Our coming automated utopia?

Sean Carroll recently did a podcast interview of futurist John Danaher on the issue of increasing automation, and what it might mean for future society.  Danaher sees automation taking away jobs, jobs that won’t come back.  In this common view, we’re heading for a post work society, where the machines do everything, and we need to think about what that will mean.

Concerns about the machines taking jobs is an old one, going back to beginning of the industrial revolution.  But while automation has always taken old jobs, new ones have always developed.

The reason, if you think about it, is pretty straightforward.  In a free market economy, someone will eventually find a way to use uncommitted resources, such as out of work people.  If the number of jobs necessary to produce certain products or services decrease due to automation, the economy will find a new equilibrium, either using the same number of people to produce more of those goods and services since they’re now cheaper, or producing new ones made possible by the freed up resources.

That’s not to say that the transitions aren’t agonizing for people caught up in them, and society really hasn’t found a good way to help.  The current solutions are scattershot and often tainted with stigma.  With accelerating automation, the result is an increasingly alienated working class, leading to the election of angry and reactionary populists.  The fact that it’s now affecting professional class jobs may spur us to find real solutions.

But eventually, if we look far enough down the road, we may reach a point where the machines can do everything.  At that point, Danaher’s concerns become valid.  We’re probably still a long way off from it, but it seems inevitable.  What kind of world would that be?

A common concern is that society might severely stratify into the wealthy and a destitute class completely outside of the economic system.  I think this is unlikely.  If such a stratification started to develop, those caught outside would just end up forming their own economic system.  And the wealthy can only be wealthy if they have someone to sell to.

So it would be in everyone’s interest to find a way to keep people in the system.  The question is how to provide purchasing power to a jobless population.  One possibility is a robust universal basic income, but how would it be funded?  We might imagine businesses that once employed people now taxed instead, but finding a way to do it without unintended consequences seems like a challenge.

What kind of life would this be without work?  Danaher imagines a society of game players, artists, and others engaged in various non-work pursuits.  Would people find satisfaction in such a life?  I personally think they would, but as Danaher notes, it would be a major transition, similar in magnitude to the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

From our perspective, it might look like a utopia, although I suspect such a society would have its own issues.  Our world is a utopia to an ancient farmer or forager, although any of us could tell them why it’s not all sweetness and light.

Ironically, people in this new age would probably romanticize the working age, just as many of us romanticize the past.

What do you think?  Too optimistic, not optimistic enough, or completely off base?

64 thoughts on “Our coming automated utopia?

  1. Re “A common concern is that society might severely stratify into the wealthy and a destitute class completely outside of the economic system. I think this is unlikely. If such a stratification started to develop, those caught outside would just end up forming their own economic system. And the wealthy can only be wealthy if they have someone to sell to.”

    I think this is naive. Consider the US, a country in which the wealthy are using their wealth to leverage political power to pass laws and tax cuts favorable only to them. For example, the Trump tax cuts for ordinary people were small and temporary; the tax cuts for the wealthy were large and permanent. They use their money to obfuscate what is really going on. They have been systematically suppressing wages in this country for dexades creating a populace that has less and less buying pwer. What they are hurting their own customers. yes, and they are finding customers in other countries so they can keep pounding the economic snot out of US citizens.

    Consider the financial markets, which when analyzed fairly show that they are a drain on the economies into which they are embedded, not a source of wealth creation as they are so often described. So, who owns the stock in the US stock markets. Apparently 80% of the stock is owned by the wealthy, so basically the stock markets are casinos for the wealthy to leverage their wealth … at our expense.

    I think you cannot underestimate the recklessness of the wealthy power mongers in this country. Some are going so far as to undermine important institutions to make a theocracy more likely!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The term plutocracy is more accurate than theocracy. Whilst Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet, the planet of America has already ascended to plutocracy.

      According to Wikipedia:

      Plutocracy (Greek: πλοῦτος, ploutos, ‘wealth’ + κράτος, kratos, ‘rule’) or plutarchy, is a form of oligarchy and defines a society ruled or controlled by the small minority of the wealthiest citizens. The first known use of the term was in 1631. Unlike systems such as democracy, capitalism, socialism or anarchism, plutocracy is not rooted in an established political philosophy. The concept of plutocracy may be advocated by the wealthy classes of a society in an indirect or surreptitious fashion, though the term itself is almost always used in a pejorative sense.

      The term plutocracy is generally used as a pejorative to describe or warn against an undesirable condition. Throughout history, political thinkers such as Winston Churchill, 19th-century French sociologist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, 19th-century Spanish monarchist Juan Donoso Cortés and today Noam Chomsky have condemned plutocrats for ignoring their social responsibilities, using their power to serve their own purposes and thereby increasing poverty and nurturing class conflict, corrupting societies with greed and hedonism.

      Historic examples of plutocracies include the Roman Empire, some city-states in Ancient Greece, the civilization of Carthage, the Italian city-states/merchant republics of Venice, Florence and Genoa, and the pre-World War II Empire of Japan (the zaibatsu). According to Noam Chomsky and Jimmy Carter, the modern day United States resembles a plutocracy, though with democratic forms.

      More from Wikipedia:

      Effects on democracy and society
      Economists Jared Bernstein and Paul Krugman have attacked the concentration of income as variously “unsustainable” and “incompatible” with real democracy. American political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson quote a warning by Greek-Roman historian Plutarch: “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” Some academic researchers have written that the US political system risks drifting towards a form of oligarchy, through the influence of corporations, the wealthy, and other special interest groups.

      Also from Wikipedia:

      United States
      Further information: Income inequality in the United States § Effects on democracy and society
      See also: American upper class and Wealth inequality in the United States

      Some modern historians, politicians, and economists argue that the United States was effectively plutocratic for at least part of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era periods between the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the Great Depression. President Theodore Roosevelt became known as the “trust-buster” for his aggressive use of United States antitrust law, through which he managed to break up such major combinations as the largest railroad and Standard Oil, the largest oil company. According to historian David Burton, “When it came to domestic political concerns, TR’s Bete Noire was the plutocracy.” In his autobiographical account of taking on monopolistic corporations as president, TR recounted

      …we had come to the stage where for our people what was needed was a real democracy; and of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy.


    2. Hi Mike and Steve,

      Thank you for your thoughtful discussion on automation, the problems and implications of which I have also discussed in a lengthy and multipronged section called “Conclusion: Change Rules and Moment Matters”, which can be found at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/soundeagle-in-best-moment-award-from-moment-matters/#Conclusion

      The said concluding section belongs to a very long, multidisciplinary post entitled “🦅 SoundEagle in Best Moment Award from Moment Matters 🔖🏆”.

      Happy June to both of you very soon!

      Liked by 2 people

    3. I don’t think I underestimate their greed and recklessness, but I also don’t overestimate their ability to determine events. In a lot of ways, they’re like surfers riding a wave they can’t control, only react to. They’ll have to respond to changing conditions as much as anyone. And like I said, the wealthy can only be wealthy if they have someone to sell to.

      It doesn’t mean a clean solution is guaranteed. Historically there might be lots of experiments, with many failures, before society overall reaches a consensus solution.

      Liked by 1 person

    4. I’m basically in agreement with Steve Ruis and SoundEagle. I don’t think it’s inevitable that stratification between rich and poor will radically increase, but it’s highly possible.

      Economic theory guarantees that free markets in labor will “clear” – that approximately everyone willing to take a job at prevailing wages will get one. But it doesn’t guarantee that prevailing wages will be sufficient to prevent starvation.

      Those who lack access to land have usually had to sell their labor to survive. And land ownership is not a biological endowment. It is generally decided by who has access to better weapons technology.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, it’s complicated by the “we” that the military or police feel they’re fighting for. But that “we” has never been the entire world human population. And even within one nation/society, the “we” is structured by laws and institutions that are rooted in a long history of often brutish force.


  2. Quite a while ago I wrote:

    I do not think likely that some dramatic reduction in the creation of new industries will happen. What is more likely is at some point in the next hundred years new industries will stop creating significant numbers of jobs, particularly jobs that can be performed by average people of average intelligence.

    We will see this first in industries involving the creation of physical goods. We already see tendencies toward this in the automobile industry where more and more mechanization means few and few workers. What happens when the assembly is completely robotic and the workers are nothing more than repairmen and caretakers. But that is old industry, you say. Okay. Take this more recent example. Foxconn factories in Taipei that make the iPad are bringing in robots. As Martin Ford write on his blog: “Automation is not just about increasing efficiency. There’s some evidence to suggest that workers are simply being driven beyond their limits. As production speeds continue to increase, there has to come a point where the only option is to get the humans out of the loop. In many industries, automation may penetrate more rapidly than we expect simply because a threshold is reached where people can no longer keep up.”(2) We are probably not far from the day when a new industries will be created with completely robotic workers. The investors will raise money. Robots will build the plant and install the manufacturing equipment with a few human supervisors. Somebody, perhaps the CEO, will throw the switch and product will come out of the back of the plant. But what about the people who designed and built the equipment that went into the plant? In fact, there is no reason why they too could not be made obsolescent with the exception of a few highly skilled individuals.

    The core point is there is almost nothing in the creation of material goods that could not be almost completely robotized. The next step in this process is the complete fabrication of machines themselves from design with few or maybe no workers in the intermediary process. We already see the beginnings of this in three-dimensional printing where items are fabricated much like words or images are printed by laying down successive layers of material. We might eventually have mufti-purpose factories that might be to produce any of a number of goods on demand and might be able to be converted from one output to a new one with a change in the input to the printing process.

    After material goods will come intellectual goods. Computers already do most of the drudgery of computation. They are increasingly relied on for image recognition and complex data analysis. For the most part, all of this is done with programs still created by humans. Within a hundred years, computers will not just be able to run programs but able to create them too perhaps with just minimal direction from human beings. We might be to ask our computers (possibly something the size of a ring on our finger) not just to play music but to create it for us on the fly or to design for us a next generation of some super iPad-like device of the future.

    What about service jobs? Bank tellers have been progressively replaced by ATMs. Cooks by mass-produced fast foods. Doctors might be reduced to doing little more than supervisory duties for armies of robot surgeons and diagnosticians. Lawyers, alas, may be with us forever.

    Of course, niches will remain in the service industries. Particularly talented writers, artists, chefs, and athletes may be paid premiums but those jobs are few. Custom produced items – furniture, cars, and homes – will still have a market. Beyond that, what is left for the average worker?

    More importantly, what is the basis for a rational economy under these circumstances?

    Imagine this. Medical advances dramatically increase the possible human lifespan. Robotic technologies increase the amount of goods able to be produced without human workers. The free market system is based on each worker being able to sell in the market place his services and abilities, but if the production of high value products does not require humans then the worker has nothing to offer. We are left with large number of workers competing for the niche service jobs, driving down those wages, while the wealth is maintained by owners of the machines. Who will buy the products of the machines? And will the workers be able to afford the medical advances to extend their lifespan? The situation is perhaps even more dire outside the industrial world. Just as jobs in the industrialized world have been shipped off to the Third World, the workers there may within a few decades see their jobs disappear to robotic factories leaving those countries to return to subsistence.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with much of that. The disruptions will continue and accelerate, causing increasing problems. In the short term, we have to find a solution for them. In the longer term, the entire way society works will have to change. But as I noted in the post, as difficult as that sounds, humans have gone through those transitions before.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A lot of major transitions haven’t been easy. They have usually involved a lot of bloodshed.

        I don’t see this one easy either. I also wrote this when I wrote the previous:

        We might end with a wealthy elite owning the machines, trading goods among themselves, and living for 150 years while the remainder of humanity live short lives of poverty, perhaps on the government dole to prevent civil unrest. Or, perhaps material goods become so plentiful and so cheap to produce that no one can become wealthy owning them. The machines may become like public lands, held by all, and for the benefit of all.

        The second option seems to be the utopia but as Steve points out above, the wealthy elites are not likely to give up the system that makes them wealthy. The first reaction will be for the elite to hunker down and it could be argued that the current Republicans are doing all they can to promote that strategy. The second option is a lot like socialism or communism and it’s hard to see what sort of events will be needed to put it into place without some major upheaval in society.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Prediction is hard, particularly when it’s about the future. People have been predicting a plutocratic dystopia that can only be avoided with some kind of socialist economy, for a long time (centuries). What’s happened is that most societies have settled on a complex mix, with a constant tension between individualistic and communitarian paradigms, that shifts around from time to time. My suspicion is that’s what’s likely to happen in the future too.

          Which is to say, I doubt both utopian and dystopian predictions. I think the future will be a mixture of both. Not that there might not be a lot of suffering during the transitions.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I concur with Steve Ruis’ assessment 100 percent. As far as being futuristic, I see America evolving into a culture that is similar to what we see in India today, regardless of technological advancements. There will be bloodshed and lots of it; but in the end, the oligarchs will sit at the top of the food chain. I will close with a quote from the movie Platoon: “The rich have always been fucking over the poor, always have, always will.”


    Liked by 2 people

    1. You guys are a pretty bleak and pessimistic bunch. While I think it’s possible things will go bad, the certainty that it will doesn’t seem warranted to me. I’m not saying it’s guaranteed to be happiness and light either. If I had to bet money, it will be a mix, with setbacks and problems, but probably with far more progress than you’re thinking. Only time will tell.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mike,
        Ensuring that every citizen has a smart phone and free unlimited access to the internet will go a long, long way in prolonging the inevitable.

        A future generation of Americans will realize a change, a change leading to a more egalitarian society when and only when history is rewritten. It will be an accurate account of history where Thomas Jefferson is correctly depicted as a racist bigot that he was; John F. Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Lynden Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz all go down in history as war criminals for committing crimes against humanity. When the history books are rewritten, that generation will know, a change for the good of all has occurred.


        Liked by 2 people

        1. Man, I have so much to say about this blog post, I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve been emailing Ed back and forth about topics related to automation and the such for awhile now. Maybe I’ll cut and paste some of what I’ve written to him so that I don’t spend more days deliberating over what I’m trying to say.

          But to start off, maybe this comment by Lee is a good place to begin. I have a question; maybe a naive one. How has retributive justice and labeling one side of human nature (the side that will do whatever it takes to survive) as criminal ever helped a civilization advance? Our desire for revenge probably served us well in the ancestral environment (or else why did we evolve the trait in the first place?), but does it really help in a civilized society? In my opinion, retribution just adds even more suffering onto people who in most cases made a decision they thought at the time would lessen their current suffering or the suffering of others they considered to be in their “tribe”. Wouldn’t a better form of justice be to both try to rehabilitate people who have reached the point where they felt the need to harm others in order to facilitate their own survival and to also try to alter the environment that caused those people to suffer in the first place?

          How has labeling people as criminals in the past helped move civilizations along towards higher average well being?


          1. Astronomy Eric,
            My first question for you is this: Have you watched the documentary series on the Vietnam war by Ken Burns?

            Chronicling the annuals of history is not about retribution and/or justice, it’s about stating the facts. As a species, we must “learn” from history, not be destined to repeat the failures over and over, and over again. As long as the chroniclers spin that history, an account that does not hold those who are in positions of power to account; need I state the obvious.

            People who want to be leaders do so for their own self interest, and one of those self serving interests is a form of immortality, the immortality of the written word. A perfect example of what I’m referring to is Alfred Nobel, benefactor of the Nobel Prize propaganda machine. My next question for you Eric: Who was Alfred Nobel, and what should the annuls of history record about this man?



          2. For some reason there is no reply button on your last comment, so I’ll just reply here…

            Sorry Lee, I guess I wasn’t clear enough in my intent. I was hoping to get feedback/pushback/agreement from you or someone else about the feasibility of reforming the justice system away from the old model of retributive justice to one more focused on restoration and social evolution. I only commented on your thought about rewriting the history books because under such a reformed justice system, labeling historical figures as criminals would be sort of dissonant. In that case, maybe it’s better to rewrite the history books sort of like how Michael Jordan`s “The Last Dance” was written, where we see the total package of when he was a jerk, who thought he was a jerk, and also all the good he did and the sacrifices he made to accomplish what he did.

            But, in terms of rewriting history, it sounds like a daunting task because nobody is a perfect saint. Or do we just cherry pick a few of the ones who caused the most people to suffer? And how far back do we need to rewrite to maximize the amount of learning from our past mistakes? Humans have been exploiting each other since humans were Sapiens, as is the case with all life forms back to the first organisms to evolve on Earth. And if we tend to distort our history to make our own cultures look good, we also are very good at calling out the bad actors of other cultures. If we haven’t learned from those other cultures’ accounts of history, will rewriting our own make that much more of a difference? My sense is that a person who is suffering enough the feel the need to cause harm to another will not be in the best frame of mind to learn any lessons from the history books anyway. Maybe our resources are better placed elsewhere.
            “People who want to be leaders do so for their own self interest, and one of those self serving interests is a form of immortality, the immortality of the written word.”

            Well, this is very specific. I think more generally, as social organisms, one part of our needs “package” that we evolved to tell us how best to survive is to need to feel valued by others. We all have the self-interest to feel valued by others. Like any need, we can over indulge in it. Eating too much food causes us to gain weight. Wanting so much value from others that we desire to be forever written in the history books is most likely going to require exploiting a good number of people to reach that position. We don’t label over eaters as food criminals. Why label people who crave too much value from others as criminals? Why not try to figure out what kind of suffering Alfred Nobel went through early on in his life that might have helped him reach the point that he was willing to do whatever it was that he did to gain that much value? Wouldn’t that story be more informative for the history books than simply labeling him a criminal of one sort or another?


          3. Eric,
            Wordpress stops putting the reply link once the indents reach the maximum level, a frustrating limitation. I can increase that max, but if I set it more than what it is, it causes formatting issues, especially on mobile. If you subscribe to the thread by email, you can use the reply link in the message to keep going.

            I think there’s a lot of value in getting a clear idea of both the virtues and vices of historical figures. We too often lionize those figures, create a mythological image that no modern leader can live up to, so modern leadership always looks smaller and lesser as a result. At the same time, when we discover they were flawed human beings, we have a tendency to swing the other way and conclude they were utter villains.

            But perfect historical heroes or complete villains don’t exist. There are monsters, but most are just human, with human failings, which we assess from the comfortable vantage point of perfect hindsight.


          4. Thanks Mike for letting me know about the reply link in the email notifications, I didn’t notice them earlier. I just replied to the latest post in the chain that had a reply button and it seemed to put my reply in the proper chronological order.

            Well said! As I said before, you have a way with words in which you can say so much with so little. You summarized very effectively what I was trying to say (and took three long paragraphs to do it) in just two short paragraphs! 🙂


          5. I will say though that maybe human “failings” isn’t the best way to describe those behaviors. We evolved those capacities for a much different environment, and if they often don’t facilitate the smooth functioning of a civilized society, maybe it’s better to think of them like an appendix, or vestigial in nature instead of a failure.


          6. Thanks Eric, although you did fine yourself!

            On “failings”, I’m not sure we should avoid that word. Yes, we can always blame evolution, but society expects us to temper some of our innate impulses in favor of pro-social ones. Using the word “failure” for when it doesn’t happen has utilitarian benefits. But recognizing no human avoids all such failures is important.


          7. Thank you Mike! 🙂

            On using the word “failing”, I suppose I could get behind its use as long as it’s stigma didn’t just perpetuate needless suffering. Having said that, have you ever given any thought to the effectiveness of a retributive justice system as the primary method for dealing with “cheats” (to use a game theory term for those who act in an anti-pro-social manner)?


          8. Eric,
            I think there’s a lot to be said for a justice system that is centered on rehabilitation rather than retribution. But that always seems more attractive in the abstract than when dealing with specific situations. The retribution impulse is one of those instincts we evolved, arguably because it does have adaptive effects for a social species.

            Maybe someday we’ll have the ability to give criminals a choice: punishment (hopefully humane), or corrective psychosurgery. But we’re not there yet.


          9. But doesn’t society expect us to temper some of our innate impulses in favor of pro-social ones? 😉
            Especially if our current environment is very different from the one we evolved in, maybe the adaptive effects aren’t as useful here as they were in an ancestral environment?

            But yeah, it would be nice if we could put more resources towards making it less of an abstract concept. Not sure the best way to go about doing that and I’m sure attempts have been made before with probably varying degrees of success/failure.

            When you say “corrective psychosurgery”, do you mean an actual physical surgery or is that another way of describing therapy?


          10. Some of our innate impulses, the ones that society frowns upon. The desire to see criminals punished, particularly from victims or their families, hasn’t historically been one of those. You can advocate for it of course, but I suspect it will be an uphill climb, both to achieve and to maintain.

            When I say psychosurgery, I mean changing the person’s mind, ultimately a physical process. Obviously past attempts at this (lobotomies, etc) have been a horrific mess. But someday we may understand the mind and brain well enough that fixing something like a person’s inability to exercise normal self control may be similar to fixing a bug in a software system.

            Of course, many might see such changes as altering their very being, and possibly the worst form of punishment. And I’d be surprised if unexpected consequences were unavoidable. But weighed against the possibility of life in prison, or a death penalty, it might end up being their best option.


          11. “You can advocate for it of course, but I suspect it will be an uphill climb, both to achieve and to maintain.”

            Yeah, an uphill battle like so many we have yet to confront. I obviously haven’t calculated the game theoretical aspects of it (wouldn’t even know how), but I at least have the hope that once achieved it would be relatively stable enough that maintenance wouldn’t be any more cumbersome that the maintenance required to maintain the current justice systems.

            “But someday we may understand the mind and brain well enough that fixing something like a person’s inability to exercise normal self control may be similar to fixing a bug in a software system.”

            Maybe there is something to be said about the good old fashioned method of overpowering past learned behaviors with learning new behaviors. It’s a longer process, but arguably less invasive. I wonder though if the inability to exercise self control is a fixed personality trait akin to a bug, or more like Maslow envisioned, where motivation and personality are constantly fluctuating homeostatic forces and characteristics depending on an organism’s current state of need fulfillment or denial (i.e. it’s harder to exercise self control and not eat if one hasn’t eaten for two days already). I gave a more thorough description of this (in summary, basically how one tries to replace an unmet, hard to fulfill need with an easier to fulfill need that isn’t actually required at the moment) in my reply to Wyrd, which was redirected from these comments to his site to prevent too much off topic discussion. If anyone reading these comments is interested in that, here is the link:


          12. On fixed personality trait or constantly fluctuating forces, I think it’s a mix. We’re all born with innate traits, but they’re relatively basic and allow for a wide variety of development from the environment, but we’re not endlessly malleable. Of course, many of us learn to resist the rather unpleasant ones, to the point that it becomes habitual, so that the nicer response starts to feel like the natural one. But that requires that the inborn trait not be too strong or overpowering.

            All of which is to say, it’s both nature and nurture, and there are limits to what nurture can overcome, by itself. The only solution for a psychopath may be psychosurgery (once it’s effective and reliable).


          13. Yes, I agree with this assessment. I guess the next logical data point to pursue in relation to this topic would be: what percentage of crimes are committed by people (like psychopaths) who have a genetic disposition that can’t be altered behaviorally vs by those who were just suffering so much from some form of needs deprivation that they couldn’t help but to behave in a self-preservationist manner deemed criminal by the culture they were in? Sounds like a tough data set to collect! Anyway, I’m just thinking out loud at this point. Don’t feel obligated to respond to this if it doesn’t seem natural for you to carry on. 🙂


          14. Thanks Eric. I guess the only thing I’d add is that while it may be possible in principle to change things with therapy, in practice it may take years and substantial cost, with success uncertain. If our knowledge of the brain is sufficient, I could see a society mandating that criminals, at least dangerous ones, have to accept the invasive solution. Ironically, if that solution comes with enough dread, it may also satisfy people’s retributive impulses.


          15. Thanks Eric. I guess the only thing I’d add is that while it may be possible in principle to change things with therapy, in practice it may take years and substantial cost, with success uncertain. If our knowledge of the brain is sufficient, I could see a society mandating that criminals, at least dangerous ones, have to accept the invasive solution. Ironically, if that solution comes with enough dread, it may also satisfy people’s retributive impulses.

            I might not have an accurate view of our current prison system, but I’ve come to feel that we put people away for years at substantial cost and it seems pretty certain that many, if not most, come out unsuccessfully rehabilitated. Therapy couldn’t be that much worse, could it? Maybe we need to start trying to make a culture that deems the retributive impulses to be barbaric. I’m guessing that it wouldn’t be any easier than it currently is with trying to change the culture to deem racism as barbaric. We have so much work to do.


          16. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing our system become more like the Scandinavian ones. Their prison cells look like old time dorm rooms and their overall approach is far more humane. I agree our current system is both harsh and very old fashioned in what it expects from a reformed inmate. (For example, talk to a parolee, and they’ll likely tell you that professing an evangelical level of faith is almost mandatory to get past many parole boards.)


          17. Wow Mike! Thanks for letting me know about this. I must admit that I only recently started thinking about this after reading Ed’s “Evolutionary Philosophy” in the section on justice, and I didn’t realize I was passionate about it until I started replying to this post! Haha! I just read a very long article about Scandinavian prisons and yes! I wholeheartedly agree that these sound a bajillion times better than the US prisons. My main concern is that a prisoner just continues to suffer by being denied many of the human needs, and as such becomes a net negative impact on society. These Scandinavian prisons (at least the open ones) sound like they allow a prisoner to meet all their needs while still creating a supportive environment where they practically must reflect on their crime. I have a hard time seeing how it’s not a net positive for the Scandinavian societies.

            Thanks again for bringing this to my attention! It brings me hope!


  4. “From our perspective, it might look like a utopia, although I suspect such a society would have its own issues. Our world is a utopia to an ancient farmer or forager, although any of us could tell them why it’s not all sweetness and light.”

    I agree with this statement. The words “utopia” and “dystopia” hold a similar meaning to me as infinity. Better to think of them as asymptotic ends of a spectrum of societal well being and we’ll only ever be somewhere between the ends of the spectrum. Just as evolution continually weeds out genetic traits that don’t work as well as others in a particular environment in an ongoing process that occurs even in the more stable environments, my thought is that we shouldn’t ever hope to settle on a set of societal traits that will always work in any environment. We should allow our civilization to constantly evolve to fit the current environment as best as it can. Constant change isn’t that threatening to someone who isn’t currently suffering from some lack of need gratification or threat of future need gratification.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point. I actually don’t buy utopian or dystopian visions. There are no guarantees, but if history is any guide, the future will be better, but it will have challenges. They probably won’t be the challenges we’re worried about right now.


  5. Science tells us that the universe is for all intents and purposes infinite as are its resources. Hydrogen can be made into gold…. Or anything else and we are learning how to do it.

    As we know, human desires can never be sated but at least there is the capacity for plenty for all. Physically we will be fine but mentally and psychologically we may need to pay further attention.

    Politically things need to change. If not the Bezoz’s and Gate’s and Musk’s will own the universe. That can not be allowed to happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The universe may be infinite, but I think our ability to access it likely never will be. I suspect there will always be some kind of scarcity, which means some kind of economy and politics. But the things that are scarce today aren’t the things that were scarce in 1850, and I doubt they’ll be the things that are scarce in 2150.

      I see Bezos, Gates, and Musk as the J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockfeller, or Andrew Carnegie of our age. We forget how much those earlier figures were despised in much the same way. Will we have figures like that in the future? It’s hard to imagine how we won’t, or how innovation happens without them, along with all the ills they also bring.


  6. “What kind of life would this be without work? Danaher imagines a society of game players, artists, and others engaged in various non-work pursuits. Would people find satisfaction in such a life? I personally think they would, but as Danaher notes, it would be a major transition, similar in magnitude to the agricultural and industrial revolutions.”

    Wouldn’t there need to be an economic revolution? Isn’t the current economic system held up by a foundation of human labor? If we make human labor obsolete, why hold onto an old system invented to facilitate human labor at a scale where populations become larger than the ancestral hunter-gatherer populations. It’s been awhile since I read Harari`s “Homo Sapiens”, but I remember him spelling out the process of inventing the modern (as in “post-agricultural revolution” modern) economic process quite clearly and convincingly.


    1. Oh, I think just the existence of such a situation, hardly anyone working for a living anymore, requires some kind of economic revolution. I don’t think the question is if, but how.

      I need to read Harari’s book. I’ve gotten innumerable recommendations on it, and it’s been sitting in my Kindle for a while now.


      1. Yeah, well the “how” is well beyond my pay grade, but I was definitely a Yang Ganger before he dropped out, so he (and Scott Santens) was able to make it sound like a pretty good idea (at least as a transition to something even more economically revolutionary).

        Sapiens is a very eye opening book, but having read many of your posts and comments, it will probably be less eye opening for you than it was me because I think you’ve probably already considered much of what he talks about on your own.


  7. The problem has always been our success. It’s what brands us more as parasites than symbiotes with the environment.

    In general, people want to feel useful, to contribute, so I think that’s the key to engagement. In some SF scenarios, machines are banned from certain work so humans can have those jobs. (But some of those same SF stories paint that as an act of charity or despair that isn’t welcomed.)

    Our worldview might shift. We might develop, for instance, a craving for human hand-crafted clothing and food. Upscale restaurants might brag about “All Human Prep!” Much of the “economy” is based on our perceptions of what has value. We may come to value unique hand-made objects over mass-produced.

    Or we’ll sink even further into our infantile navels and spend our lives playing video games and watching silly movies while our robot nursemaids care for us (such as in Wall-E). Given the way humanity seems to be going right now, the future of Idiocracy does seem more likely than the future shown in Star Trek.

    I was recently very struck by something I read: American never developed a culture of intellectual rigor (such as seen in Europe and places in Asia). Abstract thinking was never our thing. The author attributed much of that to capitalism, which sees learning only in terms of granting ability, and thus buying power. It’s an entirely practical and utilitarian worldview that doesn’t really admit to fine arts or intellectualism, and both those things in American culture are not at all mainstream (but generally confined to limping PBS stations).

    Those chickens have been coming home to roost for some years now. We’re thick in chickens…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “The problem has always been our success. It’s what brands us more as parasites than symbiotes with the environment.”
      Luckily we’re able to invent new ways of interacting with our environment, so maybe this is reason to hope for a shift towards more symbiotic cultures.

      “In general, people want to feel useful, to contribute, so I think that’s the key to engagement. In some SF scenarios, machines are banned from certain work so humans can have those jobs.”
      Does usefulness need to be tied to a job? How useful do stay at home parents feel? How much income do they earn from taking care of their kids? I’ve also felt very useful in a multi-player video game before. It satisfied my need, but unfortunately I didn’t earn any money from doing it. 🙂

      “Our worldview might shift. We might develop, for instance, a craving for human hand-crafted clothing and food. Upscale restaurants might brag about “All Human Prep!” Much of the “economy” is based on our perceptions of what has value. We may come to value unique hand-made objects over mass-produced.”
      I just saw a YouTube clip yesterday of scenes from Star Trek TNG where people were complaining about replicator food and where Data asked Riker why he’s cooking by hand when a replicator would be more efficient! Nice little coincidence with your comment.

      “Or we’ll sink even further into our infantile navels and spend our lives playing video games…”
      Why the stigma against video games? I feel that they can satisfy a large number of our needs in a way that is arguably less parasitically impactful on the environment than other ways we satisfy those same needs.


      1. “Luckily we’re able to invent new ways of interacting with our environment,”

        Our history on that isn’t a good one.

        “Does usefulness need to be tied to a job?”

        Being a stay-at-home parent is a job! (Ask any parent!)

        “Why the stigma against video games?”

        Because they are pretty squarely in the domain of what I was just talking about: infantilism and a culture not only lacking in intellectual rigor, but in places actively opposed to it. We’re deeper into this corvid19 mess than we should be due to that anti-intellectualism.

        (I’ve been wondering if this corvid19 pandemic will finally kill the anti-vaxxer movement. Maybe we can eliminate one bit of American foolishness.)


        1. “ Our history on that isn’t a good one.”
          Luckily history doesn’t always repeat itself. 🙂 Just trying time be a bit optimistic in some turbulent times.

          “ Being a stay-at-home parent is a job! (Ask any parent!)”
          Oh, when you said “job” I thought you were talking about activities where one earns an income. My point was exactly that parenting is a difficult activity where one can feel very useful, but it’s not valued economically in the sense that stay at home parents earn a pay check for parenting.

          I’ll have to think some more about your intellectual rigor comment and the infantilism of things like video games. Something feels too oversimplified about it to me, but I can’t quite put it into words yet. I’ll get back to you in a bit about it.


          1. Nothing wrong with optimism. I used to have some around here somewhere…

            “Something feels too oversimplified about it to me,”

            Heh. It’s a topic I’ve been chewing on since the 1970s, so it’s pretty boiled down to it’s basics by now. 🙂


        2. Wyrd,
          Unfortunately the anti-vaxxer movement doesn’t seem impaired. I read a survey the other day that if a COVID vaccine came out, something like 30% of the population would outright refuse to get it. I think something like another 20% would have to think about it, but at least they were considering it.


          1. Fished it out. I transposed the numbers:

            The poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds 49% of Americans overall say they plan to get a vaccination, while 31% of respondents say they are unsure if they will get vaccinated. The survey found 20% of respondents flat out said they will not.


            Glass half full: half would get it, and another 31% would consider it. 20% might seem bad, until you remember that 29% of Americans believe in astrology.

            Liked by 1 person

        3. “American never developed a culture of intellectual rigor”
          First off, is it really as cut and dry as that? Some pretty amazing feats have originated from America that couldn’t have been accomplished without a healthy dose of intellectual rigor. Secondly, is it really descriptive enough to use a blanket statement like “American culture” or “European culture”? To me it sounds sort of like a weather forecaster saying, “America is hot today.” instead of giving more details about the temperature in at least every local city. Having said that, maybe you are arguing that there are too many pockets of anti-intellectual micro-cultures in America. If this is the case, I often find myself in agreement with you.
          But let’s get to my main point about video game stigma. My current worldview these days tends to focus on the idea (primarily influenced by my studying of Abraham Maslow’s motivation theory and the evolutionary theory laid out by Richard Dawkins in his “The Selfish Gene”) that human behavior is driven/motivated towards actions that facilitate survival by the chemicals released in the body when a need is met or denied (even though it’s been the focus of many recent conversations here, let’s avoid the consciousness discussion of “how” these chemicals are able to produce the subjective feelings that accompany their production, hahaha). I try to put everything through that lens when thinking about any point.
          In terms of video games, the reason why they are so compelling is that they fulfill a good number of needs while playing. If playing a single player game, the self-actualizing need is often met as we level up or gain some new ability or learn something new about the game that we didn’t know before. If playing a multi-player game, an additional dose of the social needs are often met as we can work together with others towards a common goal, and we can get the approval of others if we do something positive towards that common goal. Mastering a game mechanic can build self-esteem, and so on. Like sports, they can be a good outlet for competition that is less likely to hurt someone in a way that threatens their entire way of life. And even though a majority of games are currently not that educational, they certainly have great potential to be educational as well as compelling in the other ways I just mentioned at the same time. It’s sort of like the difference between a healthy food and an unhealthy snack. They both satisfy the hunger need, but one is more damaging to the body in the long run. A well designed educational game or social game could be a very healthy way to fulfill some needs, while a “Pay to Play” game like Candy Crush is just as exploitative as those candy bars placed right in the checkout lane.
          Another point I had is that one doesn’t need intellectual rigor in all aspects of their life. It doesn’t take intellectual rigor to satisfy any of the needs (we hadn’t had the time to evolve the memes required to facilitate intellectual rigor back when we were evolving the needs). Where intellectual rigor is needed is when we are devising well thought out cultural norms and societal frameworks, as well as in scientific endeavors etc. While being involved in those activities which require intellectual rigor often fulfills many needs as well, I don’t think they are activities we have to spend 100% of our time being involved in. I think games of all sorts can be a healthy way to feel fulfilled in life.
          This is getting pretty long and even though I’m sure I am missing some points I thought about since I starting thinking about a response to your comment, those can always be handled in future comments! 😊


          1. Thank you Wyrd! I’m not a seasoned commentor in this regard, so definitely help me along if I commit any blog faux pas. I’m processing your response and will reply, but your clarifications help me see that we essentially see eye to eye on most of it. I think it’s just that I am not familiar with your positions and so it’s hard to correctly glean your meaning from the short snippets that you made in your first comment.


          2. As we say here in Minnesota: Yah, sure, you betcha! 😀

            The beauty of discussion is that we do sometimes find we were on the same page all along. 😉


  8. [ firing up 3D printer … printing out … two cents]

    Just thought I would throw my view out there, as it seems more optimistic than almost everyone else’s. I think the future will be more on the utopian side. It won’t be perfect, and it’s not guaranteed. As some (apparently not including Jefferson) have said, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. And during the last 20 to 50 years the mechanisms of vigilance have been seriously eroded, leaving us much closer to the plutocracy. This damage seems to have peaked with clear minority rule as evidenced by the current US presidency. The mechanisms of vigilance (free press, inter-branch oversight) are under attack. But I think the trend may be turning around. I think the damage is fixable. I think Elizabeth Warren is going to be busy.

    So obviously I think the path will be social democratic capitalism. I think a universal basic income will be inevitable (and the alternative would be bloody). People who don’t want to work won’t. People who want to get rich can, but not crazy rich. No one deserves to be a billionaire. That just needs a progressive tax structure, like what we had just after WWII.

    The biggest problems may be the social issues folks have already mentioned, like a lack of a feeling of self-worth, lack of social connection for those who resort solely to video games, etc., but those problems can be overcome. Just what I’ve seen over the last few months tells me that people without work will be fine. I haven’t done paid work since the beginning of March, but I’ve had no problem finding things to do, and my feeling of self-worth has been sustained in intellectual endeavors. But technology has been invaluable. I’m no academic, and until the last few years would have almost no access to the literature in my area of interest. And twitter has been a godsend, just for links to papers if nothing else, but also for connections with actual academics. And then there is online education for anyone who wants.

    And as for video games, I’m with Astro Eric. I think there can be serious value there, as well as potential for dysfunction. But the answer is to manage the dysfunction without losing the value.

    [rambling meter reaching threshold]


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the more optimistic take James. Until now, I might have been the most optimistic person in the thread. (Although Astronomer Eric doesn’t strike me as particularly pessimistic, so maybe not.)

      I’m not as optimistic as you, but I’m probably a lot closer to your view than most of the ones laid out here. It seems like there are extremes where everything goes well, and other extremes where everything goes to hell. My prediction is that it will be a mix, and that there will be new problems we aren’t even conceiving of yet.

      On self worth, I think the issue may come down to what society ends up signalling as valuable contributions. It’s not at all obvious that it wouldn’t signal such value for gaming and art. We already celebrate the best sports players, as well as have local recognition for intermediate levels, something people really get into.

      None of it, from a strictly utilitarian perspective, has value, yet people still recognize value in it. In a future where all the utilitarian functions have been taken by machines, it seems quite plausible our cultural values will recalibrate.


      1. I like to think that I am extremely, if not overly, optimistic while constantly striving to temper it with rational thinking. 🙂 James’ vision sounds wonderful to me!


  9. “… if we look far enough down the road, we may reach a point where the machines can do everything.”

    You know, I can’t see it. Technology sometimes—maybe often—complicates our lives when it’s supposed to do the opposite. When I imagine machines doing everything for us, I see chaos. It seems to be a law of nature for things to break down.

    And why would we want machines to do everything for us? I think of what happened with self check out lanes. They reduce jobs, for sure, but at what cost? They cause customers to get frustrated and upset, and grocery store employees aren’t great at communicating how to use these computer systems.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Could be, although you have to be careful about focusing too much on the limitations of current day machines. We won’t get to the machines doing everything in the next decade, probably not even the next 50 years. But if we imagine another 100-200 years of progress, then it starts to look more plausible.

      All we’ll see in our lifetimes, probably, is increasing levels of automation, but with humans still at the center. As I noted in the post, that alone is going to cause enough issues in the next few decades.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Mike,

    I don’t see how a machine-based society will work without a transformation in our energy infrastructure, do you? My hunch, and it’s only that, is that energy-intensity for a given level of production would go up, all else being equal, with the widespread use of machines, which generally function much less efficiently (on a thermodynamic basis) than people. Just wondering if you’ve come across any work along those lines?

    And I think the resource allocation issue is not a small one. Right now, within limits that are clearly problematic, people have the option to acquire an education, or a trade, or to work more hours, or take the calculated risk of starting a business in order to acquire a larger share of resources for themselves or their families. A robust UBI might give people some purchasing power, but if it becomes a fixed income for everyone, I could see that as potentially a challenge. Particularly if class mobility were to stall altogether. Will machinery generate a world “of plenty” for everyone? It’s hard for me to plot that course in my personal thought experiments… 🙂 It seems to require an overhaul of our values in conjunction with the technological gains, which is something we’ve struggled with as a species all along I think.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Michael,
      Good point about energy. Machines definitely need to get far more efficient. We know from animals that achieving that level of efficiency is possible. Animals make use of oxygen and the energy stored in other life (plants, other animals, etc). Many machines do use oxygen, but I don’t know of any that use life. (There was a project, called EATR, which worked on creating robots that could get energy by eating biological material.) In the case of machines, it might come down to efficient storage of energy from solar and other renewable sources.

      As I noted in the post, I don’t think we’re anywhere near the machines being able to do everything yet. That’s probably at least several decades away, possibly centuries.

      I don’t know that a robust UBI means that it’s the only allowed source of income. In principle, I don’t think society would want to prevent ambitious people from earning additional money, such as by starting a business. It just likely wouldn’t be a business with employees, just equipment. So a classless society wouldn’t necessarily be the case. Many might pine for that, but I think we have enough historical data to see the drawbacks of rigidly trying to impose that. (Not that some countries may not try it anyway.)

      But that raises an interesting question. I mentioned the economy recalibrating over time. Thinking out load, I wonder if it could stabilize into a situation where everyone owned their own business, or were shareholders.


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