I recently read J. G. Ballard’s book of short stories ‘Vermilion Sands’. This 1971 modern classic is set in (what was then) the near future, in an imaginary town after which the book is named. Vermilion Sands is an extravagant resort town in the desert, complete with casinos, not dissimilar to Las Vegas. Additionally, Vermilion Sands has futuristic technologies such as ‘sonic sculptures’ which howl at passersby and mysterious manmade manta rays which fly over the sand dunes. Ballard’s imagined town was once a paradise but is slowly declining. In the pretext, he writes
“That posture, of course, is the hallmark of Vermilion Sands and, I hope, of the future – not merely that no-one has to work, but that work is the ultimate play and play is the ultimate work.”
Recent developments in technology, the state of nature and politics (amongst many other things) pose difficult questions for the status quo and leave one wondering what the future will have in store. We stand at an important crossroads in human history.
Fossil fuel supplies are running out, with coal dwindling and oil forecasted to be around for just another century, at most. The accumulations of creatures dying over billions of years has been burned up in a geological blink of the eye. This puts a time limit on how long we can continue to generate electricity in what have become conventional means. Additionally, the rare earth materials essential to computer technologies around which society is increasingly centred are being extracted to their limits.
Lying beside a ‘clean’ future involving renewable energies, there also lies the perpendicular ‘dirty’ path, which takes the route through intensive extraction methods such as fracking and taking oil from tar sands. In the face of scarcity of more conventional fuels, such approaches have enjoyed increased investment, particularly in the USA and Canada. This is happening despite the dangerous methods used in fracking, and the heightened cost and energy consumption used in extracting what is a relatively tiny proportion of oil from tar sands, compared with other methods. Oil extraction from tar sands generally uses three times as much fresh water and involves releasing 15% more carbon dioxide as conventional means.
In countries such as the UK, which have become dependent on Russia for gas and the Middle East for oil, there are political reasons to seek out an energy resource of their own. However this needn’t be derived through such a polluting means, as there are plenty of viable options for mass energy generation by renewable means. Two exciting new examples are tidal arrays and tidal lagoons.
Just when certain natural resources are dwindling, becoming too scarce to support the world population, every government in the world is fixated on ensuring the growth of its economy. Under conventional (pre-crash) economics, striving for this growth makes sense. Of course every finance minister wants the best for their citizens and growth is a clear path towards that aim. In fact, the modern world is built upon credit. Credit allows governments, businesses and individual citizens to improve their state of being based on the promise that the future will be brighter. If the future will bring more resources and new technologies then credit can be repaid using newfound wealth.
However the national debt of almost every country on the planet is now totteringly high. Given the constraints imposed by mother nature (and humankind), these debts are looking increasingly precarious and add a financial argument against investing in new renewable technologies or modern-style nuclear builds, when the requirement to choose at least one of these is becoming increasingly immediate.
Aside (but intrinsically bound to) the environmental and economic predicaments described above, digital technology is fundamentally altering the nature of work. Not just in terms of the work that humans do, but also whether work has to be done by humans at all. Shopping assistant, factory worker and telephone operator jobs have already been largely automated in developed countries, with many other possibilities looming. A recent forecast put between 22% and 39% of jobs in the UK as being at risk of automation by 2050.
Generally, it feels as though automation has only been an issue for the working classes thus far. However, research suggests middle class occupations in medicine and law are less safe than might be assumed: computers are becoming increasingly skilled at making judgement based decisions. Also, automation has drastically changed the nature of scientific research and development.
As a PhD student in mathematical and computational geoscience, my daily work involves running computer models of fluid flow which would at one point have been run by a team of laboratory technicians in the real world. Modelling software means that structures can be extensively tested during the design phase, before a single constituent piece has been made in the physical world. As a side anecdote, the two or three reception staff at the university gym have recently been replaced by swipe-in gates.
One can imagine a (near future) world where the human population is large, but there are relatively few hours of work required of each person. There appear to be a number of ways this could go…
Extrapolating from the present, one would likely imagine that technological innovation will continue unconstrained. Unemployment will continue to rise and big companies who control automated processes to continue to make enormous sums of money. This scenario is bleak for the majority and could potentially end in riots or war.
But it need not necessarily be the case that unemployment rise. A group of people known as ‘accelerationists’ believe that if machines are to take away our work, then we should be able to redefine our lives in a positive way. If one of two people loses their 40 hour per week job to a machine, why shouldn’t the two of them work 20 hours per week at an increased pay rate (which comes from the fact machines are generally cheaper to ’employ’ than people)? This would leave both workers would be able to spend more of their time doing what they really enjoy in life, like playing sports or spending time with their friends and family.
In the example above, it would likely be the case that the employer would not be able to re-employ the redundant worker in a different role, and that multiple workers would be laid off and replaced by machines at once. In the face of this happening on a wide scale, there is increasing pressure for governments to roll out a Universal Basic Income (UBI).
A universal basic income would give every person of working age enough financial wherewithal to stand on their own two feet and the possibility of raising a family on just a part time job. Contrary to popular belief, studies investigating UBI and similar financial gifts have shown that recipients do not use it consume more alcohol or drugs or fulfil other temptations. Further, UBI could lead to a reduction in homelessness, if implemented in the right way. An initial experiment in testing out UBI with 2,000 inhabitants of the Finnish countryside seems to have been a massive success, although there are claims that the sample size is too small.
In the minds of many, the idea of giving money on a regular basis to every working-age citizen may seem fantastical, considered only by radical leftists such as John McDonnell and Bernie Sanders. However, the cost is actually remarkably small when the trivial implementation of paying the same amount to every person on the list is compared with the expensive, humiliating, complex benefits systems that it would replace, which have to use enormous resources to continually verify that recipients are worthy. Politically, it is not just the left who are interested in UBI, but also the right. Indeed, the Finnish government who initiated the experiment mentioned above are led by a centre-right party.
Another possible future scenario is that a consensus is made to halt the progress of technology, in an attempt to lessen the impact of climate change, improve employment figures or possibly due to a fear of artificial intelligence. Such a halting would be extremely difficult to bring about, and would have to involve a fundamental change in our understanding of ideas like ‘progress’ and ‘growth’, or follow a disaster brought about by our own technological advances. Perhaps this would also include a change in economic status quo, whereby economies are allowed to remain the same size or even shrink. For this reason, this possible future is often referred to using the term ‘degrowth’.
The philosophy of degrowth is to return to the ‘good old days’, when people didn’t stand on the tube staring at their smartphones in silence and it wasn’t possible for terrorist organisations to spread and plan so easily using the internet. Whether there ever was a ‘good old day’ is up for debate and my personal opinion is that every age comes with its own evils, we just have to make progress in overcoming them. Whilst terrorism is all over the front pages of today’s newspapers, the number of people killed by it are miniscule.
In fact, homicide in general is now a very unlikely way to die. In Yuvan Noah Harari’s excellent book ‘Sapiens’, the statistic is stated that in 2002 more people killed themselves than were killed by another, across the whole world. Just look at the pale yellow wedges in the pie charts above, taken from this article. In today’s rather peaceful society, a man is twice as likely to be killed (one would assume accidentally) in a car accident than intentionally by another person. This is not true for women. However this is because far fewer women die in car accidents than men and, whilst this is true, only 1.6% of female deaths are caused by interpersonal violence. It could be claimed that we are living in the future our forebears dreamt of.
The capitalism of the 19th and 20th centuries profits from exploiting supply and demand systems, making most when resources decrease. However, whilst material goods are in some places lacking, digital resources are essentially infinite. Software packages, videos, algorithms, graphics and even viruses can be copied an infinite number of times without any degradation whatsoever in their quality. Businesses seek to continue to profit from these products, but their value is unclear when there is such an availability and thus prices are essentially arbitrary. Additionally, open source and open data movements stand fundamentally against profits being made from information products, or at least certain types thereof.
In recent years, the information age has spawned another foe of conventional economics: the cryptocurrency. Bitcoin in particular has posed issues for governments. Its anonymous and de-centralised nature means that illegal transactions cannot be traced whatsoever and that taxes cannot be collected when a citizen is paid in Bitcoin. Like the tar sand and fracking solutions to the resource scarcity problem, Bitcoin mining is an extremely energy (and we may also assume carbon) intensive activity. Recent estimates put worldwide Bitcoin mining as equivalent to one million transatlantic flights, in terms of CO2 emissions. That is, 20 megatonnes – higher than the national CO2 emissions of both New Zealand and Hungary.
In his book ‘Postcapitalism’, economist Paul Mason describes how blooming of the information age spells the end for capitalism as we know it and proposes a path to a brighter future under the book’s title. This path would include UBI and reduction in the hours of the working week, as discussed above, amongst many other new (and old¹) ideas.
Where to now?
Of course, there will only be one future². It is a commonly observed psychological phenomenon that the past seems concrete and that it all couldn’t have happened in any other way. Unless you are a die-hard proponent of predestination, this is complete nonsense and humanity has both its own future and the future of the planet firmly in its hands. Some of the ideas discussed in this blog piece may be regarded as utopian. But ‘utopian’ thinking is what has driven the world forward through history, to the point where murder is a highly unlikely occurrence, the average life expectancy is around twice what it has been in the past and people can travel the whole world on a modest income. Today’s ‘utopia’ is tomorrow’s progress.
Rutger Bregman, a big supporter of UBI, claims in his book ‘Utopia for realists’ that the biggest evil of the modern age are borders, which have divided people and created inequality since their conception. He proposes that we should be rid of them and freedom of movement should be global. This seems an outlandish idea, especially in the era of Brexit and President Trump. However these seemingly eternal lines on the map do not have a physical existence and only really came to be 200 years ago or so, before which free movement was available to all that were able to make the journey. Perhaps cryptocurrencies, globalisation and the information age are asking sufficiently difficult questions that the future of the nation state itself now is unclear.
Notes and references
- 1: The idea behind UBI was first formulated by Thomas Paine in his 1796 paper Agrarian Justice.
- 2: This is debatable if you interpret quantum mechanics using the ‘Many Worlds’ interpretation, whereby ‘everything that can happen does happen’ in a multitude of separate realities. However, even then, each person only experiences one reality and thus their particular timeline is fixed.
- Book references:
- ‘Vermilion Sands’, J. G. Ballard.
- ‘Postcapitalism: a guide to our future’, Paul Mason.
- ‘Sapiens: a brief history of humankind’, Yuval Noah Harari.
- ‘Utopia for realists and how we can get there’, Rutger Bregman.
- Image sources: header image, UBI cartoon.