Welcome back. The Breaking Smart newsletter and podcast is starting up again after a very refreshing 6-week break.
I want to kick off the post-break programming with a podcast on a big question: if we are headed at least partially towards a post-scarcity world, as we seem to be, does it look more like the Star Trek universe, or the universe in Iain M. Banks Culture novels? Both are varieties of something I call involvement capitalism, which I think it’s going to emerge in the next decade one way or the other. The choices we make in the next few years will determine which flavor we end up with.
1/ Over my break, I had a chance to unplug from weekly writing, and reflect on the broader theme of this mailing list, while watching the news. In case you forgot my tagline for breaking smart, this broader theme is serendipity through technology, and in the last few years, that has been a murky theme to think about. Is it the best of times or worst of times? Hard to tell.
2/ I unplugged from writing, but not from media consumption. As you might know I don’t believe in that, especially when historic news is unfolding, and the last six weeks have of course been extra historic. Very much in the “weeks when decades happen” category, so I was very plugged in.
3/ The US elections happened, a second or third wave of the pandemic kicked off (depending on where you live), and multiple vaccines passed early trials, in the process pioneering a whole new class of mRNA vaccines.
4/ Closer to our own set of usual topics, bitcoin neared its historic all-time highs, a DeepMind AI sort of solved the protein-folding problem, SpaceX launched its first operational crewed mission, and also launched its beta Starlink broadband services.
5/ There was a small detail in that last news item that’s my jumping-off point for today. The Terms of Service for Starlink require you to agree that Mars is going to be a free planet, outside the jurisdiction of Earth governments, which is an interesting move with real consequences.
6/ The thing is, if SpaceX’s plans continue to succeed, they may put a Starlink constellation around Mars and offer very cheap launch services to Mars, which would lead to a broad-based democratized Mars access at least for rovers and robots, with low-cost communications once your rover is on Mars.
7/ Even if human settlement does not follow, we are on the cusp of creating at least a robotic telepresence society on Mars. And if you read between the lines of the Starlink ToS, SpaceX hopes to keep that presence an open, anarcho-capitalist zone of sociopolitical experimentation.
8/ What might that look like? Well, there are two precedents to consider, one fictional, one factual. The factual one is the current state of Earth oceans, which are essentially an outlaw zone. I highly recommend William Langewiesche’s brilliant 2005 book, The Outlaw Sea, for a deep look at how the world of oceans works. Shipping, piracy, law on the seas, ship-breaking, all sorts of cool stuff.
9/ The fictional one is the post-scarcity anarchist civilization called the Culture, in Iain M. Banks’ novels. We know SpaceX is inspired by that since they name their barges after Culture space ships: their current fleet of 3 comprises the drone ships Of Course I Still Love You, Just Read the Instructions, and A Shortfall of Gravitas.
10/ The two together paint a consistent portrait. The Outlaw Sea kinda does look like the fictional universe of Culture books, especially the margins of the civilization, where the Culture’s Special Circumstances agents, a sort of CIA, interfere in less advanced civilizations.
11/ The fictional plots of Culture books very much resemble British and American interventionist global foreign policy, enforced by naval power projected across the world’s outlaw seas, and directed at less-developed countries, over the last two centuries. Internally, the Culture is quite different from Britain or the US, but you could say developed US-UK societies are as close to the Culture as real earth societies get.
12/ So this brings me to the idea of Involvement Capitalism. I got the idea for the name from the Culture books, where the multiple species that engage with the Culture are called Involved species, which I think is a very powerful concept. I define it as capitalism based on money as a way to engage more deeply rather than disengage from society. So the opposite of fuck-you money. More like hello-world money.
13/ The core idea in the Culture books is that despite its post-scarcity abundance, the AIs and biological species of the Culture don’t retreat from the universe into either pure hedonism or spiritual retirement. They stay engaged, both with each other, and with less developed civilizations. They never stop experimenting, learning, growing, and interfering in the affairs of the universe. They are involved the way annoying parents are involved in their children’s lives.
14/ The Culture is both like and unlike the Star Trek Federation, which is also a post-scarcity society built around powerful spaceships and a multi-species civilization. While both are left-leaning, powerful, and militarist without admitting it, the Culture is what you might call a neoliberal anarchy with no real rules, unlike Star Trek, which is a benevolent paternalist civilization that takes its rules very seriously, closer to LBJ’s Great Society model if that had actually worked out.
15/ You could say the Culture is like the Star Trek Federation, except with AI Minds in place of charismatic captains, and no Prime Directive, only a history of interference and consequences to guide individual choices, and social consequences for making good or bad decisions as individuals. For example, there is a norm but not a rule against reading the minds of humans, and a ship that violates that law is ostracized and given a pejorative nickname.
16/ Star Trek captains try to avoid mistakes, and when they do make mistakes it’s a rare crisis. First do no harm, like doctors. Culture Minds try to learn from mistakes and come out net positive and win-win long term, but in the short term they are willing to play pretty dirty. Mistakes are not exceptional. It’s a startuppy fail-fast world with consequences. This is a pretty powerful attitude. Great power, great responsibility sort of thing.
17/ Not only are you willing to take risks, you are willing to take risks on behalf of others. They are willing both to commit sins, and then ask for forgiveness and atone for the sins, a kind of ask for forgiveness not permission culture, which is a very different, and in my view, much more alive posture.
18/ Compared to the Culture, the Star Trek Federation has what Bruce Sterling called an acting dead posture. Or equivalently, to use terminology coined by Samo Burja, the Culture is a live player civilization, while the Star Trek Federation is a dead player civilization.
19/ The Culture society reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s definition of a free public as one where freedom is experienced through involvement in mutuality, not going off by yourself with fuck-you money, and the moral universe is based on the risky posture of making mistakes driven by curiosity and growth motives, and then seeking forgiveness, rather than trying to avoid mistakes.
20/ Now the interesting thing is that both Star Trek Federation and Culture lack a meaningful scarcity-based capitalism based on money. The Star Trek has replicator credits, but they’re not really that important. They deal with lesser species like the Ferengi, which do have a concept of money in the form of latinum plates. There’s a good book about the Star Trek economy called Trekonomics, by Manu Saadia by the way.
21/ Within the Culture, again there’s no money. But sometimes there are fads and fashions that create money-like dynamics. Like in Look to Windward, where there is some trading based on scarce concert tickets. But again, for the Culture, money only comes into play when dealing with less advanced cultures. So overall, both the Federation and the Culture not just post-scarcity, but post-capitalist.
22/ Let’s connect all that up to the current state of the world. The interesting thing is that despite all the political strife and pandemic-related troubles and deaths, we are actually starting to hit post-scarcity dynamics for real. Money is rapidly losing all its traditional meanings, and behaving in new ways we don’t really understand yet. One obvious sign of that is that service economy workers are in the deepest shit ever, while anyone holding stocks has been doing great. So there’s a dissonance there that’s going to get sorted out, and it’s probably going to get ugly.
23/ Governments across the world have taken fiscal measures that look like close to free money. Especially if you’re in an industry like airlines, hotels, or restaurants, money is now a weird new kind of government action. It doesn’t mean what it used to. We’ve also been able to throw massive resources at vaccine development and not just develop them in record time, but do so with an entirely new method, and with higher effectiveness. And chances are it will be distributed nearly free around the world. Amazing compared to past pandemics.
24/ Even better, despite the strongest efforts of the fossil fuel lobby, the renewables economy has continued to develop strongly through the pandemic, and energy is getting closer to free. And by that I mean really free, after factoring in the cost of externalities like pollution and carbon. That’s worth a bit of a bunnytrail.
25/ There’s a famous paper by Nobel laureate William Nordhaus, Do Real-Output and Real-Wage Measures Capture Reality? The History of Lighting Suggests Not, analyzing the cost of artificial lighting measured in human labor hours that has some interesting implications.
26/ Nordhaus shows that between prehistoric times and campfires, and modern compact fluorescent lamps (which are already obsolete btw, and being replaced by even more efficient LED lights) the cost of lighting really has dropped by a huge amount. The amount of work that bought 1 hour of light in prehistoric times now buys 53 years of light.
27/ When Nordhaus wrote the paper in 1994, you could argue it was kinda dishonest since it didn’t account for the cost of climate externalities. But now with the renewables revolution, the figure is much more honest.
28/ And it’s not just lighting. Anything based on computing and electronics has seen that trajectory. The picture in this episode has an LED, as well as a knockoff Arduino board, and it’s worth thinking about that: that board is a Chinese knockoff off an open-source project, and all the code is open source. If you bought an Arduino original, you’d pay a higher price out of goodwill for the open source.
29/ We’re already into 5nm semiconductors, which means extremely low-power computing, in watts/cycle terms, and coupled with renewables, you could get solar-powered bitcoin mining on ocean barges that is literally almost free energy, not just in money terms, but in all-inclusive environmental terms, in real units like human labor.
30/ So at least where artificial lighting, computing, and energy are concerned, we are getting close to Culture or Star Trek levels of post-scarcity, and the dynamics of our world are starting to reflect it. Vaccines are not free to develop today, even if they’re distributed free, but with that protein-folding breakthrough, that might go the same way.
31/ So why don’t we see all this and celebrate? The thing is, post-scarcity doesn’t quite look like we expect it to, in naively idealist-utopian terms. We think it looks like the orderly Star Trek Federation, but it looks more like the chaotic Culture universe.
32/ Right now the light at the end of both the Trump and Covid tunnels are visible, and it’s also very clear that the world on the other side is going to be very different on every dimension: political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental. We’re going to go straight from Covid to Climate as the next challenge.
33/ Those dimensions, by the way, define what is called the PESTLE analysis framework — political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental — which I learned about recently via a project I was doing with the Yak Collective, which is a network of free agents and consultants I helped start.
34/ We just launched a project called Future Frontiers, using the PESTLE framework that you might want to check out. One of the things I hope to do with the Yak Collective in 2021 is kick off an open-source Mars rover project, betting on cheap Mars access from SpaceX. I’m looking for hackers and makers to join, so if you’re interested you should sign up.
35/ A bit of product placement PR: Next week, on Thursday Dec 10 at 8AM Pacific, we’ll be doing our first Annual Meeting, and it will be a good chance for those of you who are interested to check us out.
36/ But to get back to the topic, the Yak Collective is actually one example of the sort of socio-political experiment that makes sense in an emergent post-scarcity economy of involvement capitalism, where the scarce commodity is not any kind of material resource, whether it is atoms, joules, or bits, but human involvement.
37/ Both the Star Trek Federation and the Culture represent involved postures. They don’t retreat. They explore and stay curious. They are neither individualist, nor collectivist, but try to manage that tension while remaining involved. For me, the Culture is the better model, since it is much more alive, but either model is a good one to think about.
38/ What makes the Culture different from every other model of post-scarcity post-capitalism is that it’s not idealistic or utopian. It aspires to good, but accepts the necessity of mistakes, forgiveness, and messiness in a chaotic universe. In the Culture, the ultimate sin is not making mistakes, but disengaging. Involvement is good. Like in regular capitalism, greed is good, in the Culture, involvement is good.
39/ Covid has shown us that traditional capitalism breaks when faced with an extreme coordination problem and necessary collective action. The US is the most powerful country on the planet, and the most powerful economy and innovation engine. Yet, it has already let almost a third of a million people die, and the number is likely to be half a million by the time we’re done.
40/ Capitalism itself is here to stay I think, but no flavor seems acceptable for the world we’re heading into, and the problems will only get worse than Covid, not easier, but also more and more things will be moving into the weird post-scarcity regimes, like lighting, computing, and energy. We don’t have a system for this.
41/ Democratic capitalism leads to tyranny of the majority. Socialist flavors of capitalism as in China may do better on problems like Covid, and we can’t ignore that, but they do come at the cost of authoritarian repression with an AI surveillance state.
42/ Any sort of consensus-based approach to capitalism, as in many kinds of cooperative schemes, ends up vulnerable to veto dynamics, while more individualist leaning flavors of capitalism, like libertarianism and anarchism, end up sucked into low-level endless political life, which is ironic since that’s what they set out to avoid. In New Hampshire for instance, libertarianism went off the rails and resulted in bears running wild in a small town.
43/ In all cases, I think the problem is twofold — not recognizing that post-scarcity, even in limited form, creates more chaos and confusion than a utopian peace, and the urge to retreat from involvement of any sort, which backfires, and sucks you into the worst kinds of involvement possible.
44/ So what do we do? I think what we must learn to do is involvement capitalism. Stay involved, don’t ignore collective action coordination problems, don’t be idealistic about what post-scarcity means in practice, and try to have fun while figuring it all out.
45/ In this newsletter, I’ve referenced a famous line, usually attributed to Stewart Brand, several times: “we are as gods, and might as well get good at it.” I want to wrap this episode with that, but with a twist: what sort of gods should we aspire to be? I think the answer is, we should aspire to be like the AI Minds that inhabit the spaceships in the Culture. The first step towards involvement capitalism is to give yourself a witty and sardonic god-name that keeps you hungry and foolish, like Steve Jobs said.
We’ll resume regular programming and subscriber-only posts next week.
Note to subscribers: Billing, which was paused during my break, will resume starting today.