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30 March 2020

Ending insecurity: from UBI to a Marshall Plan for the planet

Filed under: London Futurists, UBI — Tags: , — David Wood @ 7:53 am

On Thursday last week, 60 members and friends of London Futurists took part in an online Zoom webinar addressing the following questions:

  • Are regular payments to every citizen in the country an appropriate solution to the fragility that the coronavirus pandemic is exposing in our economy and social safety net?
  • When we consider potential additional crises that may boil over in the years ahead, does the case for UBI (universal basic income) strengthen or weaken?
  • What are the alternatives to UBI?

A video recording of the discussion (lightly edited) is now available:

As you can see, the event was not without glitches, but it went more smoothly than the previous online London Futurists event. We continue to live and learn!

Please find below various takeaways from the conversation that deserve wider attention. I am providing these to help enable the continuation of key lines of discussion.

(My apologies in advance in case my summaries unintentionally misrepresent what any participant said.)

From Phil Teer:

  • A basic “no strings attached” income would allow people to follow government advice to “stay at home”, confident that they won’t fall into poverty as a result
  • If basic income had already been in place, it would have allowed the country to go into lockdown quicker, without waiting for a specific financial support scheme to be devised first
  • At the moment, far too many people feel obliged to work, even when they are unwell – that’s a bad system, even in times when no pandemic is taking place
  • Many aspects of the current benefits system are designed to incentivise people to return to work as soon as possible. That’s not a purpose we need the system to do at this moment
  • Basic income provides individual agency and choice: individuals being able to choose whether to protect themselves and their families by staying at home
  • Until now, technology for working remotely has been stuck on the wrong side of the adoption curve chasm, waiting for its big push into the mainstream; that push is now here
  • The crisis can accelerate adoption of automation – such as online supermarkets, and (already happening in China) unmanned supermarkets and drone deliveries
  • We can anticipate and welcome a shift in production from people to machines, bots, and algorithms
  • Companies big and small will question the need for their physical offices and premises
  • We should welcome these changes – they lay the basis for an “age of imagination” in which people will be valued more for their creativity than for their productivity

From Calum Chace:

  • The true challenge from technological unemployment is not meaning but income
  • Once the income problem is solved, a world of greater technological unemployment could bring in a second Renaissance
  • The forecasters who insist that people will always have paid work to do are pessimists
  • However, a “basic income” scheme that leaves recipients indefinitely poor (as implied by the word “basic”) will be a failure, and won’t survive
  • The economist John Kay: If UBI is high enough to be useful, it’s unaffordable. If it’s affordable, it’s not useful
  • That’s why every government so far, in responding to Covid-19, is implementing targeted policies rather than a regularly paid UBI
  • A better solution than UBI is “the economy of abundance” in which the goods and services needed for a very good standard of living are almost free
  • What will reduce the costs of these goods and services isn’t “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” but “Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism”
  • Taking inspiration from the abundant music delivery of Spotify, we need to develop what might be called Constructify and Clothify
  • This can happen by enlisting more and more advanced AI, driving down energy costs, and removing expensive humans from as many production processes as possible

From Barb Jacobson:

  • If a basic income scheme were already in place, we wouldn’t have seen such a fear and panic as has taken place over the last few weeks
  • Around 500,000 people in the UK have recently applied for Universal Credit (unemployment benefit), but these claim processes are unlikely to be completed until June
  • A package just announced by the government for self-employed people will also not kick in until June
  • In contrast, basic income would be the fastest and easiest way to get money to everybody who needs it
  • There’s a scheme in one province in South Korea that has already issued what they call an “emergency income”, via a card based on people’s national insurance number
  • Instead of “universal basis income” we can think of these payments as being a “dividend” – a share in the economy
  • What we’re learning in this crisis is that many people who are necessary to the operation of society (including carers) are unpaid or low paid or have insecure income
  • In contrast, many people who are paid the most aren’t noticed when they’re no longer working
  • Therefore the crisis can allow a rejigging of how the world is viewed and how we collectively function in it
  • In the meantime, there are prospects in central London of riots and mass looting in the next few weeks: shopkeepers are already taking precautions

From Carin Ism:

  • Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”
  • “That is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable”
  • Our present social systems for producing and distributing surplus are by no means “the end of history”
  • We can’t know for sure what the full effects of basic income will be – although initial experiments are promising – so that’s an argument for continuing to experiment
  • All policy initiatives in response to the crisis are, likewise, experiments, if we are being honest. Staying with the status quo can no longer be defended
  • A bias against “something new” as being “irresponsible” is no longer tenable; everything in the current situation is unprecedented
  • Just as the public in each country have been watching how other countries have been changing health policies, they can now watch how other countries are changing social policies
  • When someone takes the leadership in effective economic and social policies, the whole world will be observing
  • The blossoming public conversation is going to highlight more clearly the injustices that have been in place for a long time without gaining proper attention before
  • The public will no longer accept a response in which banks get bail outs but essential workers just get applause

From Gennady Stolyarov:

  • A proposal that is currently receiving significant support from members of the US Transhumanist Party is “The United States Transhumanist Party supports for an immediate, universal, unconditional basic income of at least $1000 per month to be provided to every United States citizen for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak and its immediate aftermath, without regard for individuals’ means or other sources of income.”
  • “The priority for this program should be to prevent massive and irreparable economic disruptions to the lives of Americans in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic.”
  • This stands in dramatic contrast from the stimulus package negotiated in the US Congress, which contains only a one-time monetary payment, with many restrictions on who can receive it
  • As a result there is a risk of class resentment and class warfare
  • Means-tested payments are administratively complex and will hinder getting relief to people as rapidly as possible
  • Universal payments that reach billionaires form only a tiny fraction of the overall expenditure; it’s far simpler to include these people than to create admin systems to exclude them
  • There are means to fund a UBI other than raising taxes: consider the proposal by Zoltan Istvan (and developed by Johannon Ben Zion) of a “federal land dividend”
  • The western US, in particular, contains immense swathes of federally-owned land that is completely unused – barren scrub-land that could be leased out for a fee to corporations
  • That leasing would observe principles of environmental protection, and would allow use for agriculture, industry, construction, among other purposes

From a second round of comments from the initial five panellists:

  • Arguably the real issue is whether we put people first, and hope the economy gets better, or put the economy first, and hope that people are OK
  • By putting people first, with a basic income, it taps into the very thing that actually makes the economy work – the industry, imagination, and creativity of people
  • There is a strong psychological objection, from some, against any taxpayer money going to ultra-wealthy individuals – as would happen in a UBI
  • Economies are what makes it possible for all of us to have the goods and services we need to have a good life – so we cannot ignore the question of the health of the economy
  • The idea of paying for a social dividend from rents of public land dates back to the English radical Thomas Spence
  • By giving money to rich and poor alike, UBI would reinforce the important idea that everyone is a citizen of the same society
  • In the last forty years, the taxes on unearned income have fallen way below the taxes on working; fixing this would make it easier to afford a basic income
  • Why object to poor people receiving a basic income without working, when many rich people earn unearned income such as investment dividends or property rents without working?
  • Our monetary system is based on shared underlying stable beliefs; different ideas from radical thinkers threaten the stability of this belief system and could undermine it
  • The creation of lots of new money, to bail out companies, or to fund a basic income, is an example of an idea that could threaten the stability of the current financial system
  • Governance failures can have knock-on effects – for example, failures to regulate live animal markets can lead to the origination of new virus pandemics
  • For countries lacking sufficient unused land to fund a UBI via land lease, other public resources could fund a UBI – examples include the sovereign wealth fund in Norway
  • Economic progress, that would also help to fund a UBI, could be considerably accelerated by the application of technological innovation
  • This innovation is, unfortunately, too often constrained unnecessarily by the continued operation of outdated 20th century regulatory frameworks
  • Selected relaxation of regulations could enable lots of new economic activity that would make it easy to pay for a prosperous basic income for all

From Dean Bubley:

  • Rather than debating the long-term benefits of a UBI, we need to consider how any form of UBI could be implemented right now
  • How long would it take to implement either a one-off payment or a series of monthly payments, as an emergency solution, straight away
  • The UK finance ministry seem to have looked hard at lots of different options, and speed of implementation has been part of what has guided their choices
  • Any new IT project to support a UBI would by no means be a “small IT project”
  • In the future, once AI is smart enough to put lots of humans out of work, it will surely also be smart enough to allocate income payments in ways beyond simple uniformity

From Rohit Talwar:

  • Most of his contacts in the banking industry is anticipating a forthcoming 30%-80% job reduction due to automation
  • Corporations are responding to the current crisis by reconsidering the work they are doing – how much is essential, and how many tasks currently done by humans could be automated
  • Nearly all his contacts in the AI world are overwhelmed by requests to undertake projects to transform how businesses operate
  • We should therefore expect the automation of many jobs as early as the next twelve months, and a big new lump of unemployment in the short term
  • A stop-gap measure will be urgently needed to respond to this additional unemployment, until such time as people can be retrained into the new industries that will arise

Further responses from the initial panellists:

  • Instead of looking at UBI as being a cost, we should look at it as being an investment
  • In 2008, the nation invested massively in saving the banks and the money system; we now need to invest in people throughout society
  • Basic income allocated to billionaires will be recovered straightforwardly by the tax system – there’s no need to obsess over these particular payments
  • It’s not just the “top 1%” who don’t need any basic income support; it’s more like the top 50%; that makes it more important that the system is targeted rather than universal
  • However, lessons from working inside the benefits system is that “targeting doesn’t actually reach its targets”
  • In the UK, between 20%-60% of people eligible for benefits do not receive them
  • Rather than debating conditions for payments being made, more focus should be put on levying appropriate taxes on corporate profits and unearned income such as inherited wealth
  • The issue isn’t so much one of inequality but one of insecurity
  • A two-phase approach can be pursued – an immediate response as a quick fix, followed by a larger process to come into operation later
  • The immediate quick fix payment can be covered by something Western governments do all the time, namely deficit spending
  • Even people who are not normally fond of deficit spending can appreciate the special circumstances of the current dire emergency, and make an exception
  • Any such deficit spending could be recovered in due course by the fruits of economic activity that is jump-started by the policy initiatives already mentioned

From Wendy Grossman:

  • Making a UBI conditional – for example, a decision to exclude the top 1% – would inevitably lead on to many other wrangles
  • For example, there could be arguments over constraints on how many children a woman is allowed to have, with each of them receiving the standard basic income
  • What about the moral hazard to companies: companies might feel little need to pay their employees much, if the employees are already receiving a UBI
  • Companies may feel able to behave in such a way, unless the UBI is high enough that employees are confident about walking away from poor salaries at work

From Tim Pendry:

  • We need to distinguish the acute short-term problem from the chronic longer-term problem. The acute problem is one of dealing with deflation
  • Our economies could be smashed by this crisis, not because of the 1% death rate, but because of our reactions to it. That’s why a UBI – or something like it – seems to be essential
  • But before a UBI can be adopted in the longer term, a number of problems need to be solved, including having sufficient productive capacity to sustain the economy
  • Major transformations of the economy are often accompanied by a great deal of pain and misery – consider the Industrial Revolution, and Stalin’s actions in the USSR
  • Separately, trades unionists may have legitimate concerns about UBI, since its introduction could be used as an excuse to unravel key pin-pointed elements of the welfare state
  • Not every recipient of UBI will respond positively to it, becoming more creative and lovely; some will behave as psychopaths or otherwise respond badly to money being thrown at them
  • As a possible worrying comparison, consider how “the mob” responded to unconditional hand-outs in ancient Rome
  • There’s a growing clash between privileged employees and precarious freelancers. The solution isn’t to make everyone employees. The solution is to make everyone freelancers with rights

Fourth round of panellist responses:

  • It would be helpful to explore the concept of “helicopter money” in which money is simply created and dropped into the economy on a few occasions, rather than an ongoing UBI
  • We should beware a false dichotomy between “people” and “economy”; the two are interdependent
  • Something that could change the lockdown conditions is if reliable antibody tests become available: that would allow more people to return to work and travel sooner
  • Even if antibody testing becomes available, there’s still a need for a stop-gap measure enabling people to pay for food, rent, and so on
  • Instead of UBI, perhaps the government could provide free UBS – universal basic services – paying fees to e.g. electricity companies on behalf of consumers
  • We need to combine pragmatic short-term considerations, with working out how to manage the larger longer-term societal shifts that are now increasingly realised as being possible
  • We need to anticipate potential new future crises, and work out coping mechanisms in advance, especially thinking about which unintended consequences might result

From Tony Czarnecki:

  • The Covid-19 crisis is likely to accelerate the advent of technological unemployment, due to greater use of robotics and a general surge in innovation
  • It’s possible there could as a result be 3-4 additional unemployed within just one year – this will pose an even greater social crisis
  • Various reports created in 2016 calculated that the cost of a meaningful UBI could be as low as 3% of the GDP (the figure might be closer to 2% today)
  • This would provide an annual adult income of £5k, £2.5k for a child, and £8k for a pensioner
  • Of course this won’t yet support luxurious prosperity, but it’s a useful transitional step forward
  • One more question: do we really understand what lies behind the apparent reluctance of politicians to implement a UBI?

From Alexandria Black:

  • As an emergency solution, right now, payments could be made to special credit cards of individual citizens
  • These cards could also function as identifiers of someone’s Covid infection status
  • The cards will also assist in the vital task of contact tracing, to alert people of the spread of the virus
  • Another consequence of the Covid-19 crisis is an accelerating “crypto war” between China and the US
  • Measures which both countries seem to have been planning for some time may now being rushed out more quickly
  • Perhaps a “hackathon” investigation could be organised, to jump start a better understanding of the crypto war dimension of the current crisis

Final round of discussion points:

  • Rather than corporations potentially mistreating their employees who are receiving a UBI, the outcome could be the opposite: employees with a UBI will have more bargaining power
  • We’re all still at the learning stage of how best to organise ourselves as online digital citizens, able to bring about significant changes in social structures (such as a UBI)
  • The money supply isn’t fixed and static: if it wants to, the government can come up with more money
  • As a comparison, when governments go to war, they don’t ask how much it’s going to cost
  • UBI isn’t just about helping the poorest. It’s for everyone. It addresses the financial insecurity and precariousness that everyone can feel
  • UBI isn’t just for the people who have special creative talents. It’s for everyone, including people caring for family members or the elderly
  • Many who are wealthy keep working, for the sense of self-achievement from serving society via their business. Everyone deserves the opportunity to have that same sense of contribution
  • Today’s large companies may find clever ways to game any UBI system in their own favour – we’ll need to keep an eye on them throughout any transition to UBI
  • We should be open to having an unconditional universal payment being supplemented by conditional payments also available to everyone
  • The fundamental point is the ending of insecurity in society, rather than focusing on other topics such as redistribution or equality
  • Transhumanists like to talk about the goal of “Ending aging”; the goal of “Ending insecurity” belongs on that same list
  • Now is the perfect time to be starting the conversation about the bigger picture solution for the future, because if we don’t do it now, we’ll forget
  • As well as people representing civil society, key participants in such a conversation include the asset owners – the sovereign wealth funds and the big pension funds
  • The asset owners need to be on board, if governments are going to finance their new expenditure plans via debt
  • In effect we’re talking about a Marshall Plan for the planet.

For more details about the book project mentioned by Rohit Talwar at the end of the discussion, Aftershocks and Opportunities – Futurists Envision our Post-Pandemic Future, see here.

Thanks are especially due to all the panellists who spoke up during the event. This meetup page has more details of the event.

19 March 2020

Improving online events, for the sake of a better discussion of what truly matters

In a time of travel restrictions and operating from home, we’re all on a learning curve. There’s much for us to find out about alternatives to meeting in our usual physical locations.

London Futurists have been meeting in various physical locations for twelve years. We’ve also held a number of online gatherings over that time, using tools such as Google Hangouts on Air. But now the balance needs to shift. Given the growing Covid-19 lockdown, all London Futurists physical meetings are cancelled for the time being. While the lockdown continues, the group’s activities will be 100% online.

But what does this mean in practice?

I’d like to share some reflections from the first of this new wave of London Futurists events. That online gathering took place on Saturday, 14th March, using the meeting platform Zoom.

Hopefully my observations can help others to improve their own online events. Hopefully, too, readers of this blog will offer answers or suggestions in response to questions I raise.

Context: our event

Our event last Saturday was recorded, and the footage subsequently edited – removing, for example, parts where speakers needed to be told their microphones were muted. Here’s a copy of the resulting video:

By prior arrangement, five panellists gave short introductory talks, each lasting around 5-10 minutes, to set the stage for group discussion. Between 50 and 60 audience participants were logged into the event throughout. Some of them spoke up during the event; a larger number participated in an online text chat discussion that proceeded in parallel (there’s a lightly edited copy of the text discussion here).

As you can see from the recording, the panellists and the other participants raised lots of important points during the discussion. I’ll get back to these shortly, in another blogpost. But first, some thoughts about the tools and the process that were used for this event.

Context: Zoom

Zoom is available at a number of different price levels:

  • The “Free” level is restricted to meetings of up to 40 minutes.
  • The “Pro” level – which costs UKP £11.99 per month – supports longer meetings (up to 24 hours), recording of events, and other elements of admin and user management. This is what I use at the moment.
  • I’ve not yet explored the more expensive versions.

Users participating in an event can can turn their cameras on or off, and can share their screen (in order, for example, to present slides). Participants can also choose at any time to see a view of the video feeds from all participants (up to 25 on each page), or a “presenter view” that focuses on the person who Zoom detects as the speaker.

Recording can take place locally, on the host’s computer (and, if enabled by the organiser, on participants’ computers). Recording can also take place on the Zoom cloud. In this case, what is recorded (by default) is the “presenter view”.

The video recording can subsequently be downloaded and edited (using any video editing software – what I use is Cyberlink PowerDirector).

Limitations and improvements

I switched some time ago from Google Hangouts-on-Air (HoA) to Zoom, when Google reorganised their related software offerings during 2019.

One feature of the HoA software that I miss in Zoom is the ability for the host to temporarily “blue box” a participant, so that their screen remains highlighted, regardless of which video feeds contain speech or other noises. Without this option, what happens – as you can see from the recording of Saturday’s event – is that the presentation view can jump to display the video from a participant that is not speaking at that moment. For five seconds or so, the display shows the participant staring blankly at the camera, generally without realising that the focus is now on them. What made Zoom shift the focus is that it detected some noise from that video feed -perhaps a cough, a laugh, a moan, a chair sliding across the floor, or some background discussion.

(Participants in the event needn’t worry, however, about their blank stares or other inadvertent activity being contained in the final video. While editing the footage, I removed all such occurrences, covering up the displays, while leaving the main audio stream in place.)

In any case, participants should mute their microphones when not speaking. That avoids unwanted noise reaching the event. However, it’s easy for people to neglect to do so. For that reason, Zoom provides the host with admin control over which mics are on or off at any time. But the host may well be distracted too… so the solution is probably for me to enrol one or two participants with admin powers for the event, and ask them to keep an eye on any mics being left unmuted at the wrong times.

Another issue is the variable quality of the microphones participants were using. If the participant turns their head while speaking – for example, to consult some notes – it can make it hard to hear what they’re saying. A better solution here is to use a head-mounted microphone.

A related problem is occasional local bandwidth issues when a participant is speaking. Some or all of what they say may be obscured, slurred, or missed altogether. The broadband in my own house is a case in point. As it happens, I have an order in the queue to switch my house to a different broadband provider. But this switch is presently being delayed.

Deciding who speaks

When a topic is thought-provoking, there are generally are lots of people with things to contribute to the discussion. Evidently, they can’t all talk at once. Selecting who speaks next – and deciding how long they can speak before they might need to be interrupted – is a key part of chairing successful meetings.

One guide to who should be invited to speak next, at any stage in a meeting, is the set of comments raised in the text chat window. However, in busy meetings, important points raised can become lost in the general flow of messages. Ideally, the meeting software will support a system of voting, so that other participants can indicate their choices of which questions are the most interesting. The questions that receive the most upvotes will become the next focus of the discussion.

London Futurists have used such software in the past, including Glisser and Slido, at our physical gatherings. For online events, ideally the question voting mechanism will be neatly integrated with the underlying platform.

I recently took part in one online event (organised by the Swiss futurist Gerd Leonhard) where the basic platform was Zoom and where there was a “Q&A” voting system for questions from the audience. However, I don’t see such a voting system in the Zoom interface that I use.

Added on 20th March

Apparently there’s a Webinar add-on for Zoom that provides better control of meetings, including the Q&A voting system. The additional cost of this add-on starts from UKP £320 per annum. I’ll be looking into this further. See this feature comparison page.

Thanks to Joe Kay for drawing this to my attention!

Summarising key points

The video recording of our meeting on Saturday lasts nearly 100 minutes. To my mind, the discussion remained interesting throughout. However, inevitably, many potential viewers will hesitate before committing 100 minutes of their time to watch the entirety of that recording. Even if they watch the playback at an accelerated speed, they would probably still prefer access to some kind of edited highlights.

Creating edited highlights of recordings of London Futurists events has long been a “wish list” item for me. I can appreciate that there’s a particular skill to identifying which parts should be selected for inclusion in any such summary. I’ll welcome suggestions on how to do this!

Learning together

More than ever, what will determine our success or failure in coming to terms with the growing Covid-19 crisis is the extent to which positive collaboration and a proactive technoprogressive mindset can pull ahead of humanity’s more destructive characteristics.

That “race” was depicted on the cover of the collection of the ebook of essays published by London Futurists in June 2014, “Anticipating 2025”. Can we take advantage of our growing interconnectivity to spread, not dangerous pathogens or destructive “fake news”, but good insights about building a better future?

That was a theme that emerged time and again during our online event last Saturday.

I’ll draw this blogpost towards a close by sharing some excepts from the opening chapter from Anticipating 2025.

Four overlapping trajectories

The time period up to 2025 can be considered as a race involving four overlapping trajectories: technology, crisis, collaboration, and mindset.

The first trajectory is the improvement of technology, with lots of very positive potential. The second, however, has lots of very negative potential: it is the growth in likelihood of societal crisis:

  • Stresses and strains in the environment, with increased climate chaos, and resulting disputes over responsibility and corrective action
  • Stresses and strains in the financial system, which share with the environment the characteristics of being highly complex, incompletely understood, weakly regulated, and subject to potential tipping points for fast-accelerating changes
  • Increasing alienation, from people who feel unable to share in the magnitude of the riches flaunted by the technologically fortunate; this factor is increased by the threats from technological unemployment and the fact that, whilst the mean household income continues to rise, the median household income is falling
  • Risks from what used to be called “weapons of mass destruction” – chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons, along with cyber-weapons that could paralyse our electronics infrastructure; there are plenty of “angry young men” (and even angry middle-aged men) who seem ready to plunge what they see as a corrupt world into an apocalyptic judgement.

What will determine the outcome of this race, between technological improvement and growing risk of crises? It may be a third trajectory: the extent to which people around the world are able to collaborate, rather than compete. Will our tendencies to empathise, and to build a richer social whole, triumph over our equally deep tendencies to identify more closely with “people like us” and to seek the well-being of our “in-group” ahead of that of other groups?

In principle, we probably already have sufficient knowledge, spread around the world, to solve all the crises facing us, in a smooth manner that does not require any significant sacrifices. However, that knowledge is, as I said, spread – it does not cohere in just a single place. If only we knew what we knew. Nor does that knowledge hold universal assent – far from it. It is mocked and distorted and undermined by people who have vested interests in alternative explanations – with the vested interests varying among economic, political, ideological, and sometimes sheer human cussedness. In the absence of improved practical methods for collaboration, our innate tendencies to short-term expedience and point-scoring may rule the day – especially when compounded by an economic system that emphasises competition and “keeping up with the Joneses”.

Collaborative technologies such as Wikipedia and open-source software point the way to what should be possible. But they are unlikely to be sufficient, by themselves, to heal the divisions that tend to fragment human endeavours. This is where the fourth, and final, trajectory becomes increasingly important – the transformation of the philosophies and value systems that guide our actions.

If users are resolutely suspicious of technologies that would disturb key familiar aspects of “life as we know it”, engineers will face an uphill battle to secure sufficient funding to bring these technologies to the market – even if society would eventually end up significantly improved as a result.

Politicians generally take actions that reflect the views of the electorate, as expressed through public media, opinion polls, and (occasionally) in the ballot box. However, the electorate is subject to all manners of cognitive bias, prejudice, and continuing reliance on rules of thumb which made sense in previous times but which have been rendered suspect by changing circumstances. These viewpoints include:

  • Honest people should put in forty hours of work in meaningful employment each week
  • People should be rewarded for their workplace toil by being able to retire around the age of 65
  • Except for relatively peripheral matters, “natural methods” are generally the best ones
  • Attempts to redesign human nature – or otherwise to “play God” – will likely cause disaster
  • It’s a pointless delusion to think that the course of personal decay and death can be averted.

In some cases, long-entrenched viewpoints can be overturned by a demonstration that a new technology produces admirable results – as in the case of IVF (in-vitro fertilisation). But in other cases, minds need to be changed even before a full demonstration can become possible.

It’s for this reason that I see the discipline of “culture engineering” as being equally important as “technology engineering”. The ‘culture’ here refers to cultures of humans, not cells. The ‘engineering’ means developing and applying a set of skills – skills to change the set of prevailing ideas concerning the desirability of particular technological enhancements. Both technology engineering and culture engineering are deeply hard skills; both need a great deal of attention.

A core part of “culture engineering” fits under the name “marketing”. Some technologists bristle at the concept of marketing. They particularly dislike the notion that marketing can help inferior technology to triumph over superior technology. But in this context, what do “inferior” and “superior” mean? These judgements are relative to how well technology is meeting the dominant desires of people in the marketplace.

Marketing means selecting, understanding, inspiring, and meeting key needs of what can be called “influence targets” – namely, a set of “tipping point” consumers, developers, and partners. Specifically, marketing includes:

  • Forming a roadmap of deliverables, that build, step-by-step, to delivering something of great benefit to the influence targets, but which also provide, each step of the way, something with sufficient value to maintain their active interest
  • Astutely highlighting the ways in which present (and forthcoming) products will, indeed, provide value to the influence targets
  • Avoiding any actions which, despite the other good things that are happening, alienate the influence targets; and in the event any such alienation emerges, taking swift and decisive action to address it.

Culture engineering involves politics as well as marketing. Politics means building alliances that can collectively apply power to bring about changes in regulations, standards, subsidies, grants, and taxation. Choosing the right partners, and carefully managing relationships with them, can make a big difference to the effectiveness of political campaigns. To many technologists, “politics” is as dirty a word as “marketing”. But once again, mastery of the relevant skillset can make a huge difference to the adoption of technologies.

The final component of culture engineering is philosophy – sets of arguments about fundamentals and values. For example, will human flourishing happen more fully under simpler lifestyles, or by more fully embracing the radical possibilities of technology? Should people look to age-old religious traditions to guide their behaviour, or instead seek a modern, rational, scientific basis for morality? And how should the freedoms of individuals to experiment with potentially dangerous new kinds of lifestyle be balanced against the needs of society as a whole?

“Philosophy” is (you guessed it) yet another dirty word, in the minds of many technologists. To these technologists, philosophical arguments are wastes of time. Yet again, I will disagree. Unless we become good at philosophy – just as we need to become good at both politics and marketing – we will fail to rescue the prevailing culture from its unhelpful mix of hostility and apathy towards the truly remarkable potential to use technology to positively transcend human nature. And unless that change in mindset happens, the prospects are uncertain for the development and adoption of the remarkable technologies of abundance mentioned earlier.

[End of extract from Anticipating 2025.]

How well have we done?

On the one hand, the contents of the 2014 London Futurists book “Anticipating 2025” are prescient. These chapters highlight many issues and opportunities that have grown in importance in the intervening six years.

On the other hand, I was brought down to earth by an email reply I received last week to the latest London Futurists newsletter:

I’m wondering where the Futurism is in this reaction.

Maybe the group is more aptly Reactionism.

I wanted to splutter out an answer: the group (London Futurists) has done a great deal of forward thinking over the years. We have looked at numerous trends and systems, and considered possible scenarios arising from extrapolations and overlaps. We have worked hard to clarify, for these scenarios, the extent to which they are credible and desirable, and ways in which the outcomes can be influenced.

But on reflection, a more sober thought emerged. Yes, we futurists have been trying to alert the rest of society to our collective lack of preparedness for major risks and major opportunities ahead. We have discussed the insufficient resilience of modern social systems – their fragility and lack of sustainability.

But have our messages been heard?

The answer is: not really. That’s why Covid-19 is causing such a dislocation.

It’s tempting to complain that the population as a whole should have been listening to futurists. However, we can also ask, how should we futurists change the way we talk about our insights, so that people pay us more attention?

After all, there are many worse crises potentially just around the corner. Covid-19 is by no means the most dangerous new pathogen that could strike humanity. And there are many other types of risk to consider, including malware spreading out of control, the destruction of our electronics infrastructure by something similar to the 1859 Carrington Event, an acceleration of chaotic changes in weather and climate, and devastating wars triggered by weapons systems overseen by AI software whose inner logic no-one understands.

It’s not just a new mindset that humanity needs. It’s a better way to have discussions about fundamentals – discussions about what truly matters.

Footnote: with thanks

Special thanks are due to the people who boldly stepped forwards at short notice as panellists for last Saturday’s event:

and to everyone else who contributed to that discussion. I’m sorry there was no time to give sufficient attention to many of the key points raised. As I said at the end of the recording, this is a kind of cliffhanger.

11 March 2020

Might future humans resurrect the dead?

Death is brutal. It extinguishes consciousness. It terminates relationships, dissolves aspirations, and forecloses opportunities. It shatters any chances of us nurturing new skills, visiting new locations, exploring new art, feeling new emotions, keeping up with the developments of friends and family, or actively sharing our personal wisdom.

Or does it? Is death really the end?

Traditionally, such a question has seemed to belong to the field of religion, or, perhaps, to psychical research. However, nowadays, an answer to this existential question is emerging from a different direction. In short, this line of thinking extrapolates from past human progress to suggest what future human progress might accomplish. Much more than we have previously imagined, is the suggestion. We humans may become like Gods, not only with the power to create new life, but also with the power to resurrect the dead.

As centuries have passed, we humans have acquired greater power and capability. We have learned how to handle an increasing number of diseases, and how to repair bodies damaged by accident or injury. As such, average lifespans have been extended. For many people, death has been delayed – as we live on average at least twice as long as our ancestors of just a few centuries back.

Consider what may happen in the decades and centuries to come, as humans acquire even greater power and capability.

Writers Ben Goertzel and Giulio Prisco summarise possible answers, in their visionary 2009 article “Ten Cosmist Convictions”:

Humans will merge with technology, to a rapidly increasing extent. This is a new phase of the evolution of our species, just picking up speed about now. The divide between natural and artificial will blur, then disappear. Some of us will continue to be humans, but with a radically expanded and always growing range of available options, and radically increased diversity and complexity. Others will grow into new forms of intelligence far beyond the human domain…

We will spread to the stars and roam the universe. We will meet and merge with other species out there. We may roam to other dimensions of existence as well, beyond the ones of which we’re currently aware…

We will develop spacetime engineering and scientific “future magic” much beyond our current understanding and imagination.

Spacetime engineering and future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Eventually we will be able to resurrect the dead by “copying them to the future”…

There’s much more to the philosophy of cosmism than I can cover in a single blogpost. For now, I want to highlight the remarkable possibility that beings, some time in the future, will somehow be able to reach back through time and extract a copy of human consciousness from the point of death, in order for the deceased to be recreated in a new body in a new world, allowing the continuation of life and consciousness. Families and friends will be reunited, ready to enjoy vast new vistas of experience.

Giulio develops these themes in considerable depth in his book Tales of the Turing Church, of which a second (expanded) edition has just been published.

The opening paragraphs of Giulio’s book set the stage:

This isn’t your grandfather’s religion.

Future science and technology will permit playing with the building blocks of space, time, matter, energy, and life, in ways that we could only call magic and supernatural today.

Someday in the future, you and your loved ones will be resurrected by very advanced science and technology.

Inconceivably advanced intelligences are out there among the stars. Even more God-like beings operate in the fabric of reality underneath spacetime, or beyond spacetime, and control the universe. Future science will allow us to find them, and become like them.

Our descendants in the far future will join the community of God-like beings among the stars and beyond, and use transcendent “divine” technology to resurrect the dead and remake the universe.

Science? Spacetime? Aliens? Future technology? I warned you, this isn’t your grandmother’s religion.

Or isn’t it?

Simplify what I said and reword it as: God exists, controls reality, will resurrect the dead and remake the universe. Sounds familiar? I bet it does. So perhaps this is the religion of our grandparents, in different words…

Giulio’s background is in physics: he was a senior manager in European science and technology centres, including the European Space Agency. I’ve know him since 2006, when we met at the TransVision conference in Helsinki in August that year. He has spoken at a number of London Futurists events over the years, and I’ve always found him to be deeply thoughtful. Since his new book breaks a lot of new ground, I took the opportunity to feature Giulio as the guest on a recent London Futurists video interview:

The video of our discussion lasts 51 minutes, but as you’ll see, the conversation could easily have lasted much longer: we stepped back several times from topics that would have raised many new questions.

Evidently, the content of the video isn’t to everyone’s liking. One reviewer expressed his exasperation as follows:

Absurd. I quit at 8:15

At first sight, it may indeed seem absurd that information from long-past events could somehow be re-assembled by beings in the far-distant future. The information will have spread out and degraded due to numerous interactions with the environment. However, in his book, Giulio considers various other possible mechanisms. Here are three of them:

  • Modern physics has the idea that spacetime can be curved or deformed. Future humans might be able to engineer connections between past spacetime locations (for example, someone’s brain at the point of death) and a spacetime location in their own present. This could be similar to what some science fiction explores as “wormholes” that transcend ordinary spacetime connectivity
  • Perhaps indelible records of activity could be stored in aspects of the multi-dimensional space that modern physics also talks about – records that could, again, be accessed by hugely powerful future descendants of present-day humans
  • Perhaps the universe that we perceive and inhabit actually exists as some kind of simulation inside a larger metaverse, with the controllers of the overall simulation being able to copy aspects of information and consciousness from inside the simulation into what we would then perceive as a new world.

Are these possibilities “absurd” too? Giulio argues that we can, and should, keep an open mind.

You can hear some of Giulio’s arguments in the video embedded above. You can explore them at much greater length in his book. It’s a big book, with a comprehensive set of references. Giulio makes lots of interesting points about:

  • Different ideas about physics – including quantum mechanics, the quantum vacuum, and the ultimate fate of the physical universe
  • The ideas featured by a range of different science fiction writers
  • The views of controversial thinkers such as Fred Hoyle, Amit Goswami, and Frank Tipler
  • The simulation argument, developed by Hans Moravec and popularised by Nick Bostrom
  • The history of cosmism, as it developed in Russia and then moved onto the world stage
  • Potential overlaps between Giulio’s conception of cosmism and ideas from diverse traditional religious traditions
  • The difference between the “cosmological” and “geographical” aspects of religions
  • The special significance of free-will, faith, and hope.

Despite covering weighty topics, Giulio’s writing has a light, human touch. But to be clear, this isn’t a book that you can rush through. The ideas will take time to percolate in your mind.

Having let Giulio’s ideas percolate in my own mind for a couple of weeks, here are my reflections.

The idea of future “technological resurrection” is by no means absurd. The probability of it happening is greater than zero. But for it to happen, a number of things must be true:

  1. The physical laws of the universe must support at least one of the range of mechanisms under discussion, for the copying of information
  2. Beings with sufficient capability will eventually come into existence – perhaps as descendants of present-day humans, perhaps as super-powerful aliens from other planets, or perhaps as intelligences operating at a different level of spacetime reality
  3. These beings must care sufficiently about our existence that they wish to resurrect us
  4. The new beings created in this process, containing our memories, will be us, rather than merely copies of us (in other words, this presupposes one type of answer to the question of “what is consciousness”).

Subjectively, this compound probability feels to me like being significantly less than 10%. But I accept that it’s hard to put numbers into this.

Someone else who offers probabilities for different routes to avoiding death is the Russian researcher Alexey Turchin. Alexey gave a fascinating talk at London Futurists back in April 2016 on the subject “Constructing a roadmap to immortality”. The talk was recorded on video (although the audio is far from perfect, sorry):

Alexey describes four plans, with (he says) decreasing probability:

  • “Plan A” – “survive until creation of strong and friendly AI” (which will then be able to keep everyone alive at that time, alive for as long as each person wishes)
  • “Plan B” – “cryonics” – “success chances as 1 – 10 per cent”
  • “Plan C” – “digital immortality” – “recording data about me for my future reconstruction by strong AI” – “even smaller chances of success”
  • “Plan D” – “immortality some how already exists” without needing any special actions by us – but this “is the least probable way to immortality”.

If you’d like to read more analysis from Alexey, see his 39 page essay from 2018, “Classification of Approaches to Technological Resurrection”.

I’m currently preparing a new talk of my own, that aims to draw wider attention to the ideas of thinkers such as Giulio and Alexey.

The talk is being hosted by DSMNTL and is scheduled for the 15th of April. The talk is entitled “Disrupting death: Technology and the future of dying”. Here’s an extract from the description:

Death stalks us all throughout life. We’re painfully aware that our time on earth is short, but the 2020s bring potential new answers to the problem of death.

Thanks to remarkable technologies that are being conceived and created, now may be the time to tackle death as never before. Beyond the old question of whether God created humanity in His image or humanity created gods in our image, it’s time to ask what will happen to humanity once technology gives us the power of Gods over life, death, and resurrection. And what should we be doing, here and now, in anticipation of that profound future transition?

This DSMNTL talk shares a radical futurist perspective on eight ways people are trying to put death in its place: acceptance, traditional faith in resurrection, psychic connectivity, rejuvenation biotechnology, becoming a cyborg, cryonic preservation, digital afterlife, and technological resurrection. You’ll hear how the relationship between science and religion could be about to enter a dramatic new phase. But beware: you might even make a life-changing death-defying decision once you hear what’s on offer.

For more information about this talk, and to obtain a ticket, click here.

I’ll give the last word, for now, to Giulio. Actually it’s a phrase from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet that Giulio quotes several times in his book:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

14 June 2019

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a timely vision

I find myself in a great deal of agreement with Fully Automated Luxury Communism (“FALC”), the provocative but engaging book by Novara Media Co-Founder and Senior Editor Aaron Bastani.

It’s a book that’s going to change the conversation about the future.

It starts well, with six short vignettes, “Six characters in search of a future”. Then it moves on, with the quality consistently high, to sections entitled “Chaos under heaven”, “New travellers”, and “Paradise found”. Paradise! Yes, that’s the future which is within our grasp. It’s a future in which, as Bastani says, people will “lead fuller, expanded lives, not diminished ones”:

The comment about “diminished lives” is a criticism of at least some parts of the contemporary green movement:

To the green movement of the twentieth century this is heretical. Yet it is they who, for too long, unwisely echoed the claim that ‘small is beautiful’ and that the only way to save our planet was to retreat from modernity itself. FALC rallies against that command, distinguishing consumption under fossil capitalism – with its commuting, ubiquitous advertising, bullshit jobs and built-in obsolescence – from pursuing the good life under conditions of extreme supply. Under FALC we will see more of the world than ever before, eat varieties of food we have never heard of, and lead lives equivalent – if we so wish – to those of today’s billionaires. Luxury will pervade everything as society based on waged work becomes as much a relic of history as the feudal peasant and medieval knight.

The book is full of compelling turns of phrase that made me think to myself, “I wish I had thought of saying that”. They are phrases that are likely to be heard increasingly often from now on.

The book also contains ideas and examples that I have myself used on many occasions in my own writing and presentation over the years. Indeed, the vision and analysis in FALC has a lot in common with the vision and analysis I have offered, most recently in Sustainable Superabundance, and, in more depth, in my earlier book Transcending Politics.

Four steps in the analysis

In essence, FALC sets out a four-step problem-response-problem-response sequence:

  1. A set of major challenges facing contemporary society – challenges which undermine any notion that social development has somehow already reached a desirable “end of history”
  2. A set of technological innovations, which Bastani calls the “Third Disruption”, with the potential not only to solve the severe challenges society is facing, but also to significantly improve human life
  3. A set of structural problems with the organisation of the economy, which threaten to frustrate and sabotage the positive potential of the Third Disruption
  4. A set of changes in attitude – and political programmes to express these changes – that will allow, after all, the entirety of society to fully benefit from the Third Disruption, and attain the “luxury” paradise the book describes.

In more detail:

First, Bastani highlights five challenges that, in combination, pose (as he puts it) “threats whose scale is civilisational”:

  • Growing resource scarcity – particularly for energy, minerals and fresh water
  • Accelerating climate change and other consequences of global warming
  • Societal aging, as life expectancy increases and birth rates concurrently fall, invalidating the assumptions behind pension schemes and, more generally, the social contract
  • A growing surplus of global poor who form an ever-larger ‘unnecessariat’ (people with no economic value to contribute)
  • A new machine age which will herald ever-greater technological unemployment as progressively more physical and cognitive labour is performed by machines, rather than humans.

Second, Bastani points to a series of technological transformations that comprise an emerging “Third Disruption” (following the earlier disruptions of the Agricultural and Industrial Revoutions). These transformations apply information technology to fields such as renewable energy, food production, resource management (including asteroid mining), healthcare, housing, and education. The result of these transformations could (“if we want it”, Bastani remarks) be a society characterised by the terms “post-scarcity” and “post-work”.

Third, this brings us to the deeper problem, namely the way society puts too much priority on the profit motive.

Transcending capitalism

The economic framework known as capitalism has generated huge amounts of innovation in products and services. These innovations have taken place because entrepreneurs have been motivated to create and distribute new items for exchange and profit. But in circumstances when profits would be small, there’s less motivation to create the goods and services. To the extent that goods and services are nowadays increasingly dependent on information, this poses a problem, since information involves no intrinsic costs when it is copied from one instance to another.

Increasingly, what’s special about a product isn’t the materials from which it is composed, but the set of processes (that is, information) used to manipulate those material to create the product. Increasingly, what’s special about a service isn’t the tacit skills of the people delivering that service, but the processes (that is, information) by which any reasonably skilled person can be trained to deliver that service. All this leads to pressures for the creation of “artificial scarcity” that prohibits the copying of certain types of information.

The fact that goods and services become increasingly easy to duplicate should be seen as a positive. It should mean lower costs all round. It should mean that more people can access good quality housing, good quality education, good quality food, and good quality clean energy. It’s something that society should welcome enthusiastically. However, since profits are harder to achieve in these circumstances, many business leaders (and the hangers-on who are dependent on these business leaders) wish to erect barriers and obstacles anew. Rather than embracing post-scarcity, they wish to extent the prevalence of scarcity.

This is just one example of the “market failures” which can arise from unfettered capitalism. In my own book Sustainable Superabundance, five of the twelve chapters end with a section entitled “Beyond the profit motive”. It’s not that I view the profit motive as inherently bad. Far from it. Instead, it’s that there are many problems in letting the profit motive dominate other motivations. That’s why we need to look beyond the profit motive.

In much the same way, Bastani recognises capitalism as an essential precursor to the fully automated luxury communism he foresees. Here, as in much of his thinking, he draws inspiration from the writing of Karl Marx. Bastani notes that,

In contrast to his portrayal by critics, Marx was often lyrical about capitalism. His belief was that despite its capacity for exploitation, its compulsion to innovate – along with the creation of a world market – forged the conditions for social transformation.

Bastani quotes Marx writing as follows in 1848:

The bourgeoisie … has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

By the way, don’t be put off by the word “communism” in the book’s title. There’s no advocacy here of a repeat of what previous self-declared communist regimes have done. Communism was not possible until the present time, since it depends upon technology having advanced to a sufficiently advanced state. Bastani explains it as follows:

While it is true that a number of political projects have labelled themselves communist over the last century, the aspiration was neither accurate nor – as we will go on to see – technologically possible. ‘Communism’ is used here for the benefit of precision; the intention being to denote a society in which work is eliminated, scarcity replaced by abundance and where labour and leisure blend into one another. Given the possibilities arising from the Third Disruption, with the emergence of extreme supply in information, labour, energy and resources, it should be viewed not only as an idea adequate to our time but impossible before now.

And to emphasise the point:

FALC is not the communism of the early twentieth century, nor will it be delivered by storming the Winter Palace.

The technologies needed to deliver a post-scarcity, post-work society – centred around renewable energy, automation and information – were absent in the Russian Empire, or indeed anywhere else until the late 1960s…

Creating communism before the Third Disruption is like creating a flying machine before the Second. You could conceive of it – and indeed no less a genius than Leonardo Da Vinci did precisely that – but you could not create it. This was not a failure of will or of intellect, but simply an inevitability of history.

Marx expected a transformation from capitalism to communism within his own lifetime. He would likely have been very surprised at the ability of capitalism to reinvent itself in the face of the many challenges and difficulties it has faced in subsequent decades. Marx’s lack of accurate prediction about the forthcoming history of capitalism is one factor people use to justify their disregard for Marxism. The question, however, is whether his analysis was merely premature rather than completely wrong. Bastani argues for the former point of view. The internal tensions of a profit-led society have caused a series of large financial and economic crashes, but have not, so far, led to an effective transition away from profit-seeking to abundance-seeking. However, Bastani argues, the stakes are nowadays so high, that continued pursuit of profits-at-all-costs cannot continue.

This brings us to the fourth phase of the argument – the really critical one. If there are problems with capitalism, what is to be done? Rather than storming any modern-day Winter Palace, where should a fervour for change best be applied?

Solutions

Bastani’s answer starts by emphasising that the technologies of the Third Disruption, by themselves, provide no guarantee of a move to a society with ample abundance. Referring to the laws of technology of Melvin Kranzberg, Bastani observes that

How technology is created and used, and to whose advantage, depends on the political, ethical and social contexts from which it emerges.

In other words, ideas and structures play a key role. To increase the chances of optimal benefits from the technologies of the Third Disruption, ideas prevalent in society will need to change.

The first change in ideas is a different attitude towards one of the dominant ideologies of our time, sometimes called neoliberalism. Bastani refers at various points to “market fundamentalism”. This is the idea that free pursuit of profits will inevitably result in the best outcome for society as a whole – that the free market is the best tool to organise the distribution of resources. In this viewpoint, regulations should be resisted, where they interfere with the ability of businesses to offer new products and services to the market. Workers’ rights should be resisted too, since they will interfere with the ability of businesses to lower wages and reassign tasks overseas. And so on.

Bastani has a list of examples of gross social failures arising from pursuit of neoliberalism. This includes the collapse in 2018 of Carillion, the construction and facilities management company. Bastani notes:

With up to 90 per cent of Carillion’s work subcontracted out, as many as 30,000 businesses faced the consequences of its ideologically driven mismanagement. Hedge funds in the City, meanwhile, made hundreds of millions from speculating on its demise.

Another example is the tragedy of the 2017 fire at the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in West London, in which 72 people perished:

The neoliberal machine has human consequences that go beyond spreadsheets and economic data. Beyond, even, in-work poverty and a life defined by paying ever higher rents to wealthy landlords and fees to company shareholders. As bad as those are they pale beside its clearest historic expression in a generation: the derelict husk of Grenfell Tower…

A fire broke which would ravage the building in a manner not seen in Britain for decades. The primary explanation for its rapid, shocking spread across the building – finished in 1974 and intentionally designed to minimise the possibility of such an event – was the installation of flammable cladding several years earlier, combined with poor safety standards and no functioning sprinklers – all issues highlighted by the residents’ Grenfell Action Group before the fire.

The cladding itself, primarily composed of polyethylene, is as flammable as petroleum. Advances in material science means we should be building homes that are safer, and more efficient, than ever before. Instead a cut-price approach to housing the poor prevails, prioritising external aesthetics for wealthier residents. In the case of Grenfell that meant corners were cut and lives were lost. This is not a minor political point and shows the very real consequences of ‘self-regulation’.

Bastani is surely right that greater effort is needed to ensure everyone understands the various failure modes of free markets. A better appreciation is overdue of the positive role that well-designed regulations can play in ensuring greater overall human flourishing in the face of corporations that would prefer to put their priorities elsewhere. The siren calls of market fundamentalism need to be resisted.

I would add, however, that a different kind of fundamentalism needs to be resisted and overcome too. This is anti-market fundamentalism. As I wrote in the chapter “Markets and fundamentalists” in Transcending Politics,

Anti-market fundamentalists see the market system as having a preeminently bad effect on the human condition. The various flaws with free markets… are so severe, say these critics, that the most important reform to pursue is to dismantle the free market system. That reform should take a higher priority than any development of new technologies – AI, genetic engineering, stem cell therapies, neuro-enhancers, and so on. Indeed, if these new technologies are deployed whilst the current free market system remains in place, it will, say these critics, make it all the more likely that these technologies will be used to oppress rather than liberate.

I believe that both forms of fundamentalism (pro-market and anti-market) need to be resisted. I look forward to wiser management of the market system, rather than dismantling it. In my view, key to this wise management is the reform and protection of a number of other social institutions that sit alongside markets – a free press, free judiciary, independent regulators, and, yes, independent politicians.

I share the view of political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, articulated in their fine 2016 book American Amnesia: Business, Government, and the Forgotten Roots of Our Prosperity, that the most important social innovation of the 20th century was the development of the mixed economy. In a mixed economy, effective governments work alongside the remarkable capabilities of the market economy, steering it and complementing it. Here’s what Hacker and Pierson have to say about the mixed economy:

The mixed economy spread a previously unimaginable level of broad prosperity. It enabled steep increases in education, health, longevity, and economic security.

These writers explain the mixed economy by an elaboration of Adam Smith’s notion of “the invisible hand”:

The political economist Charles Lindblom once described markets as being like fingers: nimble and dexterous. Governments, with their capacity to exercise authority, are like thumbs: powerful but lacking subtlety and flexibility. The invisible hand is all fingers. The visible hand is all thumbs. Of course, one wouldn’t want to be all thumbs. But one wouldn’t want to be all fingers either. Thumbs provide countervailing power, constraint, and adjustments to get the best out of those nimble fingers.

The characterisation by Hacker and Pierson of the positive role of government is, to my mind, spot on correct. It’s backed up in their book by lots of instructive episodes from American history, going all the way back to the revolutionary founders:

  • Governments provide social coordination of a type that fails to arise by other means of human interaction, such as free markets
  • Markets can accomplish a great deal, but they’re far from all-powerful. Governments ensure that suitable investment takes place of the sort that would not happen, if it was left to each individual to decide by themselves. Governments build up key infrastructure where there is no short-term economic case for individual companies to invest to create it
  • Governments defend the weak from the powerful. They defend those who lack the knowledge to realise that vendors may be on the point of selling them a lemon and then beating a hasty retreat. They take actions to ensure that social free-riders don’t prosper, and that monopolists aren’t able to take disproportionate advantage of their market dominance
  • Governments prevent all the value in a market from being extracted by forceful, well-connected minority interests, in ways that would leave the rest of society impoverished. They resist the power of “robber barons” who would impose numerous tolls and charges, stifling freer exchange of ideas, resources, and people. Therefore governments provide the context in which free markets can prosper (but which those free markets, by themselves, could not deliver).

It’s a deeply troubling development that the positive role of enlightened government is something that is poorly understood in much of contemporary public discussion. Instead, as a result of a hostile barrage of ideologically-driven misinformation, more and more people are calling for a reduction in the scope and power of government. That tendency – the tendency towards market fundamentalism – urgently needs to be resisted. But at the same time, we also need to resist the reverse tendency – the tendency towards anti-market fundamentalism – the tendency to belittle the latent capabilities of free markets.

To Bastani’s credit, he avoids advocating any total government control over planning of the economy. Instead, he offers praise for Eastern European Marxist writers such as Michał Kalecki, Włodzimierz Brus, and Kazimierz Łaski, who advocated important roles for market mechanisms in the approach to the communist society in which they all believed. Bastani comments,

[These notions were] expanded further in 1989 with Brus and Łaski claiming that under market socialism, publicly owned firms would have to be autonomous – much as they are in market capitalist systems – and that this would necessitate a socialised capital market… Rather than industrial national monoliths being lauded as the archetype of economic efficiency, the authors argued for a completely different kind of socialism declaring, ‘The role of the owner-state should be separated from the state as an authority in charge of administration … (enterprises) have to become separated not only from the state in its wider role but also from one another.’

Bastani therefore supports a separation of two roles:

  • The political task of establishing the overall direction and framework for the development of the economy
  • The operational task of creating goods and services within that framework – a task that may indeed utilise various market mechanisms.

Key in the establishment of the overall direction is to supersede society’s reliance on the GDP measure. Bastani is particularly good in his analysis of the growing shortcomings of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and on what must be included in its replacement, which he calls an “Abundance Index”:

Initially such an index would integrate CO2 emissions, energy efficiency, the falling cost of energy, resources and labour, the extent to which UBS [Universal Basic Services] had been delivered, leisure time (time not in paid employment), health and lifespan, and self-reported happiness. Such a composite measure, no doubt adapted to a variety of regional and cultural differences, would be how we assess the performance of post-capitalist economies in the passage to FALC. This would be a scorecard for social progress assessing how successful the Third Disruption is in serving the common good.

Other policies Bastani recommends in FALC include:

  • Revised priorities for central banks – so that they promote increases of the Abundance Index, rather than simply focusing on the control of inflation
  • Step by step increases in UBS (Universal Basic Services) – rather than the UBI (Universal Basic Income) that is often advocated these days
  • Re-localisation of economies through what Bastani calls “progressive procurement and municipal protectionism”.

But perhaps the biggest recommendation Bastani makes is for the response to society’s present political issues to be a “populist” one.

Populism and its dangers

I confess that the word “populist” made me anxious. I worry about groundswell movements motivated by emotion rather than clear-sightedness. I worry about subgroups of citizens who identify themselves as “the true people” (or “the real people”) and who take any democratic victory as a mandate for them to exclude any sympathy for minority viewpoints. (“You lost. Get over it!”) I worry about demagogues who rouse runaway emotional responses by scapegoating easy targets (such as immigrants, overseas governments, transnational organisations, “experts”, “the elite”, or culturally different subgroups).

In short, I was more worried by the word “populist” than the word “communist”.

As it happens – thankfully – that’s different from the meaning of “populist” that Bastani has in mind. He writes,

For the kind of change required, and for it to last in a world increasingly at odds with the received wisdom of the past, a populist politics is necessary. One that blends culture and government with ideas of personal and social renewal.

He acknowledges that some thinkers will disagree with this recommendation:

Others, who may agree about the scale and even urgent necessity of change, will contend that such a radical path should only be pursued by a narrow technocratic elite. Such an impulse is understandable if not excusable; or the suspicion that democracy unleashes ‘the mob’ is as old as the idea itself. What is more, a superficial changing of the guard exclusively at the level of policy-making is easier to envisage than building a mass political movement – and far simpler to execute as a strategy. Yet the truth is any social settlement imposed without mass consent, particularly given the turbulent energies unleashed by the Third Disruption, simply won’t endure.

In other words, voters as a whole must be able to understand how the changes ahead, if well managed, will benefit everyone, not just in a narrow economic sense, but in the sense of liberating people from previous constraints.

I have set out similar ideas, under the term “superdemocracy”, described as follows:

A renewal of democracy in which, rather than the loudest and richest voices prevailing, the best insights of the community are elevated and actioned…

The active involvement of the entire population, both in decision-making, and in the full benefits of [technology]…

Significantly improved social inclusion and resilience, whilst upholding diversity and liberty – overcoming human tendencies towards tribalism, divisiveness, deception, and the abuse of power.

That last proviso is critical and deserves repeating: “…overcoming human tendencies towards tribalism, divisiveness, deception, and the abuse of power”. Otherwise, any movements that build popular momentum risk devouring themselves in time, in the way that the French Revolution sent Maximilien Robespierre to the guillotine, and the Bolshevik Revolution led to the deaths of many of the original revolutionaries following absurd show trials.

You’ll find no such proviso in FALC. Bastani writes,

Pride, greed and envy will abide as long as we do.

He goes on to offer pragmatic advice,

The management of discord between humans – the essence of politics – [is] an inevitable feature of any society we share with one another.

Indeed, that is good advice. We all need to become better at managing discord. However, writing as a transhumanist, I believe we can, and must, do better. The faults within human nature are something which the Third Disruption (to use Bastani’s term) will increasingly allow us to address and transcend.

Consider the question: Is it possible to significantly improve politics, over the course of, say, the next dozen years, without first significantly improving human nature?

Philosophies of politics can in principle be split into four groups, depending on the answer they give to that question:

  1. We shouldn’t try to improve human nature; that’s the route to hell
  2. We can have a better politics without any change in human nature
  3. Improving human nature will turn out to be relatively straightforward; let’s get cracking
  4. Improving human nature will be difficult but is highly desirable; we need to carefully consider the potential scenarios, with an open mind, and then make our choices.

For the avoidance of doubt, the fourth of these positions is the one I advocate. In contrast, I believe Bastani would favour the second answer – or maybe the first.

Transcending populism

(The following paragraphs are extracted from the chapter “Humans and superhumans” of my book Transcending Politics.)

We humans are sometimes angelic, yet sometimes diabolic. On occasion, we find ways to work together on a transcendent purpose with wide benefits. But on other occasions, we treat each other abominably. Not only do we go to war with each other, but our wars are often accompanied by hideous so-called “war crimes”. Our religious crusades, whilst announced in high-minded language, have involved the subjugation or extermination of hundreds of thousands of members of opposing faiths. The twentieth century saw genocides on a scale never before experienced. For a different example of viciousness, the comments attached to YouTube videos frequently show intense hatred and vitriol.

As technology puts more power in our hands, will we become more angelic, or more diabolic? Probably both, at the same time.

A nimbleness of mind can coincide with a harshness of spirit. Just because someone has more information at their disposal, that’s no guarantee the information will be used to advance beneficial initiatives. Instead, that information can be mined and contoured to support whatever course of action someone has already selected in their heart.

Great intelligence can be coupled with great knowledge, for good but also for ill. The outcome in some sorry cases is greater vindictiveness, greater manipulation, and greater enmity. Enhanced cleverness can make us experts in techniques to suppress inconvenient ideas, to distort inopportune findings, and to tarnish independent thinkers. We can find more devious ways to mislead and deceive people – and, perversely, to mislead and deceive ourselves. In this way, we could create the mother of all echo chambers. It would take only a few additional steps for obsessive human superintelligence to produce unprecedented human malevolence.

Transhumanists want to ask: can’t we find a way to alter the expression of human nature, so that we become less likely to use our new technological capabilities for malevolence, and more likely to use them for benevolence? Can’t we accentuate the angelic, whilst diminishing the diabolic?

To some critics, that’s an extremely dangerous question. If we mess with human nature, they say, we’ll almost certainly make things worse rather than better.

Far preferable, in this analysis, is to accept our human characteristics as a given, and to evolve our social structures and cultural frameworks with these fixed characteristics in mind. In other words, our focus should be on the likes of legal charters, restorative justice, proactive education, multi-cultural awareness, and effective policing.

My view, however, is that these humanitarian initiatives towards changing culture need to be complemented with transhumanist initiatives to alter the inclinations inside the human soul. We need to address nature at the same time as we address nurture. To do otherwise is to unnecessarily limit our options – and to make it more likely that a bleak future awaits us.

The good news is that, for this transhumanist task, we can take advantage of a powerful suite of emerging new technologies. The bad news is that, like all new technologies, there are risks involved. As these technologies unfold, there will surely be unforeseen consequences, especially when different trends interact in unexpected ways.

Transhumanists have long been well aware of the risks in changing the expression of human nature. Witness the words of caution baked deep into the Transhumanist Declaration. But these risks are no reason for us to abandon the idea. Instead, they are a reason to exercise care and judgement in this project. Accepting the status quo, without seeking to change human nature, is itself a highly risky approach. Indeed, there are no risk-free options in today’s world. If we want to increase our chances of reaching a future of sustainable abundance for all, without humanity being diverted en route to a new dark age, we should leave no avenue unexplored.

Transhumanists are by no means the first set of thinkers to desire positive changes in human nature. Philosophers, religious teachers, and other leaders of society have long called for humans to overcome the pull of “attachment” (desire), self-centredness, indiscipline, “the seven deadly sins” (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth), and so on. Where transhumanism goes beyond these previous thinkers is in highlighting new methods that can now be used, or will shortly become available, to assist in the improvement of character.

Collectively these methods can be called “cognotech”. They will boost our all-round intelligence: emotional, rational, creative, social, spiritual, and more. Here are some examples:

  • New pharmacological compounds – sometimes called “smart drugs”
  • Gentle stimulation of the brain by a variety of electromagnetic methods – something that has been trialled by the US military
  • Alteration of human biology more fundamentally, by interventions at the genetic, epigenetic, or microbiome level
  • Vivid experiences within multi-sensory virtual reality worlds that bring home to people the likely consequences of their current personal trajectories (from both first-person and third-person points of view), and allow them to rehearse changes in attitude
  • The use of “intelligent assistance” software that monitors our actions and offers us advice in a timely manner, similar to the way that a good personal friend will occasionally volunteer wise counsel; intelligent assistants can also strengthen our positive characteristics by wise selection of background music, visual imagery, and “thought for the day” aphorisms to hold in mind.

Technological progress can also improve the effectiveness of various traditional methods for character improvement:

  • The reasons why meditation, yoga, and hypnosis can have beneficial results are now more fully understood than before, enabling major improvements in the efficacy of these practices
  • Education of all sorts can be enhanced by technology such as interactive online video courses that adapt their content to the emerging needs of each different user
  • Prompted by alerts generated by online intelligent assistants, real-world friends can connect at critical moments in someone’s life, in order to provide much-needed personal support
  • Information analytics can resolve some of the long-running debates about which diets – and which exercise regimes – are the ones that will best promote all-round health for given individuals.

The technoprogressive feedback cycle

One criticism of the initiative I’ve just outlined is that it puts matters the wrong way round.

I’ve been describing how individuals can, with the aid of technology as well as traditional methods, raise themselves above their latent character flaws, and can therefore make better contributions to the political process (either as voters or as actual politicians). In other words, we’ll get better politics as a result of getting better people.

However, an opposing narrative runs as follows. So long as our society is full of emotional landmines, it’s a lot to expect people to become more emotionally competent. So long as we live in a state of apparent siege, immersed in psychological conflict, it’s a big ask for people to give each other the benefit of the doubt, in order to develop new bonds of trust. Where people are experiencing growing inequality, a deepening sense of alienation, a constant barrage of adverts promoting consumerism, and an increasing foreboding about an array of risks to their wellbeing, it’s not reasonable to urge them to make the personal effort to become more compassionate, thoughtful, tolerant, and open-minded. They’re more likely to become angry, reactive, intolerant, and closed-minded. Who can blame them? Therefore – so runs this line of reasoning – it’s more important to improve the social environment than to urge the victims of that social environment to learn to turn the other cheek. Let’s stop obsessing about personal ethics and individual discipline, and instead put every priority on reducing the inequality, alienation, consumerist propaganda, and risk perception that people are experiencing. Instead of fixating upon possibilities for technology to rewire people’s biology and psychology, let’s hurry up and provide a better social safety net, a fairer set of work opportunities, and a deeper sense that “we’re all in this together”.

I answer this criticism by denying that it’s a one-way causation. We shouldn’t pick just a single route of influence – either that better individuals will result in a better society, or that a better society will enable the emergence of better individuals. On the contrary, there’s a two way flow of influence.

Yes, there’s such a thing as psychological brutalisation. In a bad environment, the veneer of civilisation can quickly peel away. Youngsters who would, in more peaceful circumstances, instinctively help elderly strangers to cross the road, can quickly degrade in times of strife into obnoxious, self-obsessed bigots. But that path doesn’t apply to everyone. Others in the same situation take the initiative to maintain a cheery, contemplative, constructive outlook. Environment influences the development of character, but doesn’t determine it.

Accordingly, I foresee a positive feedback cycle:

  • With the aid of technological assistance, more people – whatever their circumstances – will be able to strengthen the latent “angelic” parts of their human nature, and to hold in check the latent “diabolic” aspects
  • As a result, at least some citizens will be able to take wiser policy decisions, enabling an improvement in the social and psychological environment
  • The improved environment will, in turn, make it easier for other positive personal transformations to occur – involving a larger number of people, and having a greater impact.

One additional point deserves to be stressed. The environment that influences our behaviour involves not just economic relationships and the landscape of interpersonal connections, but also the set of ideas that fill our minds. To the extent that these ideas give us hope, we can find extra strength to resist the siren pull of our diabolic nature. These ideas can help us focus our attention on positive, life-enhancing activities, rather than letting our minds shrink and our characters deteriorate.

This indicates another contribution of transhumanism to building a comprehensively better future. By painting a clear, compelling image of sustainable abundance, credibly achievable in just a few decades, transhumanism can spark revolutions inside the human heart.

That potential contribution brings us back to similar ideas in FALC. Bastani wishes a populist transformation of the public consciousness, which includes inspiring new ideas for how everyone can flourish in a post-scarcity post-work society.

I’m all in favour of inspiring new ideas. The big question, of course, is whether these new ideas skate over important omissions that will undermine the whole project.

Next steps

I applaud FALC for the way it advances serious discussion about a potentially better future – a potentially much better future – that could be attained in just a few decades.

But just as FALC indicates a reason why communism could not be achieved before the present time, I want to indicate a reason why the FALC project could likewise fail.

Communism was impossible, Bastani says, before the technologies of the Third Disruption provided the means for sufficient abundance of energy, food, education, material goods, and so on. In turn, my view is that communism will be impossible (or unlikely) without attention being paid to the proactive transformation of human nature.

We should not underestimate the potential of the technologies of the Third Disruption. They won’t just provide more energy, food, education, and material goods. They won’t just enable people to have healthier bodies throughout longer lifespans. They will also enable all of us to attain better levels of mental and emotional health – psychological and spiritual wellbeing. If we want it.

That’s why the Abundance 2035 goals on which I am presently working contain a wider set of ambitions than feature in FALC. For example, these goals include aspirations that, by 2035,

  • The fraction of people with mental health problems will be 1% or less
  • Voters will no longer routinely assess politicians as self-serving, untrustworthy, or incompetent.

To join a discussion about the Abundance 2035 goals (and about a set of interim targets to be achieved by 2025), check out this London Futurists event taking place at Newspeak House on Monday 1st July.

To hear FALC author Aaron Bastani in discussion of his ideas, check out this Virtual Futures event, also taking place at Newspeak House, on Tuesday 25th June.

Finally, for an all-round assessment of the relevance of transhumanism to building a (much) better future, check out TransVision 2019, happening at Birkbeck College on the weekend of 6-7 July, where 22 different speakers will be sharing their insights.

25 January 2019

To make a dent in the universe

Suppose you saw that science and technology had the potential to significantly extend healthy lifespans, but that very few scientists or technologists were working on these projects.

Suppose you disagreed with the government spending huge sums of public money on the military – on the capability to kill – and wished for more spending instead on the defeat of aging (and all the terrible diseases that accelerate with aging).

Suppose you felt that too many leadership decisions in society were influenced by out-dated ideologies – for example, by belief systems that regard as literal many of the apocalyptic statements in millennia-old religious scriptures – and that you preferred decisions to be determined by cool reason and scientific evidence.

What might you do?

If you were Zoltan Istvan, in October 2014, you might decide on an audacious project. You might decide to announce your candidacy for becoming the President of the United States, as a representative of a newly conceived “Transhumanist Party”. You might decide that the resulting media attention would raise the public understanding of the possibility and desirability of using science and technology in favour of transhumanist goals. You might decide the project had a fair chance of making a dent in the universe – of accelerating humanity’s trajectory onwards and upwards.

Here’s what Istvan wrote at the time, in the Huffington Post:

Should a Transhumanist Run for US President?

I’m in the very early stages of preparing a campaign to try to run in the 2016 election for US President. I’ll be doing it as a transhumanist for the Transhumanist Party, a political organization I recently founded that seeks to use science and technology to radically improve the human being and the society we live in.

In addition to upholding American values, prosperity, and security, the three primary goals of my political agenda are as follows:

1) Attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15-20 years—a goal an increasing number of leading scientists think is reachable.

2) Create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.

3) Create national and global safeguards and programs that protect people against abusive technology and other possible planetary perils we might face as we transition into the transhumanist era.

In line with his confident personality, Istvan went on, in the very next paragraph, to issue a challenge to the status quo:

These three goals are so simple and obvious, you’d think every politician in the 21st Century would be publicly and passionately pursuing them. But they’re not. They’re more interested in landing your votes, in making you slave away at low-paying jobs, in keeping you addicted to shopping for Chinese-made trinkets, in forcing you to accept bandage medicine and its death culture, and in getting you to pay as much tax as possible for far-off wars (places where most of us will never step foot in).

In later months, Istvan decided to add two more ingredients to the project, to increase its potential impact:

  1. A declaration of a “Transhumanist Bill of Rights” in Washington DC
  2. The journey of a huge coffin-shaped “Immortality Bus” across the USA, to reach Washington DC.

What happened next has already been the subject of chapters in at least two books:

After the books, the film.

“Immortality or bust” has its first public showing tomorrow (Jan 26th), at the historic United Artists Theatre in Los Angeles, as part of the Raw Science Film Festival. The film has already received the “Raw Breakthrough Award” associated with this festival. In view of the public interest, I expect people will have the chance to see it on Netflix and/or HBO in due course.

I had the opportunity to view a preview copy earlier this week. The film stirred a range of different emotions in me, particularly towards the end. (Spoilers are omitted from this blogpost!)

The producer, Daniel Sollinger, cleverly weaves together several different strands throughout the film:

  • The sheer audacity of the venture
  • The reactions of Istvan’s family – his wife, his mother, and his father – and how these reactions evolve over time
  • The various journalists who are shown interviewing Istvan, sometimes expressing sympathy, and sometimes expressing bemusement
  • Istvan’s interactions with the other transhumanists, futurists and life-extensionists who he meets on his journey across the USA
  • The struggles of the bus itself – the problems experienced in its “plumbing” (oil), as a kind of counterpoint to Istvan’s wishes for radical improvements in human biology
  • Encounters with members of different political parties.

There were a couple of times I wanted to yell at the screen, when I thought that Istvan’s interlocutors were making indefensible claims:

  • When John McAfee (yes, that John McAfee) was giving his interpretation of Darwinian evolutionary theory
  • When John Horgan of the Scientific American effectively labelled transhumanism as a kind of cult that posed a problem for the good reputation of science.

Assessment

How will history ultimately assess the Immortality Bus and the Transhumanist Bill of Rights? In my view, it’s too early to say. In the meantime, the film Immortality or Bust provides a refreshing birds-eye view of both the struggles and the (minor) triumphs of the adventure so far.

Those who would criticise Istvan for his endeavours – and there are many – need to say what they would do instead.

Some choose to work on the technology itself. That’s something I respect and admire. My own assessment, however, is that the community of transhumanists needs to do more than contributing personal efforts to the science, technology, and/or entrepreneurial development of pro-health startups. We need to change the public conversation – something that Istvan has persistently tried to do.

In particular, we need to find the best ways to raise public awareness of the possibility and desirability of many more people getting involved in science and technology projects in support of significantly increased human flourishing. We need to answer the naysaying objections of bioconservatives and other opponents of transhumanism. We need to affirm that humanity can transcend the limitations which have held us back so many times in the past – the limitations in our bodies, our intellects, our emotions, and our social structures. We need to proclaim (as on the opening page of my own newly published book) that a new era is at hand: the era of sustainable superabundance – an era in which the positive potential of humanity can develop in truly profound ways.

We also need to transform the political environment in which we are all operating – a political environment that, if anything, has grown more dysfunctional over the last few years. That takes us back to the subject of the Transhumanist Party.

Going forwards

The Transhumanist Party which Istvan conjured into existence back in October 2014 has travelled a long way since then. Under the capable stewardship of Gennady Stolyarov (who took over as Chair of the party in November 2016), the U.S. Transhumanist Party has grown a leadership team of many talents, a website with rich content, and a platform with multiple policy proposals in various stages of readiness for adoption as legislation. It has revised, twice, the Transhumanist Bill of Rights, with version 3.0 being agreed by the party’s internal democratic processes on Dec 2-9 last year.

So far as I’m aware, there’s no v3.0 (or even v2.0) of the immortality bus. Yet.

What about overseas? Well, most of the Transhumanist Party organisations set up in other countries, from 2015 onwards, have long since faded from view. In the UK, however, a number of us feel it’s time to reboot that party. Watch out for more news! Or come to the London Futurists event on the 2nd of February, “Politics for profoundly enhanced human wellbeing”, where you will hear announcements from the UK party’s new joint leaders.

14 May 2018

The key questions about UBIA

The first few times I heard about the notion of Universal Basic Income (UBI), I said to myself, that’s a pretty dumb idea.

Paying people without them doing any work is going to cause big problems for society, I thought. It’s going to encourage laziness, and discourage enterprise. Why should people work hard, if the fruits of their endeavour are taken away from them to be redistributed to people who can’t be bothered to work? It’s not fair. And it’s a recipe for social decay.

But since my first encounters with the idea of UBI, my understanding has evolved a long way. I have come to see the idea, not as dumb, but as highly important. Anyone seriously interested in the future of human society ought to keep abreast of the discussion about UBI:

  • What are the strengths and (yes) the weaknesses of UBI?
  • What alternatives could be considered, that have the strengths of UBI but avoid its weaknesses?
  • And, bearing in mind that the most valuable futurist scenarios typically involve the convergence (or clash) of several different trend analyses, what related ideas might transform our understanding of UBI?

For these reasons, I am hosting a day-long London Futurists event at Birkbeck College, Central London, on Saturday 2nd June, with the title “Universal Basic Income and/or Alternatives: 2018 update”.

The event is defined by the question,

What do we know, in June 2018, about Universal Basic Income and its alternatives (UBIA), that wasn’t known, or was less clear, just a few years ago?

The event website highlights various components of that question, which different speakers on the day will address:

  • What are the main risks and issues with the concept of UBIA?
  • How might the ideas of UBIA evolve in the years ahead?
  • If not a UBI, what alternatives might be considered, to meet the underlying requirements which have led many people to propose a UBI?
  • What can we learn from the previous and ongoing experiments in Basic Income?
  • What are the feasible systems (new or increased taxes, or other means) to pay for a UBIA?
  • What steps can be taken to make UBIA politically feasible?
  • What is a credible roadmap for going beyond a “basic” income towards enabling attainment of a “universal prosperity” by everyone?

As you can see from the event website, an impressive list of speakers have kindly agreed to take part. Here’s the schedule for the day:

09:30: Doors open
10:00: Chair’s welcome: The questions that deserve the most attention: David Wood
10:15: Opening keynote: Basic Income – Making it happenProf Guy Standing
11:00: Implications of Information TechnologyProf Joanna Bryson
11:30: Alternatives to UBI – Exploring the PossibilitiesRohit TalwarHelena Calle and Steve Wells
12:15: Q&A involving all morning speakers
12:30: Break for lunch (lunch not provided)

14:00: Basic Income as a policy and a perspective: Barb Jacobson
14:30: Implications of Artificial Intelligence on UBIATony Czarnecki
15:00: Approaching the Economic SingularityCalum Chace
15:30: What have we learned? And what should we do next? David Wood
16:00-16:30: Closing panel involving all speakers
16:30: Event closes. Optional continuation of discussion in nearby pub

A dumb idea?

In the run-up to the UBIA 2018 event, I’ll make a number of blogposts anticipating some of the potential discussion on the day.

First, let me return to the question of whether UBI is a dumb idea. Viewing the topic from the angle of laziness vs. enterprise is only one possible perspective. As is often the case, changing your perspective often provides much needed insight.

Instead, let’s consider the perspective of “social contract”. Reflect on the fact that society already provides money to people who aren’t doing any paid work. There are basic pension payments for everyone (so long as they are old enough), basic educational funding for everyone (so long as they are young enough), and basic healthcare provisions for people when they are ill (in most countries of the world).

These payments are part of what is called a “social contract”. There are two kinds of argument for having a social contract:

  1. Self-interested arguments: as individuals, we might need to take personal benefit of a social contract at some stage in the future, if we unexpectedly fall on hard times. What’s more, if we fail to look after the rest of society, the rest of society might feel aggrieved, and rise up against us, pitchforks (or worse) in hand.
  2. Human appreciation arguments: all people deserve basic stability in their life, and a social contract can play a significant part in providing such stability.

What’s harder, of course, is to agree which kind of social contract should be in place. Whole libraries of books have been written on that question.

UBI can be seen as fitting inside a modification of our social contract. It would be part of what supporters say would be an improved social contract.

Note: although UBI is occasionally suggested as a replacement for the entirety of the current welfare system, it is more commonly (and, in my view, more sensibly) proposed as a replacement for only some of the current programmes.

Proponents of UBI point to two types of reason for including UBI as part of a new social contract:

  1. Timeless arguments – arguments that have been advanced in various ways by people throughout history, such as Thomas More (1516), Montesquieu (1748), Thomas Paine (1795), William Morris (1890), Bertrand Russell (1920), Erich Fromm (1955), Martin Luther King (1967), and Milton Friedman (1969)
  2. Time-linked arguments – arguments that foresee drastically changed circumstances in the relatively near future, which increase the importance of adopting a UBI.

Chief among the time-linked arguments are that the direct and indirect effects of profound technological change is likely to transform the work environment in unprecedented ways. Automation, powered by AI that is increasingly capable, may eat into more and more of the skills that we humans used to think are “uniquely human”. People who expected to earn money by doing various tasks may find themselves unemployable – robots will do these tasks more reliably, more cheaply, and with greater precision. People who spend some time retraining themselves in anticipation of a new occupation may find that, over the same time period, robots have gained the same skills faster than humans.

That’s the argument for growing technological unemployment. It’s trendy to criticise this argument nowadays, but I find the criticisms to be weak. I won’t repeat all the ins and outs of that discussion now, since I’ve covered them at some length in Chapter 4 of my book Transcending Politics. (An audio version of this chapter is currently available to listen to, free of charge, here.)

A related consideration talks, not about technological unemployment, but about technological underemployment. People may be able to find paid work, but that work pays considerably less than they expected. Alternatively, their jobs may have many rubbishy aspects. In the terminology of David Graeber, increasing numbers of jobs are “bullshit jobs”. (Graeber will be speaking on that very topic at the RSA this Thursday. At time of writing, tickets are still available.)

Yet another related concept is that of the precariat – people whose jobs are precarious, since they have no guarantee of the number of hours of work they may receive in any one week. People in these positions would often prefer to be able to leave these jobs and spend a considerable period of time training for a different kind of work – or starting a new business, with all the risks and uncertainties entailed. If a UBI were available to them, it would give them the stability to undertake that personal voyage.

How quickly will technological unemployment and technological underemployment develop? How quickly will the proportion of bullshit jobs increase? How extensive and socially dangerous will the precariat become?

I don’t believe any futurist can provide crisp answers to these questions. There are too many unknowns involved. However, equally, I don’t believe anyone can say categorically that these changes won’t occur (or won’t occur any time soon). My personal recommendation is that society needs to anticipate the serious possibility of relatively rapid acceleration of these trends over the next couple of decades. I’d actually put the probability of a major acceleration in these trends over the next 20 years as greater than 50%. But even if you assess the odds more conservatively, you ought to have some contingency plans in mind, just in case the pace quickens more than you expected.

In other words, the time-linked arguments in favour of exploring a potential UBI have considerable force.

As it happens, the timeless arguments may gain increased force too. If it’s true that the moral arc of history bends upwards – if it’s true that moral sensibilities towards our fellow humans increase over the passage of time – then arguments which at one time fell below society’s moral radar can gain momentum in the light of collective experience and deliberative reflection.

An impractical idea?

Many people who are broadly sympathetic to the principle of UBI nevertheless consider the concept to be deeply impractical. For example, here’s an assessment by veteran economics analyst John Kay, in his recent article “Basic income schemes cannot work and distract from sensible, feasible and necessary welfare reforms”:

The provision of a universal basic income at a level which would provide a serious alternative to low-paid employment is impossibly expensive. Thus, a feasible basic income cannot fulfil the hopes of some of the idea’s promoters: it cannot guarantee households a standard of living acceptable in a modern society, it cannot compensate for the possible disappearance of existing low-skilled employment and it cannot eliminate “bullshit jobs”. Either the level of basic income is unacceptably low, or the cost of providing it is unacceptably high. And, whatever the appeal of the underlying philosophy, that is essentially the end of the matter.

Kay offers this forthright summary:

Attempting to turn basic income into a realistic proposal involves the reintroduction of elements of the benefit system which are dependent on multiple contingencies and also on income and wealth. The outcome is a welfare system which resembles those that already exist. And this is not surprising. The complexity of current arrangements is not the result of bureaucratic perversity. It is the product of attempts to solve the genuinely difficult problem of meeting the variety of needs of low-income households while minimising disincentives to work for households of all income levels – while ensuring that the system established for that purpose is likely to sustain the support of those who are required to pay for it.

I share Piachaud’s conclusion that basic income is a distraction from sensible, feasible and necessary welfare reforms. As in other areas of policy, it is simply not the case that there are simple solutions to apparently difficult issues which policymakers have hitherto been too stupid or corrupt to implement.

Supporters of UBI have rebuttals to this analysis. Some of these rebuttals will no doubt be presented at the UBIA 2018 event on 2nd June.

One rebuttal seeks to rise above “zero sum” considerations. Injecting even a small amount of money into everyone’s hands can have “multiplier” effects, as that new money passes in turn through several people’s hands. One person’s spending is another person’s income, ready for them to spend in turn.

Along similar lines, Professor Guy Standing, who will be delivering the opening keynote at UBIA 2018, urges readers of his book Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen to consider positive feedback cycles: “the likely impact of extra spending power on the supply of goods and services”. As he says,

In developing countries, and in low-income communities in richer countries, supply effects could actually lower prices for basic goods and services. In the Indian basic income pilots, villagers’ increased purchasing power led local farmers to plant more rice and wheat, use more fertilizer and cultivate more of their land. Their earnings went up, while the unit price of the food they supplied went down. The same happened with clothes, since several women found it newly worthwhile to buy sewing machines and material. A market was created where there was none before.

A similar response could be expected in any community where there are people who want to earn more and do more, alongside people wanting to acquire more goods and services to improve their living standard.

(I am indebted to Standing’s book for many other insights that have influenced my thinking and, indeed, points raised in this blogpost. It’s well worth reading!)

There’s a broader point that needs to be raised, about the “prices for basic goods and services”. Since a Basic Income needs to cover payments for these goods and services, two approaches are possible:

  1. Seek to raise the level of Basic Income payments
  2. Seek to lower the cost of basic goods and services.

I believe both approaches should be pursued in parallel. The same technologies of automation that pose threats to human employment also hold the promise for creating goods and services at significantly lower costs (and with higher quality). However, any such reduction in cost sits in tension with the prevailing societal focus on boosting economic prices (and increasing GDP). It is for this reason that we need a change of societal values as well as changes in the mechanics of the social contract.

The vision of goods and services having prices approaching zero is, by the way, sometimes called “the Star Trek economy”. Futurist Calum Chace – another of the UBIA 2018 speakers – addresses this topic is his provocatively titled book The Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalism. Here’s an extract from one of his blogposts, a “un-forecast” (Chace’s term) for a potential 2050 scenario, “Future Bites 7 – The Star Trek Economy”, featuring Lauren (born 1990):

The race downhill between the incomes of governments and the costs they needed to cover for their citizens was nerve-wracking for a few years, but by the time Lauren hit middle age it was clear the outcome would be good. Most kinds of products had now been converted into services, so cars, houses, and even clothes were almost universally rented rather than bought: Lauren didn’t know anyone who owned a car. The cost of renting a car for a journey was so close to zero that the renting companies – auto manufacturers or AI giants and often both – generally didn’t bother to collect the payment. Money was still in use, but was becoming less and less necessary.

As a result, the prices of most asset classes had crashed. Huge fortunes had been wiped out as property prices collapsed, especially in the hot-spot cities, but few people minded all that much as they could get whatever they needed so easily.

As you may have noticed, the vision of a potential future “Star Trek” economy is part of the graphic design for UBIA 2018.

I’ll share one further comment on the question of the affordability of UBI. Specifically, I’ll quote some comments made by Guardian writer Colin Holtz in the wake of the discovery of the extent of tax evasion revealed by the Panama Papers. The article by Holtz has the title “The Panama Papers prove it: America can afford a universal basic income”. Here’s an extract:

If the super-rich actually paid what they owe in taxes, the US would have loads more money available for public services.

We should all be able to agree: no one should be poor in a nation as wealthy as the US. Yet nearly 15% of Americans live below the poverty line. Perhaps one of the best solutions is also one of the oldest and simplest ideas: everyone should be guaranteed a small income, free from conditions.

Called a universal basic income by supporters, the idea has has attracted support throughout American history, from Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King Jr. But it has also faced unending criticism for one particular reason: the advocates of “austerity” say we simply can’t afford it – or any other dramatic spending on social security.

That argument dissolved this week with the release of the Panama Papers, which reveal the elaborate methods used by the wealthy to avoid paying back the societies that helped them to gain their wealth in the first place…

While working and middle-class families pay their taxes or face consequences, the Panama Papers remind us that the worst of the 1% have, for years, essentially been stealing access to Americans’ common birthright, and to the benefits of our shared endeavors.

Worse, many of those same global elite have argued that we cannot afford to provide education, healthcare or a basic standard of living for all, much less eradicate poverty or dramatically enhance the social safety net by guaranteeing every American a subsistence-level income.

The Tax Justice Network estimates the global elite are sitting on $21–32tn of untaxed assets. Clearly, only a portion of that is owed to the US or any other nation in taxes – the highest tax bracket in the US is 39.6% of income. But consider that a small universal income of $2,000 a year to every adult in the US – enough to keep some people from missing a mortgage payment or skimping on food or medicine – would cost only around $563bn each year.

This takes us from the question of affordability to the question of political feasibility. Read on…

A politically infeasible idea?

A potential large obstacle to adopting UBI is that powerful entities within society will fight hard against it, being opposed to any idea of increased taxation and a decline in their wealth. These entities don’t particularly care that the existing social contract provides a paltry offering to the poor and precarious in society – or to those “inadequates” who happen to lose their jobs and their standing in the economy. The existing social contract provides them personally (and those they consider their peers) with a large piece of the cake. They’d like to keep things that way, thank you very much.

They defend the current setup with ideology. The ideology states that they deserve their current income and wealth, on account of the outstanding contributions they have made to the economy. They have created jobs, or goods, or services of one sort or another, that the marketplace values. And no-one has any right to take their accomplishments away from them.

In other words, they defend the status quo with a theory of value. In order to overcome their resistance to UBIA, I believe we’ll need to tackle this theory of value head on, and provide a better theory in its place. I’ll pick up that thread of thought shortly.

But an implementation of UBI doesn’t need to happen “big bang” style, all at once. It can proceed in stages, starting with a very low level, and (all being well) ramping up from there in phases. The initial payment from UBI could be funded from new types of tax that would, in any case, improve the health of society:

  • A tax on financial transactions (sometimes called a “Tobin tax”) – that will help to put the brakes on accelerated financial services taking place entirely within the financial industry (without directly assisting the real economy)
  • A “Greenhouse gas tax” (such as a “carbon tax”) on activities that generate greenhouse gas pollution.

Continuing the discussion

The #ubia channel in the newly created London Futurists Slack workspace awaits comments on this topic. For a limited time, members and supporters of London Futurists can use this link to join that workspace.

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