If you want to construct realistic stories about futures that begin now, these ideas will inevitably underpin your world-building infrastructure.
What comes after corporate capitalism and consumerism, when “full employment” is no longer the goal, or is no longer possible due to machines and AI?
This question anticipates the world’s economic evolution after robots and artificial intelligence take more jobs than they create.
We can’t know what new industries will arise. At some point, it’s likely that AI will automate most repetitive (i.e. middle class) cognitive tasks, and machines will automate or assist much, if not most, manual labor.
Corporate capitalism has, in many cases, elevated standards of living across the globe, but at the cost of using an extractive, exploitative model. Globalisation essentially seeks the lowest standard of living and pays workers as little as necessary until automation/roboticisation can do the job more cheaply.
So what happens after full employment is no longer a practical goal for global economies?
What happens when the idea of “get an education, have a career” is completely disconnected from income potential? Fifty years ago, a high school diploma symbolised a decent basic education; now, high school won’t get you very far at all. What happens when the same occurs for university and graduate degrees — if only because the number of graduates is larger than the number of jobs?
What happens when robots can adequately perform most factory and shipping jobs? If more people are told to re-train, how can the economy sustain itself when technology keeps making more and more types of productive human activity obsolete?
What happens when AI gives each office worker the ability to be ten times more productive — when we know that companies resist paying workers more for work that is aided by machines, as long as the labor market is full of possible replacement workers at the same wage point?
In the past, monarchy was considered the pinnacle of human progress. Now, we have corporate capitalism (plutarchy), that extracts profit from local economies and redistributes it to less than one percent of the world’s population. Technology enables that process to accelerate faster than ever before — robots don’t demand more pay. An essential aspect of capitalism is to eliminate costs, and labor is a cost. Financial compensation for labor is also how humans survive (and spend, enabling other humans to survive).
At some point, the current corporate capitalist/consumerist model will begin to fail. Some say that it already is failing, and reactionary sociopolitical backlash has already begun.
Beyond the typical untrue dogma that an infinity of new industries will save us as new technologies are born — what comes after the current system?
Silicon Valley Panacea: Universal Basic Income
Universal basic income (UBI) is a popular concept circa 2017. There’s only one problem: corporations actively evade taxation whenever possible, even to the point of lobbying and gerrymandering political processes to have leaders elected who protect their interests. If raising taxes to sustain a UBI fund is implausible, that is not a viable option until the idea of corporate responsibility becomes fashionable again for one reason or another.
UBI would be a “sensible” answer. Corporations (and economists who influence public policy) thus far have shown no inkling toward being sensible.
Corporations are, by definition, are non-human entities run by people whose only objective is to increase the wealth of their shareholders from one quarterly earnings report to the next. That’s why corporations are operating on an unsustainable model right now, from environmental destruction to exploitative globalisation. The only measure that matters is in the short-term — the quarterly earnings sheet. The long-term future is a distant secondary consideration, if at all.
Corporate Cash Hand-Outs and the Beatitude of Uber
If corporations can fund a universal basic income, they can also just keep the money instead of “throwing it away” for redistribution to the rest of society. That seems to be a very popular mentality now among those who brag about evading taxes and their supporters who see the world as “winners” versus “losers”.
As only one example among many, technological parasites like Uber are destroying local transportation economies across the planet.
Uber is poised to destroy millions of jobs in transportation through app-driven taxi services and autonomous commercial trucking. When Uber can get rid of drivers completely by deploying self-driving cars and trucks, that will mean a tremendous number of people who don’t have jobs.
Not only that, but Uber wants to pretend that its drivers are not employees, and therefore is exempt from paying them as such. It may be “legal”, but it’s certainly unethical. And what’s legal is shifting as quickly as Uber can browbeat politicians into changing the laws where Uber hopes to operate. To counteract the passage of legislation, we see Uber becoming increasingly litigious and eager to spread pro-Uber marketing through the redefinition of “sharing” (meaning: profit-taking).
There’s no reason to assume that any large corporation would automatically switch from an exploitative framework to a sustainable one in time to save corporate capitalism from itself.
The Myth of Infinite Leisure
Leisure time creates new markets? This could mean that people create more and more games and diversions to keep themselves busy outside of productive work.
The downward pressure exerted by technology seems to have usurped the emergence of a “creative economy”. For example, music is now considered a “free good” even by the most successful musicians. No one bothers (or at least, far fewer than in the pre-digital — or more precisely, pre-streaming — era) to try to make any real money from music anymore, and there is a limit to how many streaming subscriptions the average person will want or be able to afford.
Even a “leisure economy” has limits due to supply versus demand and the influence of technology operating at economies of scale.
The Chimera of Corporate-Sponsored “Freedom”
A corporate capitalist future where everything is… free? No, that would be a completely different system, one that wouldn’t follow from the form that exists now.
Capitalism is the opposite of “give goods and services away for free”.
Google does not provide anything for “free”. They sell users’ personal data. The “social media” and adtech game is about pervasive, intrusive, and usually not-quite-invisible surveillance, hidden behind gamification, the narcissistic quest for worthless attention and meaningless happyfaced Silicon Valley slogans like “don’t be evil”.
Nothing is free in a capitalist world. Either all actors involved are paid, or the work is not done. The only free labor comes from the end users who remain intentionally ignorant of the fact that they are being used, and that their personal data is sold to the highest bidder.
Neo-Luddite Conspiracy Theory?
Are computers simply not having any effect at all? Is the idea of technological unemployment merely a Neo-Luddite conspiracy theory? That seems extraordinarily unlikely.
If technological unemployment isn’t happening, where are the new jobs coming from to replace the ones taken by AI, roboticisation and other forms of technology that become smaller, smarter, more networked and more ubiquitous?
The mantra “just get another job” presupposes an infinite number of jobs, which defies the reality of any labor market (as we saw most recently during the Great Recession of 2008 caused so graciously by the deregulatory policies of American President George W. Bush). Hardware and software are beginning to eclipse the functionality once afforded exclusively to humans.
See the example of Uber mentioned above. Other professions are seeing similar encroachment. There are quite a few other examples, but Uber may be the most well-known one that will have global repercussions in the next few years. The displacement of human cognition and labor is inevitable. This is the nature of the Turing machine in combination with a corporate system that seeks to reduce labor costs to zero whenever and wherever possible.
Trickle, Trickle, Trick…
Massive increases in productivity are already happening, and are not making everyone wealthier.
More effective technology reduces the amount of work humans need to do. This reduces the number of human work hours. Continue the inverse relationship, and eventually full employment is no longer sustainable. Technology simply exacerbates and accelerates existing problems. But the character of the problems itself will change as the macroeconomic principle of full employment gives way and existing low-level service jobs become increasingly unattainable.
Many people are working for a decreasing standard of living as corporations become more efficient, while forcing workers to work harder and longer for less. Full employment is a flawed metric to begin with. The jobs themselves are often traps that keep people struggling in wage-frozen positions while creating an illusion of “prosperity”. Inflation rises, employers don’t raise wages and claim the difference as profit.
People cannot just choose to work fewer hours. Walk up to your boss, “okay, boss, I’m going to work half-time from now on because I want to live the non-materialistic good life” and watch her laugh you all the way to the unemployment line. The aggregate (everyone in the labour market) determines how many hours the average person works. People are greedy and undermine their own ability to collectively bargain for better wages and hours, but more importantly, corporations exploit workers by presenting basement-level wages with the carrot of “overtime pay” that eventually is no longer voluntary.
There is likely a midpoint between dystopia and utopia. There’s no such thing as an “inevitable” future — evidenced by how often predictions are proven wrong.
Facts in the present moment, however, are discernible and are not simply a matter of interpretation.
That’s why thinking about the variables (and how they might change) is worthwhile. Life is more of a petri dish than an equation. ;)