I think that talking about the “post-scarcity economy” is weird seeing as how so many people already live in a post-scarcity world, and yet still manage to create scarcity for themselves.
By all accounts, what you need to live a satisfied, pleasant life can be purchased relatively inexpensively nowadays. People 100 years ago would look at the lifestyle of a middle class American and their jaws would drop at the wealth. Meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, three hour trips from Chicago to Salt Lake, instant communication with anyone anywhere, Honda Civics, 2,000 square foot houses.
I haven’t done a lot of research, but when I hear about post-scarcity, I think of the two things that scarcity really is:
- Actual, physical lack, whether psychological or biological
- Lingering, vestigial want
I’m afraid that lingering want will always exist. We will find ways to create scarcity…we will find the things that are difficult to create, and we will value them more highly and feel better when we acquire them, at least for a little while. And when I say all this in the future tense, I mean that it’s already happened.
Wanting, as I have said, is my favored definition of “alive.” So, I do not have faith in our ability (certainly not my ability) to stop it. And it’s a testament to our capacity for lingering want that we continue spending massive amounts of resources on unnecessary luxuries while many people still have real, physical needs that have not been satisfied.
Not that I’m judging, or if I am, I am judging myself. I’m writing this on a macbook air while sitting on a leather sofa in a 1,200 square foot house..these are not things I need. I’m just saying that this vestigial want is a uniquely powerful force that seems to eliminate any possibility of a post-scarcity world.
In a word: word.
I agree with the sentiment that humans will always want and so in *that* sense the idea of a post-scarcity economy is far off. Well… all senses of it are far off, I guess, aren’t they? But the existence of THAT one – the personal as opposed to the systemic – is going to depend upon some serious tinkering with human nature. And it sounds like we both find slightly more credence in our ability to tinker with our environment than with our nature, eh?
As far as what a post-scarcity economy looks like w/r/t objects – I’m not sure I would call even the most comfortable individual free from the haunt of “running out”. Maybe it seems that way because in a practical sense, yes: it’s MacBooks all the way down and it’s all the plastic forks you’d need to blanket the gardens at Versailles and it’s more corn than we realistically know exactly what to do with. But in the relationship between the comfortable consumers and whatever politically and culturally complex series of actions leads to the comfortable consumers receiving their products… there is still some kind of tyranny of resource, isn’t there? The seeming reality of an Infinite Supply of Sliced Meat is based upon this residual (and disappearing, definitely) Fordist mystery surrounding our products. We don’t know how stuff is made or where it comes from or why it’s priced the way it is but we have a time-tested-and-empirically-well-supported expectation that it will always be there. The stuff. I mean.
Which is to say we are good at creating the *experience* of post-scarcity, whereas scarcity is basically endemic to our economy. We’ve settled into a flawed system of manufacturing which dances around like one that is not. It’s sort of like a Disney ride. Except its about economics. And industry. And instead of the car on the rails (with the bar that goes down over your lap) you get in YOUR car and go to Best Buy and see what *looks like* an infinite supply of TVs. Hopefully you put on your seat belt.
So, the point being, right now “luxury” looks remarkably like the absence of scarcity. And “poverty” looks like the constant threat of it. While I don’t think a post-scarcity economy would bring the two closer together, I think it might raise them both by a proportional amount. How does it happen? FFFFFFF I have no idea. I like to think largely wasteful manufacturing processes will turn into more responsible, smaller, specialized ones and the process by which we can turn our excess into usable material will at some point outrun the process by which we create that excess…
But I don’t know… just how it’s in our nature to want, it is also in our nature to stratify socially. So maybe you’re right: if passive over-consumption is part of human nature (which, you know, arguable – but it’s certainly part of predominant Western culture) then maybe a future free from “want” for one group will only allow further means to engage in the subjugation of the other group which conceivably could be free from “need”. Seems as though history might agree with that prescription. :-(
I’d like to think there’s a big “NAAAAWWWW” here… right now I settle for “HMMMMMMM…” What matters though, and what is super cool, is that regardless of how we maybe do live in a practical-though-not-actual post-scarcity environment and regardless of how we might, as humanity is so frequently wont to do, shoot ourselves in the foot on this one: the Makerbot kind of points towards a sci-fact horizon. And so hopefully out of this Minecraft, Makerbot, Cory Doctorow, Neal Stephenson, Jetsons and whatever else conversation – which hey btw how honored AM I to be included in it with you, Hank! – there’s a little bit of doubleplusgood futurethink that happens?
Or maybe I’m being an idealist?