Three Works on Abundance and Technological Unemployment, Part Three: Martin Ford

[Reblogged from P2P Foundation Blog]

Martin Ford.  The Lights in the Tunnel:  Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (Acculant Publishing, 2009).

Of the three works considered in this series of review essays, Ford’s pays by far the most attention to the issue of technological unemployment.  It’s the central theme of his book.

Members of the P2P Research and Open Manufacturing lists are probably familiar with the worst-case scenarios for technological unemployment frequently outlined in the posts of member Paul Fernhout.  Coupled with draconian social controls and strong IP enforcement, it’s the scenario of Marshall Brain’s Manna.    Still others are surely familiar with similar projections in Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work.

Ford writes very much in the same tradition.

But there are significant mitigating features to technological unemployment which Ford fails to address—features which I’ve also raised on-list in debates with Fernhout.  Most important is the imploding price of means of production.

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Abundance Creates Utility But Destroys Exchange Value

[Reblogged from P2P Foundation Blog]

What’s variously called the “cognitive capitalism” model, or Paul Romer’s New Growth Theory, assumes that technological progress and increased efficiency will lead to “economic growth” in the sense of the total volume of monetized economic activity. But this presumes the use of “intellectual property” and other forms of artificial scarcity to capitalize efficiency improvements as a source of rents, rather than allowing market competition to pass reduced costs on to the consumer in the form of lower prices.

But similar assumptions are found, in a weaker form, even among people who aren’t exactly friends of the proprietary content industries. This includes Chris Anderson’s “Freemium” model, and similar arguments by Mike Masnick at Techdirt. Their basic idea, which is great as far as it goes, is to use free content to piggyback monetized auxiliary services: Linux distros offering tech support and customization, music companies selling certified authentic copies available at a convenient location, Phish selling concert tickets, etc.

One thing they fail to adequately address, though, is that the total amount of cash available from such auxiliary services is less than what proprietary content brought in. Or to take Anderson’s example, Encarta sales didn’t bring in money equivalent to the exchange value it destroyed for Britannica et al. And Wikipedia destroyed billions in net monetized value for both hard copy encyclopedias and Encarta.

In Masnick’s and Anderson’s model, though, the total size of the monetized economy overall still continues to increase. A reduction in the total money expenditures (and hence labor) required to obtain a consumer good will simply free up purchasing power and increase demand for new goods in some other sector.

The problem is, this assumes that total demand is infinitely, upwardly elastic.

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A Post-Scarcity “Downfall” Bunker Scene Parody

[Courtesy of Paul Fernhout]

“It looks like there are now local digital fabrication facilities here, here, and here.”

“But we still have the rockets we need to take them out?”

“The rockets have all been used to launch seed automated machine shops for self-replicating space habitats for more living space in space.”

“What about the nuclear bombs?”

“All turned into battery-style nuclear power plants for island cities in the oceans.”

“What about the tanks?”

“The diesel engines have been remade to run biodiesel and are powering the internet hubs supplying technical education to the rest of the world.”

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Iain M. Banks — The Culture

This article on the Culture is based on Iain M. Banks’ essay “A Few Notes on the Culture” and on his first Culture novel Consider Phlebas. Frankly, while I’m fascinated by the Culture itself as an example of post-scarcity civilization, I didn’t find the story itself in Phlebas at all engaging. The book should have been severely edited and streamlined–by at least a third of its length–to keep the story moving. And the characters were almost entirely unsympathetic, although I found the Idirans oddly likeable (quite sardonic for a society of religious fanatics) and Yalson grew on me.

This is fairly typical of me. I tend to read science fiction for future history scenarios and socio-politico-economic models, insofar as they are relevant to understanding trends in the actual world, rather than for story and characterization. I read alternate history for much the same reason: scouring the points of divergence and subsequent world-building for insights that shed light on actual history. And Consider Phlebas had little in the way of engaging story or appealing characters to make absorbing the material about the culture enjoyable. I got more enjoyment reading the Wikipedia article on the Culture, and Banks’ explanatory apparatus at the end of Consider Phlebas, than I did reading the story itself.

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Who Owns the Benefit? The Free Market as Full Communism

[Originally published at Center for a Stateless Society]

There’s a wonderful phrase for how capitalism works in the real world (I’m not sure who first came up with it, but I associate it with Noam Chomsky): “The socialization of risk and cost, and the privatization of profit.”

That’s a pretty good description of what the state does under actually existing capitalism, as opposed to the free market. Just about everything we identify as problematic about corporate capitalism — the exploitation of labor, pollution, waste and planned obsolescence, environmental devastation, the stripping of resources — results from the socialization of cost and risk and the privatization of profit.

Why haven’t the cybernetic revolution and the vast increases in productivity from technological progress resulted in fifteen-hour work weeks, or many necessities of life becoming too cheap to meter? The answer is that economic progress is enclosed as a source of rent and profit.

The natural effect of unfettered market competition is socialism.

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Ephemeralization as a Weapon Against Capital

[Originally appeared at Center for a Stateless Society]

In his Third Address to the International Workingmen’s Association on the Paris Commune in 1871, Karl Marx argued that the cooperative organization of production, if it expanded to include the entire economy, would amount to communism.

“If united co-operative societies [were] to regulate national production upon a common plan, thus taking it under their own control … what else, gentlemen, would it be but communism, ‘possible’ communism?”

Two leading lights of nineteenth century liberalism, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer — the latter frequently caricatured as a crude right-wing social Darwinist — envisioned such a “cooperative commonwealth” (if you’ll pardon the term) as the ultimate natural outgrowth of a market economy.

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