Friday, July 31, 2015

Our sunny future IV (high tech, research, investment and education)

Wow, hectic week at work (as usual just before holidays), so not much time to develop this series. Also, there were a number of points I wanted to present that were not covered in my previous post (The economy of the future) and I’ve been having some difficulties finding a way to do so coherently. Rather than keep it simmering until I find the perfect theme to broach such disparate musings, I will comment on them in no particular order:

·        Savings and investment: In an economy like the one I envision 500 years from now the propensity of people to save would be severely undercut, as you would have your basics (food and shelter) covered for life, at whatever age, so one major reason (to prepare for the proverbial rainy day) would not be so salient. Also, due to minimal regulation there would be an almost infinitely elastic labor market, so there would always be some job available at the going wages. Which is a good thing, because given the reality of a fast falling population for most of the period (remember it would ideally stabilize around 2500 AD) the market for most goods (either consumption goods or means of production) would be shrinking and thus the need for investment in new capacity would be at a global level, nonexistent. The minimal investment required would be to repair the wear and tear of machinery and infrastructure, so minimal savings would be enough (and that would push the interest rate pretty low, although having been these many years close to the zero bound we probably do not find that particularly alien). A relatively low interest rate is a good thing, as it prevents capital from accumulating excessively (as it has been doing in most of the Western economies for the last forty years) and helps to prevent the appearance of a politically influential rentier class that can attempt to monopolize the political process.
·        Innovation and productivity: As I mentioned in an older post, the latter has stopped improving in part as a consequence of the deceleration of the former (Why technology has stopped improving), and the reason for such deceleration is the corporatist nature of our current stage of capitalism (big corporations and the state find it more convenient to erect barriers to entry in most areas of activity to protect current players, which then can extract monopoly rents from their respective turfs, leaving little energy or resources to pursue real innovation out of them). The kind of future I envision has little space for big corporations, and I explicitly avoided talking about patent systems or intellectual property rights. People will pursue their passions (in the arts or in science, more about that one later on) for the fun of it, not to gain some outsized chrematistic advantage (aka loads of money). Most digital goods will be freely shared, and writers, painters, musicians (philosophers, sociologists, economists, psychologists…) will be invited and celebrated, sought after and recognized in the digital realm, but not necessarily paid. Current capitalism maintains that such system of social recognition not accompanied by a system to guarantee creation produces a strong monetary reward for the creators would spell doom for creativity itself, but I am ultra skeptical of that claim. I can imagine much more innovation taking place not just in the humanities and artistic fields, but in more everyday, down to earth activities. A thousand small and middle sized factories manned by engaged workers decently paid are much better laboratories to imagine and refine new technologies than today’s few gigantic R&D centers ,where a few freaks (selected from an unimaginably vast talent pool, but strongly biased towards certain personality features that do not take into account things like empathy and practicality) devote their intellectual powers to the resolution of increasingly small and specific problems…
·        Education: another source of hope for the increased innovation of our descendant’s technical milieu is the very likely seismic change in the way they will educate their children. Let’s face it, our current educational system can only be understood as an offshoot of the corporatist, material-production-maximizing system I’ve been both describing and denouncing. We force kids to rote learning of the most inconsequential matters during 16-22 years just because it a) it helps to instill in the vast majority of them the discipline (read: tolerance for drudgery and soulless, repetitious work) we think will be required in most jobs; b) it sorts out the ones better adorned with the quality most indicative of the ability to do such works (general IQ, which does not include things like curiosity, kindness, empathy or even clarity of purpose, but does include the ability to manipulate abstract symbols, a retentive memory and a knack for numerical calculations)… but to weed out the better ones at that we could just force them to memorize Kuala Lumpur telephone listings (which are probably as relevant to their future jobs as 99% of what kids are taught today in school and college); and finally c) given how they behave after their academic formation is finished, it obviously transmits to them values like competitiveness, ability to interpret symbols of status and social hierarchy and envy/ jealousy complex we define under the umbrella term “keeping up with the Joneses”. I would expect the state of the future just to provide some general guidelines of what the kids should know at certain ages. Very basic skills like reading and writing (of course), elementary math (algebra and some geometry and trigonometry, calculus and topography are more advanced and optional), foundational mechanical skills (using a lathe, a mill, repairing and tuning a motor, a transformer and a valve), concepts of physiology (including sports) and hygiene, agriculture and husbandry (how to open a furrow, seed a field, harvest and thrash, feed cattle and skin a rabbit). Everybody should be bilingual, with one language common to all humanity (let’s face it, English is the obvious candidate, although only God knows how it will sound and look like 500 years hence). All the rest (history, literature, religion, even my beloved physics, chemistry, psychology, secondary language, politics, etc.) would be pursued only by choice. Now for the first basic elements of education I would expect some places where kids gather physically (specially when they are very young and can benefit with more frequent interaction with their peers) to be provided by the villages free of charge (either manned by paid staff or by the parents who volunteer their time to be present in some of the most magic moments in the development of their children). But at some point, it would be done in an unstructured way, just by playing, chatting, seeing others do it and just traveling the world in groups and learning from those with a recognized level of mastery in each subject. There would be one single exam in all their life, to be taken between 16 and 18 years, where they would show their dominion of the skills required to be productive citizens, after which they would gain the right to vote (or to attend the assembly where the major affairs of the village are decided, as regulated in the village charter) and would be eligible for the communal work in the 4% of their time allotted for it.
·        Technological advance/ big science: the organization of the society I’ve expounded may seem too agrarian, atomized in small villages unable individually to engage in the big projects required for the advancement of modern science, and thus condemned to scientific stagnation, and ultimately decline. This doesn’t necessarily follow, as those small villages are linked in two way: electronically (they all have ultra high bandwidth and can share information in much more fluid ways that we can not even dream of) and by the constant flow and interchange of people physically travelling the world for the sheer pleasure of it (remember I mentioned up to 30% of the time would be spent freely travelling, working in some places if needs be to pay for additional travel expenses in a world with one single universal language and one single universal currency –more on that later- which means in each village at any given time 30% of the population is made by people born outside of it, just passing by or temporarily settled there because they like it). Those two linkages would prevent animosity and competition between villages to arise, and would make infinitely easier for them to collaborate in the kind of projects each one separately may be too small to pursue. A lot of material production will be decentralized, not just at village level, but even at individual’s houses (thanks to 3D printing), but there are elements needed in a modern economy that can not be produced at small scale facilities (wind turbines or solar panel production facilities, for example). People of multiple villages would pool resources to build and maintain those facilities, and village federations would oversee where they are made to ensure they are evenly distributed. Now some facilities (the ones to carry truly fundamental research, think in  NASA’s JPL, Geneva’s CERN or Cadarache’s ITER) would still be too big for a village federation. The erection and maintenance of those would be decided by the world council (where the representatives of the different village federations meet), and they would be run as if they were independent administrative units, where all of their citizens are full time “employees” for as long as they want, which receive their victuals from the rest of the villages (so each one has to produce may be a 1-5% above what they need so they can jointly contribute to sustain those centers of development). Would that system work better than today somewhat anarchic, uncoordinated, unnecessarily competitive system? I very much think so, but recognize that it is difficult to say with any certainty.
·        Money, credit, currency, inflation: In an economy with a very low propensity towards savings and very low investment needs (as the market has been shrinking for five centuries, and is only beginning to stabilize) I don’t see much need to resort to credit by corporations, and I’d love to see the irrationality of stock exchanges that has gripped the imagination of humanity (starting in the West) for the past 400 years go away once and for all. There will be people who love gambling, of course, and I can imagine every sort of racetrack, casino, betting parlor or games of luck taking place to satisfy that desire without those temples of random distribution of imaginary wealth. I’m sure there will be banks, hopefully retail ones, to finance small and medium enterprises, startups, maybe some consumer credit for those merchants that want to pursue thoughtfully some commercial opportunity and certainly many kinds of insurance, but I expect no group of people to function (to “do business”) resorting only to credit and fictitious tokens they never expect to pay. I’ve mentioned commerce, as in the world of densely interconnected villages I dream of I would expect a lot of exchanges taking place, and it seems just reasonable there will be a universal unit of value, and hence a universal currency. I would expect that currency to be entirely electronic, and its value to be decoupled from any relationship with any physical  asset (so we finally overcome our reliance on what Keynes famously called a “barbarous relic”). Remember that in the future society I’ve been describing money is not needed to discharge your obligation towards the state (taxes are paid in time, working for the common good under the direction of freely chosen elders, not in money), and it is not needed to satisfy human’s most basic needs (enough food and a home are provided free of cost to everybody), which lowers the need to have money at all, and makes it possible to entirely forego having it (as has happened during most of human history). However, if for some reason any citizen wants to earn it there will be a robust market of non-essential goods, traded and paid in the universal currency, he can seek to contribute to and benefit from. And all the profits he can make in any commercial or productive endeavor he devotes himself to is his for the keeping, free of taxes.
So I think with that I’m done describing the society I would define as “ideal”. It would mean correcting the three main deviations from human’s millenary history, hatched in the West in the XVIth century, which have greatly hampered and blocked human flourishing:
1.       Work specialization, which has driven people to devote more and more of their time to lesser and lesser tasks. Yes, it has allowed societies that adopted it to produce incalculably bigger amounts of tchotchkes, but at the price of making the vast majority of the producers incalculably sadder, gloomier and stunted, their capacities unable to develop and the enjoyment of their time taken away from them (“them” being everybody, from the factory worker doing horribly repetitive work to the apparently successful executive pretending the decisions he takes make any difference other than tying him tighter to the hamster wheel of a life devoid of human relationships)
2.       Population explosion that has cheapened the experience of human life and forced an insane competition for ever dwindling resources, whilst taking a (most likely) irrecoverable toll on the natural environment
3.       A uni dimensional value system predicated on the recognition of a single measure of value: how many material goods you can claim exclusive control of (or how much money you have, money being the medium for the acquisition of those goods… although in the end even the goods could be done with, as just money for money’s sake was measure enough, regardless of having time or not for the enjoyment of the supposed things it was originally intended to acquire).
 Would that state of things be the peaceful, benign, true end of history, the dawn of an era of prosperity (not necessarily traduced in more material goods, but in more refined ways of living) and contentment that leverages our millennia of experience with (mostly) dreadful societies, in which humans will leave happily ever after? You can  bet it will not. We are a restless species, and things have a way of changing and evolving that tends to lay waste to the best thought plans (and I am not claiming this one is specially well thought). People will change, and adapt, and at some point become restless. Groups will develop differentially, mutations may happen, some violent strain in the form of a totalitarian alternative ideology may arise and become popular…
Every attempt at realizing a Utopia in this life has failed because few of them have contemplated seriously the unavoidability of change, and fell short for not building in their proposed ideal configurations of society mechanisms to adapt to the unexpected. But the unexpected, the unplanned is almost the only thing we know for certain we will have to face at one point or another.
Be it as it may, in my next post on this topic I’d like to reflect on the likely developments that may nudge our current, more imperfect social arrangement, towards a society of this kind, and what major events may happen in the next five centuries that may completely derail such evolution, and guide the world-system in entirely directions 

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