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Our Techno-Utopian Future: Fallacies and Predictions

Mises Daily: Tuesday, January 09, 2007 by

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What's the ultimate destiny of our civilization? Are we destined to become "living batteries" a la Matrix, refugees in a post-apocalyptic radioactive desert landscape, or peons of a totalitarian surveillance state? Or, can we look forward to a luxurious but boring utopia, with robot servants and automated factories to meet our every whim, but nothing to do?

I often debate and debunk such scenarios as the organizer of a philosophy discussion group. I offer no mystical powers of foresight, but I can use some insights into history and human nature to predict which possibilities seem more likely than others. Certain themes and fallacies are especially common, so here are some predictions of the future that I consider more or less likely to occur.

Neo-Malthusianism

This particular doomsday has loomed over civilization since 1798, when Malthus predicted in his Essay on the Principle of Population that the exponential growth in the population would outstrip the growth of the food supply, leading to mass starvation. The failure of such a shortage to materialize despite a tenfold growth in population does not deter his successors today. Today's environmentalists are continually discovering new resources to run out of, whether fossil fuels, metals, land, or even water. When will this wild party of megamalls and SUVs end?

The basic problem with Malthusian scenarios is that they assume that the resource base available to meet human needs is fixed -- that each additional human being requires X amount of land, steel, and oil to live. But human values are ever-shifting, and so are the means to meet those needs. Each baby born not only creates new demand for the products of civilization, but also provides new resources and insight for meeting those needs.

Human beings have proven amazingly innovative in improving the yield of resources to achieve their values. In agriculture, energy, construction, engineering, and information systems, production is not only growing, but accelerating. Our civilization is not only improving the technology for producing the goods we consume, but expanding the range of resources available for exploitation. Whale oil, rubber trees, and native forests for paper and fuel have been replaced by petroleum, plastics, tree farms, and coal. Entrepreneurs have long worked on replacements to fossil fuels independent of any government programs, and will no doubt market them when they become profitable.

The Inevitable Robot Uprising

Incidentally, the same reasoning can be applied to make a robot rebellion unlikely. Malevolent robots in fiction are usually motivated by a desire to grab a larger share of a dwindling resource base. But unless they are after old people's medicines, this premise doesn't wash.

Eco-disaster

The companion to the fear of resource depletion is the fear of a global ecological catastrophe. The threats are numerous -- mass species extinction (1960s), global cooling ('70s), ozone holes ('80s), global warming ('90s), or climate change (2000s). It's impossible to refute every new scare, but an examination of history provides a dose of healthy skepticism.

The distinguishing factor of human beings over other living things has been our ability to change our environment to improve our situation. Most of the increase in life expectancy from 18-33 years during all of prehistory to 70+ today has not been due to better treatment of illness, but due to the manipulation of nature to create healthier environments: agriculture, cities, sewers, running water, heating and cooling. Human industry comes with unavoidable byproducts like pollution, but the costs have been minute relative to the benefits. Only when the focus of industry has been subverted to destructive purposes -- such as war or meaningless production quotas, as in the Soviet Union -- has the destructive side of industry outweighed the benefits.

Today, our ability to manipulate the environment is more powerful than ever, as is our awareness of the byproducts of industry. There is no evidence that these skills are declining -- as evidenced by the continuing growth of life expectancy in both developing and developed nations. Is there any reason to believe that we should suddenly prove incompetent to deal with nature?

Morlocks and Eloi

What Social Classes Owe to Each Other: $6

The idea of class struggle predates Marx and Rousseau, as do dystopian futures with stratified social classes. Though communism and socialism have been thoroughly discredited by history (as they should have been by theory), visions of the future are often dominated by the entrenchment of various sorts of social divide. Every new potential world-changing innovation is met by some dissenters eager to describe how it will be used by the rich at the expense of the poor. Is there any evidence in support of such fears?

The problem with dwelling on the relative wealth disparities in society is the loss of historical context. Compare the living standard of a medieval baron versus a middle-class American. What luxuries are available to one, but not the other? Aside from some precious metals and the like, there is an enormous wealth of goods and services available today that our ancestors would have envied. Global transportation, life-extending medicines, the global community and the immense library of the Internet are all recent inventions.

Compared to the difference between our ancestors 1,000, 500, 100, or even 50 years ago, the difference between the richest and the average Americans is not that great. Many of the products we use -- soft drinks, fast food, laptops, iPods, websites, jeans, and even cars are essentially the same, especially when compared with their last-generation equivalents. Furthermore, the factors that determine the speed at which new innovations propagate through society favor an exponentially accelerating rate of innovation. The future is likely to be one in which the luxuries of the rich become commodities in ever-shorter cycles.

Obsolescence of Humanity

The Luddites were one of the first groups to protest innovation on the grounds that it threatened their livelihood. The Industrial and Information Revolutions have probably made superfluous most of the jobs that existed in 1811, and no doubt this process will continue. Yet outside of wage and price controls and other forms of interventionism, long-term unemployment has never threatened more than a small percentage of our society.

Technology not only eliminates dreary, labor-intensive jobs, but frees us to pursue more productive activities. Yet futurists continue to predict a society in which the vast majority of people live on the dole, living meaningless, boring, hedonistic or otherwise unproductive lives. The issue is more than just earning a livelihood -- the question is what will we do, once technology assumes all the jobs we once had?

One answer can be found in the institution of the housewife or homemaker. Running a household used to be a full-time job, with a multitude of things to be done while the husband went to work in the field or factory. However, with growing automation of the home and shrinking families, stay-at-home moms and dads have more free time than ever. Do they cry with despair at their increasing idleness?

Certainly many have had trouble adjusting to the change. But many others found new avenues for productive activity. Whether volunteering, writing, or running an eBay business, homemakers have found new ways to remain productive. Our industrial society not only creates a standard of living that allows  spouses to stay at home, but opportunities to allow them to discover and pursue new passions. The tremendous improvements in productivity that came with the Industrial and Information Revolutions gave us more free time, and created entire institutions, such as Little League teams, church charities, and online multiplayer clans that have evolved as free time has grown.

The Surveillance Society

While entrepreneurs have used new technologies to provide an ever-increasing array of goods and services, governments have used technology to increase their control over society. Numerous sci-fi writers have seized on fears of a surveillance society, in which a citizen's every move is tracked by the state. Giant television screens, ubiquitous cameras, spy satellites, and airborne SWAT teams dominate such visions.

Hold the tinfoil please.

There are a number of limitations of the power of the state. Foremost is that the same technologies that make ubiquitous surveillance possible also allow ubiquitous secrecy. Remember the little lock you see when you conduct a transaction online? It indicates an encrypted connection between your computer and the website that is made possible by a complex global authentication and trust system. You don't need to know how it works, but you can be confident that (as long as neither side is compromised) snooping that transaction is practically impossible. Similar technology allows any two parties to communicate in secrecy. Governments attempts at limiting the spread of encryption and introducing loopholes into encryption programs failed miserably because information is nearly impossible to contain in our connected world.

There's no guarantee that life will remain private in the future. We can only be certain that the potential to communicate securely will grow along with the potential to monitor unsecured communications. If we value privacy, the tools will be there.

The Predictions

Now that I've dispensed with the negative, here are some positive trends likely to shape our future society:

Distributed Design

In the pre-industrial age, almost all goods and services were local. Raw materials were locally grown, chopped, or quarried, then produced by local craftsmen, and consumed by local villagers. The Industrial Revolution and the creation of the assembly line changed all that. Consumer goods could be mass produced in factories and distributed worldwide. Cities  grew rapidly to facilitate easier interaction between  all the complex elements of the capital base necessary to sustain an industrial society. Skyscrapers became necessary because of the need for large numbers of individuals to collaborate on complex projects. A global civilization tied together by trade began to arise, and despite the best attempts of governments, is closer than ever today.

The coming of the information age expands the possibilities for the production of goods and services. Because ideas can be communicated worldwide in an instant, design teams can be separated from manufacturing facilities as well as each other.

The first stage of this process was the formation of international corporations that outsource production to where it is cheapest, such as jeans that are designed in the United States and stitched together in Mexico. The second stage was the formation of true multinational corporations that distribute design teams across the globe to wherever talent is.

The third stage, which we are now entering, is the specialization of design and manufacture. For example, "fabless" computer chip designers are contracting manufacture to chip fabs. This dramatically lowers the cost of entry for chip designers like Transmeta and Motorola, and frees foundries from dependence on a single brand. Likewise, the manufacturers of numerous consumer products such as radios, televisions, and electric toothbrushes are buying the core technologies from specialized manufacturers and adding their packaging to it.

The fourth stage will be to separate the manufacture of production tools from the creating of the goods they produce. Rapid prototyping already allows a three-dimensional object to be emailed and printed on an inkjet-based printer. As 3D printing becomes cheaper, consumers will be able to print out new shoes and iPods on their inkjet printers directly from the raw materials.

Power to the Mind

The evolution of technology has been a progression from reliance on physical effort to a growing role for the mind. The first tools, such as chisels and hammers, augmented raw muscle power. The creation of powered machines eliminated the reliance on muscle and allowed much more powerful mechanisms to be built than with human or animal power alone. The introduction of the automaton in the 20th century embedded human knowledge in machinery. The trend continues as human beings improve their ability to exploit nature to meet their values through the use of automation until (theoretically, at least) man is able to achieve all the material values technologically possible and desirable by mental effort.

The growing importance of intellectual activity implies that intellectual property will become increasingly more important relative to material labor and physical goods. The current system of patent laws and copyrights will change dramatically as intellectual transactions evolve to meet the requirements of a civilization with rapid innovation being conducted on a global scale. Intellectual markets will take the form of universities, patent-trading companies, or private exchanges of trade secrets.

The New Cosmopolitan Man

A number of researchers are working on video cameras integrated into clothing or eye-ware that can record a 24/7 video stream from the wearer's perspective. They predict that an entire lifetime of such recordings will be able to fit into a small device within 10 years. When this technology is combined with GPS and computer vision software and cross-referenced with our contact lists and email, a complete digital record can be created to supplement our memories. Imagine being able to search for and review anything experienced during your digitally-enhanced life.

The building blocks are already in place -- my Google accounts make every email, chat, and web search of the last three years instantly searchable and available. My Flickr account serves as a geographically tagged diary of my life. A tiny device records all my bike rides and sends a map tagged with my performance statistics to my computer.

The sum of all these innovations will gradually change the way we define ourselves. Our consciousness becomes the central processing unit of a complex system, with external storage and sensor facilities spread across the world and to other people. As human-computer interfaces improve, our sense of self will evolve to include our digital memories as well as those of others. Initially, people had to talk to each other to share information. Then they could look it up in a book. Now you can search for it in Wikipedia. Imagine when you will be able to instantly look it up as an extension of a thought process using some successor to web services.

Thanks to globalization, such tools for sharing knowledge and experience will be available worldwide. It will not be a "hive-mind" (another common sci-fi scenario) because our own sense of self will be enhanced in parallel with our connections to others.

Paperback: $10 MP3 CD: $25

My ultimate prediction is this:

Voluntary human interaction has created an industrial civilization capable of generating unprecedented wealth and giving individuals more freedom than ever to choose the way they wish to define themselves and their relation to others. The ultimate result of this is that, to quote Ludwig von Mises,  "the individual is in a position to choose the way in which he wants to integrate himself into the totality of society."

Sorry, no flying cars.

Does this disqualify me as a futurist?


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