradigm is ideally equipped to reap benefits of this.
As a side note – I do think it is possible to have 10+ billion humans on a completely ravaged, overcrowded, hot house earth for literally centuries, without major nuclear wars or die-offs. People can survive on surprisingly little compared to existing spoiled rotten US/EU standards of living, and while a world of this aspect may not be sustainable for millenia, it certainly may be for centuries. It won’t be a dark age, it will be a very violent, very nasty sweltering hot age.
As a second side note – I do not believe the example of overcrowded rat populations, as in “the Behavioral Sink” will emerge, expect occasionally and locally.
I succintly believe that in such environments Transhumanism will produce very powerful results and benefits. This may again appear as a classic cliche of Dystopian SF, but I see no other outcome. Human beings in a desperate world will do desperate, often terrifying things. Look at the vicious creativity unleashed by people who are locked in giant prisons. Apply that paradigm on dirt poor, terrified, desperate, overcrowded cities of the mid 21st century and we will see the same methodologies become mainstream and lead to very rapid advances in this area. The rich may actually cultivate this, a la Gibson’s novels, to “pressure cooker” enable the developments of new technologies, for their own eventual benefit. Parallel to technological developments we will also see developments in music, entertainment, sexuality, gender diversity, etc. become “appealing” to the elites. To be interesting will be one way to attain wealth, and hence many will competing for the same media charisma. It will be a very noisy world.
It may feel as a personal insult, but I believe there will be no opting out. Obtaining food, safety, entertainment, joy, water, shelter (etc.) will quickly evolve to become a full-time occupation for everyone, and all resource streams will inescapably link together. The best way to mitigate exposure to violence and other forms of predatory behavior will be to swarm in crowds. The “countryside” will be a very barren and very deadly experience. In a any vacuum of metropolitan equilibrium there will be immediate development of feudalistic of warlord dominated societies. There won’t be preppers “hunting for birds in the forest”. Such an idea is idiotic. There will be two kinds of forests – blackened, dead forests with only ash for soil – or temperature controlled gold course analogues for the very rich. Nature and natural resources will be pretty much gone as everyone anywhere will quickly come to devour all animal and plant resources, as Africans are already doing in the bush-meat trade. The next step will be mass development of solar resources of one form or another, and well-organized forms of enclosed agriculture or a ruthless cultivation of farm animals – not merely for food, but also for plastics, leather and industrial precursors.
In case I get accused of painting the most dismal, dystopian vision as ultimatum to a world where a basic income is not implemented, I will admit that even with a basic income, all of the above can still occur quite easily. My point is that people need the idea that they can get ahead, and in a world where redistribution does not result in the constrainment of societal privilege, the elites will feel compelled to do whatever they thing necessary to protect their privilege. In other words – onset of dystopia is caused by lack of opportunity. Disparate societies are always violent societies, and with accelerating technological advances the potential for degrees of disparity exponentially worse than we already see today in 2016 is significant to all but certain.