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A Rejoinder to James Burke’s “In the Year 2100”

October 6, 2013

James Burke - in the year 2100Yesterday the BBC posted a video article by James Burke on his predictions for the year 2100AD – 87 years from now. You can view the video here.

It’s an interesting report, not the least for James Burke’s wonderful naivity. In the three-minute video, he happily proclaims the end of hunger, deprivation, poverty, and disease, all thanks to the promise of nanotechnology and the biotech revolution which the 21st century is already promising us.

He isn’t the first pundit – or even scientist – to have fallen into the trap of equating technological progress with social development. When I was growing up, the television was full of promises that the early 21st century would see a time of great prosperity, increased leisure time, the reduction of the working week to 4, 3, or even 2 days, perhaps even part time, as the robotic and computer revolution worked to produce an efficient system of production which saved us all a great deal of labour to spend our lives on more worthwhile endeavours.

Go back further, you’ll find the same promise coming from: the washing machine, the fridge, and the hoover; the mangle; the steam engine; the factory system; the printing press. I bet the guys and girls who thought up the wheel and that rubbing two sticks together thing thought they were on the cusp of paradise too.

The thing is, there’s already more than enough stuff to go around in the world we live in today. We could fix world hunger overnight right now if we wanted to. We have the money; it’s just it’s concentrated in the hands of the rich, and our governments seem keen to keep it that way, and to bombing the crap out of anyone who disagrees strongly enough. Having the technological capability to usher in utopia isn’t enough; there has to be the social will to do so, and the legal, social, and even military framework to stand up to those who would prevent it.

Capitalism by its definition requires scarcity to operate. If scarcity doesn’t exist, then capitalism creates it – by whatever means is to hand. Often that’s war – the traditional way of removing the problem of overproduction. That’s simply how it works. In the same way industry creates things to wear out, you can bet your life that James Burke’s dreamy future nanoreplicators will come with built-in obsolescence, user credits, subscriptions, etc, etc, to actively work against the unlimited post-scarcity model they would seem to offer.

Think about it: in the digital space, we have a post-scarcity situation already: we can “nano-replicate” music, movies, PDFs, books, all kinds of data, for free, without limit. “You wouldn’t steal a car” drones the tedious DVD “piracy warning” which we’re forced to watch whenever we’ve already paid for a movie; well, you bloody well might if you could make an exact copy of that car and leave an identical untouched original in its place. Would it even be stealing? Words, words. However you look at it, capitalism right now is hysterically trying to introduce obstacles to that digital post-scarcity system we already have – to prevent the ubiquitous free availability of “nano-created” digital materials from getting a hold in our societies and wreaking profound changes to our economic status quo. Why is that, do you think?

They’ll fail, ultimately, for sure: but not without a huge fight. I think James Burke is naively overlooking the fact that we’ll require major social change to enable his post-scarcity utopia.

So how about it, James? How about trying to come up with a road-map to the year 2100AD that you’ve shown us? It’s a wonderful idea, and I (like most sane people) would support it 100%. But how on earth are we going to get there?

It’s not a technological hurdle we face; it’s a social one.

Normandy, October 2013

One Comment leave one →
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