The Challenge of a Post-Scarcity Transition

A few years ago I had a part-time gig as a subcontractor at a major bank. Who I worked for was far more impressive than the large, sterile room I sat in. Most of the room was taken up by an enormous wooden crate that sat between my desk and the only door in. The sides of the crate and walls of the room were lined with low tables holding dozens of tape drives that the bank used to back up its computers every night.

Every day at 9am I would come in and spend about half an hour swapping out the full backup tapes. Then I’d wait around for another four hours or so while my boss (who was based in Boulder and I hardly ever saw) remotely verified that everything was working. And then I would leave. I almost never saw another person.

One day I joked with my boss in the company instant messenger that I was really just a human robot arm. “Well…” My boss started to type back. There was an uncomfortably long pause.

“You kind of are.”

That was the day I learned that the wooden crate that filled up most of the room was an automated backup system. You know, the kind you see in the movies where a robot arm switches out backup tapes, no humans necessary. The bank had purchased it some years ago, but then somebody did the math and realized that it was cheaper to pay some poor stiff minimum wage for 20 hours a week than it was to actually unpack the damn thing.

“The future is already here,” William Gibson has often remarked, “it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

Hackers Movie Clip Zero Cool (Dade) hacks into TV Station (YouTube)

It’s easy to classify my time at the bank as one of David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs.” At one level it certainly was. But I think it also highlights the fact that a post-scarcity world is only here right now for some people. For the rest of us, the uneven distribution of post-scarcity leads it to play somewhat contradictory roles in our lives.

On the one hand, why the hell was I wasting my time swapping out backup tapes when I sat next to a machine designed to do just that? There were so many things that I’d rather have done with my life than sit alone, in a cold room filled with the annoying grinding of tape backups, for four hours every day.

On the other hand, that job was how I was keeping a roof over my head. I may not have loved it, but at the time my job prospects weren’t great, and I needed the money. Every day I looked at that wooden box and was reminded that at any time I could be replaced. And what would I do then?

Navigating the transition between the present, where practical post-scarcity has become available to the powerful, to a future world where true post-scarcity is shared by all means navigating this contradiction. We would all be better off in such a post-scarcity future, but we’re not all there yet. In the meantime, little has been done to address the immediate risks that such a transition poses to those who don’t already live in that future. Why should most of us believe that a post-scarcity transition won’t just be The Jackpot?

This is, I think, one of the two great social potential barriers standing between us and a true post-scarcity future. It’s also perhaps the easier barrier to overcome, because it’s “just” a matter of strong social safety nets, regulation, and ensuring some minimal “fairness” when it comes to distributing resources. Oh, and making sure that we don’t destroy the planet while we’re figuring everything else out.

This is all standard political fair.

The second potential barrier is more subtle: We judge our wellbeing relatively rather than absolutely. (This is obviously only true up to a point. A society where everyone experiences significant deprivation will focus primarily on just meeting its most basic needs. But the West has not been such a society for a long time, and the rest of the world is quickly catching up.)

The most cost-effective way to mitigate the first potential barrier is to focus on those who are least secure. But in doing so, our efforts will decrease the spread between the least secure and the rest of society, and consequently those who are more secure will begin to perceive themselves as less so (because they are now “closer to the bottom”), even if their absolute level of security remains the same. While it’s problematic to reduce any social movement to a single dimension, this is a useful lens through which to view the rise of far-right politics in Europe and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign here in the US.

It’s less clear how to address this second barrier, but it does appear that culture significantly modifies the expression of similarly “fundamental” behaviors. Changing our cultural narratives around wealth and power may thus be critical if we are to successfully navigate the transition to a true post-scarcity society.