Travels In Genre Fiction (Part VI – The Changing Definition of Value in the Future)

In past articles on science-fiction I have talked about how the politics of the future inherently lend themselves to more socialist viewpoints; ideas of co-operation, of plentiful resources and of reduced need for work and more time for leisure. This can lead to a return to a rural or antique idyll – a leisure-focused society free from concerns such as poverty and want, and indeed a move away from concepts of money and the value of objects. Yet beneath this surface the issues raised – of the economics of a post-scarcity world – warrant deeper consideration.

To begin with, it is important to establish what a “post-scarcity” world is. At its fundamental level it is one where there is no need to compete for resources or goods; there is enough for everyone. How this is made possible, I feel, can come in two ways. The first, and the one which arguably is the more iconic, is the idea of replicators and automation of industry; the need for work is completely removed as machines create everything autonomously, needing only a supervisory human aspect, and the issue of resources is completely sidestepped via high technology. Some device allows for the creation of anything in infinite quantities without the need for traditional source materials. Thus there is literally no possibility for shortages of anything and people are free to consume these goods in their greatly increased free time. The second presentation of the concept is one which is based around nobody lacking for anything, but traditional models of production and employment persisting; the future has alleviated the energy and resource crises facing Earth and so society can continue in a modern or pseudo-modern way with traditional economies of buying and selling goods. If anything this latter concept is more immediately credible – as science progresses the limitations of man’s capacity to build things from nothing become more apparent and the replicator or nano-factory in this old SF sense becomes more of a myth or useful plot device, while the idea that space colonisation can help prevent the resource consumption needed to maintain modern society becoming unsustainable is a believable one based on observed science (the presence of vital resources on other planets and moons.)

The first of these approaches is arguably the more socialist; when there is no need to work to produce goods, no scarcity of goods and no restriction of access to anything, then there is little progression of logic to see this as the rejection of the concept of private property. If anyone can have a car or a television, then surely there will be less value placed in society on having your own car or television. Ownership of something will not be a sign of exclusivity or status, but instead something approaching a human right and in turn – when no-one’s possessions differ from anyone else’s – it is logical to assume a more communal society will result. The extreme extension of this is transhumanism, where society goes beyond separate bodies into a kind of gestalt consciousness. Perversely, this train of thought – that post-scarcity in the form of the replicator-fed society leads first to socialism, then to communes, then to transhumanism – may well begin with a move towards intense materialism. Attempting to apply the concepts of post-scarcity life to modern society without assuming that society will change as traditional concepts of value become worthless – giving the poor wealth beyond comprehension, in essence – may lead to increased conspicuous consumption for a period before the realisation that material possessions are no longer a barometer of status sets in. Frederik Pohl’s The Midas Plague considers this possibility in its take on a post-scarcity world – as production of goods continues unchecked, citizens are required to consume ever-greater amounts of them to keep an economic balance in place. If there is suddenly no lack of anything, then an inflation effect is inevitable until a new method of finding value is found.

The second approach to post-scarcity life – that instead of everything being available on tap instead there is enough for everyone to continue as they are – is almost an idealised capitalism on the surface. It is not as obviously anti-materialist in its socialism as the idea that the replicator can obsolete the concept of property ownership by making everything equivalent and disposable. Indeed, the Edenic presence of a simple impossible-to-deplete resource surplus merely allows for current patterns of consumption to continue – objects will still have calculable value based on the effort put into making them, supply can still be constrained by manufacturers. All that changes is the exact prices as raw material costs become almost negligable. Yet I do not feel it unreasonable to assume that as the factors behind the valuing of objects changes – as there is no competition for resources, no reliance on imports or exports – a different kind of idealism can emerge that is co-operative and progressive. Access to goods will increase and so there will be a slower – but still evident – reduction in the value placed on material wealth. There will be no competition for essentials of life and so disposable income will increase. The value of labour will change and this will in turn be reflected in the price of goods, and if anything this will lead to increased awareness of the difference between value and price. The core mercantile economic model of making, buying and selling will continue to exist but it is not impossible to assume that disposable income – and the social “value” of work – will change. Obviously this is not as wonderful and ideal a future as the replicator-society; there will still be the need for workers, and money, and so on. But as in time the concept of value changes then it is not impossible to see a move more towards the communes and co-operatives that the alternate depiction hurries to. The removal of resource competition from society and the ingraining in society of the idea that there is enough for everyone may make ideas of simple wealth as a measure of status seem less relevant.

To conclude, it seems to me that if one extrapolates current capitalist economics into a post-scarcity future, the result will at least be a more responsible form of them but quite feasibly a move more towards a society less concerned with private property. Scarcity and the limits of access to luxury goods are in part caused by competition for resources – removing this as a science-fiction thought experiment leads into a wider debate about what makes material wealth valuable, and the idea that the “richer” materially everyone is able to become, the more society will look for new things to place value in.

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