Political Animal


May 11, 2013 2:05 PM Post-Keynesian Eschatology

By Ryan Cooper

Contrary to Niall Ferguson’s glib assertions, John Maynard Keynes in fact cared a great deal about the future, and in fact was one of the deepest thinkers on the implications of modern economics who has ever lived. His essay “The Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren” is still a sparkling read. In it, Keynes speculates that with the economic growth accumulated over future generations, humanity could at last be free of work and “the economic problem” of scarcity would be solved. At one point, he takes a swipe at greed:

the love of money as a possession — as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life — will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease

Will Wilkinson is not impressed with such sentiments:

First, Keynes is too myopic about the definition of “the long run”. That the living ever dwell at the frontier of time seems to encourage a fallacious sense that the hour is getting late… Friedrich Hegel and Francis Fukuyama spotted the end of history just ahead of them… Environmentalists tout a sort-of pagan eschatology… Yet, for all we know, this is the morning of humanity… Suppose that in 50 years a great breakthrough extends the average lifespan by hundreds of years. Our grandchildren will look upon the present age of so-called abundance as the end of the original human era, during which a terrible and absolute scarcity of time prevailed.
My second complaint is that Keynes’s assumption about the superiority of leisured pursuits is dogmatic rather than reasoned…it’s hard not to see his bias against commerce and consumption as a vestige of aristocratic ideology about the inherent degradation of market activity. The idealisation of bohemian artistic and intellectual life… [which] prevails still among artists and intellectuals, is a remarkably sturdy remnant of our feudal legacy… It seems simpler and less question-begging to say that we keep on working long hours and buying lots of stuff because, whatever the ultimate cause, we take less satisfaction in the occupations of non-commercial leisure.

Two points. First, while the apocalyptic defeatism of Paul Kingsnorth is indeed obnoxious, it is a terrible mistake to draw a straight line from religious millennialism to “environmentalist eschatology” and thereby imply that the grimmest predictions of climate hawks and the beliefs of UFO cults are similarly plausible. Take for example this paper looking at uncontrolled climate change on our current path extrapolated to 2300. It predicts that half the Earth’s currently inhabited surface will be uninhabitable—so hot during the day that people sitting in a windy shade wrapped in a wet towel would still die of heatstroke. (Needless to say, that would about wrap it up for human society in its current form.) That is highly speculative, yes, and no one can predict with any certainty the likelihood of that scenario coming to pass. But it is grounded in scientific measurements and science-based models. And furthermore, over 99 percent of all species in Earth’s history are estimated to have gone extinct. One cannot handwave past this kind of reasoning.

Second, Wilkinson supposes that even should we create some lifespan enhancer such that we all live to 300, we’ll probably all still want to work, though the reasons might remain mysterious. But so long as we’re talking speculative fiction, why not a development that allows people to control their desires directly?

First, let’s imagine the ultimate form of desire modification (or “d-mod” as I will sometimes refer to it). In this ultimate form, each person would have a computer in his or her brain that could change his or her desires, habits, beliefs, personality, and emotions in any conceivable way. Here are some thoughts about what that would imply for the human species:
1. Obviously, the technology would be incalculably dangerous. If the brain computers were hacked, people could be made into slaves, zombies, or worse. So the technology would only be adopted after extreme precautions had been taken and shown to be effective.
2. Such a technology would mean the instant end of economics as we know it. Utility theory assumes something called “local nonsatiation”, which means that people always want more of something. With d-mod, local nonsatiation goes right out the window, since you can instantly dial yourself to a “bliss point” where you are just perfectly satisfied and don’t want anything else. That’s the end of scarcity.
3. Just as personality upload makes FTL travel look a bit silly, d-mod makes personality upload look a little silly. Why bother creating new worlds when you can just like the world you’re in? Why “hack the world” when you can just “hack the human”?
4. When we can decide what we want, desire becomes less important than meta-desire. What do we want to want? And what do we want to want to want? Etc. D-mod is like putting the parameters of the utility function in the utility function itself. The result could be very chaotic if people keep changing and changing (because each new change induces a desire for another change). But most people are likely to end up in fixed-points or “cul-de-sacs”, where they want to want exactly what they currently want.

(Read on for more fascinating stuff, and a reading list should this pique your fancy.)

The point is that thinking about the future is hard, and getting more so with the increasingly complex connections between technology and humanity. Will we, like yeast, drown in our own excrement, or will we construct a socialist pleasure utopia? Or something else? Only one thing is certain—science fiction is where to find the most important questions of our time.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • c u n d gulag on May 11, 2013 4:43 PM:

    Let's face facts, we humans are limited as far as guessing about the future.

    Sure, with the advent of printing, and public libraries, we had much more access to the past, and to information - so "guessing" had some firmer foundation(s).

    And recently, with the internet, we no longer need to leave our couch's to get all of the information we could want, or need - or, p*rn, for that matter.

    Our Founding Fathers were an very intelligent, far-reaching and far-thinking, lot, and I'm sure if you brought them into tomorrow, May 12th, 2013, that they would suffer from information and sensory overload - possibly to the point of madness.

    And none of them could have imagined ubiquitous trains, telegraphs, telephones, electric lighting, and radio's - let alone Gatling guns, flight, nuclear explosions and power, televisions, and moon trips.
    All they had, was "green energy" - and some of that was filthy.

    We are creatures of the "Here and now." With maybe a few decades foresight - if that.
    And in retrospect, we remember the few that were right about the future, and not the multitudes who were wrong.

    All we can do, is echo Scarlett O'Hara, and say, "Tomorrow is another day."

    A tomorrow in which we have no idea what that tomorrow will bring.
    Let alone the tomorrow after tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that, and the one after that, and the one...

  • Howard on May 11, 2013 5:43 PM:

    I don't read wilkinson very often, but this is, by far, the stupidest thing I've seen him write.

  • Dennis (without Menace) on May 11, 2013 6:17 PM:

    Feudalism, my tuchas. Isn't reasonably clear that when Keynes speaks of a future without work, he's not suggesting that no one ever need do anything productive again? The idea isn't for everyone to loll about in a hammock sipping lemonade all day, but that people will be able to do what fulfills them, and for most people, that will always include some kind of productive work. Does anyone wonder that people who handle the disposal of waste for humanity might dream of doing something less repulsive? Is there much doubt that without the need to sell one's labor for survival, there would be great opportunity for expression, self-improvement and even genius? Doesn't anybody watch Star Trek, for heaven's sake? It seems awfully cynical to assume that without wage slavery, there could only be dissipation and vice; there'd be some of that, seeing that there is some of that even now, but it seems rather obvious that there would also be exploration, discovery and innovation like the world has never seen before.

  • cld on May 11, 2013 6:33 PM:

    'd-mod' has to be the dumbest future tech idea I've ever heard of.

    Why would anyone do this? What would be the point?

    If you dial up a new desire for something --it's because you already have that desire, if you dial it down it's because you no longer want it.

    The only thing it might do is help manage lingering anxieties, which I am sure can be managed in much simpler ways.

  • AK Liberal on May 11, 2013 9:52 PM:

    "D-mod" is a well trodden path. Buddhist meditators have been achieving it for about 2,500 years.

  • cld on May 11, 2013 10:42 PM:

    They've been fooling themselves.

  • Rick B on May 12, 2013 5:14 AM:

    the first thing to recognize about humans is that they suffer from Bounded Rationality. No single human can "solve" a problem which requires too much information because of "... the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the finite amount of time they have to make a decision." Bureaucratic organizations are the institutional method of dealing with this limitation of individual cognition and decision-making, and that institution is highly imperfect.

    The fact is that individuals will simply never control their information environment by themselves. They have to work together and they have to accept failures. Life is a group trial-and-error experiment. That makes long term predictions about the future little more than warnings of future dangers and dreams of possibilities.

    That said, today's decisions must be decisions to head off possible dangers and to reach for possible futures. The prediction of the "singularity" by about 2050 seems to cover both of those possibilities.

    Humans will have to spread out into space to survive their own errors. I rather doubt that the accident of evolution that created the current cognitive animal we call a speaking, time-binding animal will occur again, but we will create new species ourselves - machine and animal.

    In the near future (several centuries at least) I see the most productive use of humans is in institutions that process information like universities. The return on investment of such behavior is unknown but incalculable. Universities are institutions which apply groups processes to utilize unique individuals in order to create meaning. (This book is about how the brain as a collection of embedded systems creates language. Language creates individual selves, and sociology provides explanations regarding how disparate individuals gather into groups larger than families. Finance-based organizations are so primitive that I seriously doubt they will exist more than a few more centuries. Computers and cyborgs will replace them.)

    I could keep speculating, but science fiction will do a better job than I can right now. Yeah, go watch Star Trek. Then read some more cognitive science. The book I references above, Louder than Words, is highly readable and an amazing description of how the brain creates language. Language is the unique advantage of the human primate. It's what we are.