Could Gamification Contribute to Technological Unemployment?


The goal of gamification is to make a non-game task more engaging by introducing game-like elements. Gamification is still a new field but it has had some key successes, such as Foldit.

How could gamification contribute to technological unemployment? Well if you can make certain jobs fun and game-like enough, then people on the internet might do them for free. Or at least for far lower pay.

Imagine a company that is trying to keep costs low. First they might automate as many of their tasks as possible. Then they could take the few remaining tasks that still require human intelligence and gamify them. The company gets free or cheap labor, and people on the internet get to play a fun game. Everybody wins… except for the people who are now out of a job.

It remains to be seen whether gamification can be pushed this far, but I suspect it could. I imagine with the right designer you could turn almost any boring information task into a “game” that some people on the internet might obsess over and play for free.

Data is Not Labor (or the Problem with Jaron Lanier’s Idea)

A week ago I was compiling a blog post entitled “Ten Responses to the Technological Unemployment Problem”. There was one response that occurred to me, but that I intentionally left off of the list. I omitted this response because I didn’t know of any serious proponents. That is, until I caught wind of Jaron Lanier’s new book Who Owns the Future.

Lanier is proposing what you might call a “data ownership society.” The basic premise is that Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Facebook are using our data to make massive profits; therefore they are “stealing” from us. Since we are not being compensated for this data we generate, we are victims of “slave labor.”

I have serious problems with this perspective. Data is generated constantly as a mere byproduct of existing. Computers have just made that data collectable and storable. The fact that wealth accrues to people who salvage this data and then process it with algorithms hardly seems exploitative on the level of slave labor.

It’s also important to remember that data is not rivalrous. Companies cannot “steal” your data in any meaningful sense, because if you’re smart you can still have a copy of that data on your own machine. If you write a status update, for example, that update can exist at the same time on Twitter, Google, Facebook, and a private computer you control, and all parties benefit. Similarly, data regarding your walking patterns can be simultaneously scanned by law enforcement for terrorist activity and by your smart phone for fitness diagnostics, and neither algorithm is worse off from sharing. Data is a positive sum game.

I agree with Lanier that there is a problem. Technological disruptions are indeed hollowing out the middle class. I think people need to be able to make a living, and I think government may increasingly have a role to play in guaranteeing that. I just don’t think the solution is to start confusing data with labor and treat it as something that therefore needs to be compensated.

To fully understand the problems with Lanier’s vision, I think you should click through to this Time article and watch the embedded video. In it, Lanier explains how people ought to be constantly given small micro-payments throughout the day every time someone uses their data. This would include payment for just walking through a city and being captured by a video camera. The following summary appears at the end of the article:

“Ultimately, Lanier envisages a future in which we would retain ownership of our virtual selves, the content we produce online, and the incremental improvements we make — passively or actively — to the products created by powerful companies. Some sort of universal micropayment infrastructure would be necessary to allow capital to flow to and from each player in the economy. Setting up this infrastructure will be a monumental undertaking for sure, but as Lanier points out, no more monumental than the infrastructures that have already been created.”

I have numerous objections, but I will boil them down to just two:

(1) Lanier’s system would be so complex that it would likely lead to further concentration of wealth and inequality of the type he wants to avoid. It would require a centralized algorithm to enforce an extremely complicated set of rules. When you have big centralized bureaucratic systems like this they tend to not only be inefficient but be highly game-able by wealthy people, lawyers, and other algorithms. Inevitably the rules get skewed to benefit a few. If you compare Lanier’s solution to another option on the table—universal basic income—it’s clear that a UBI is far simpler to put into practice. UBI would also require a centralized institution to run, but the rules would be orders of magnitude more concise: everybody gets the same monthly check.

(2) Lanier’s system would probably act as a disincentive to innovation. Big Silicon Valley corporations are not the only ones who might want to use your data. What about individuals, students, and small businesses, to name a few? Wouldn’t they be discouraged from using data when faced with an avalanche of compulsory micro payments? On the more extreme end, things could get even worse. For example, would I have to dole out money every time I take a photo and accidentally catch the face of somebody in the background? That might sound absurd, but I think if you watch the video with Lanier you will see that it is in tone with the general future landscape he is describing. Specifically, he implies a world where every piece of data we generate—every step and every breath—is bought and sold. To me that not only sounds impractical, it sounds miserable.

Vernor Vinge on Technological Unemployment

Vernor Vinge is consistently one of the most interesting and conceptually dense futurists I’ve had an opportunity to listen to. While watching this excellent talk of his at Singularity University, my ears perked up at the mention of technological unemployment, the primary focus of this blog.

About halfway into the talk he broached the general issue of technological disruption:

“In the present era we all seem to be involved in the Red Queen’s race. Myself as a writer, I’m up against eBooks, and I’m up against all the piracy. I’m racing as fast I can, and if I hadn’t actually had some success in the past, it would be of course much, much worse for me to be in this steam turbine that’s called modern progress. When I talk about it happening to some other job category, I don’t feel quite so tragedy-struck about their plight. But we’re kind of all up against a situation of terribly disruptive new technologies.”

Soon afterward he addressed the topic of technological unemployment more directly:

“What comes after technological unemployment? There are certain things that humans are still very good at. And some of these crowd-sourcing [successes] tell us that those certain things that humans are still very good at are maybe much larger than we think in comparison to the machines, at least if the work is done in coordination with the machines. But what we’re really good at are isolated things. So you can imagine a civilization in which there are these bright little sparks of human level intuition and creativity and insight that are separated by vast stretches of algorithmically accessible problems. And there’s a lot of occupations and businesses, where the successful insight on the part of management is figuring out how to do all the stuff you can do without those expensive people, and then what remains are those bright little spots where you need to have the people.

So technological unemployment, I think, is a very real thing and, in the early twentieth century, the white collar and academic sorts could kind of say grandly, and with great objectivity, ‘Don’t worry about the buggy whips no longer being something that can be sold, there are other jobs that technology will create for you.’ I think their objectivity is cracking a little now that the tide of automation has risen to the point that more and more of their academic and white collar jobs are also under that sort of pressure…

Having a survival strategy for that sort of world is one that might get us automatically into a situation where, in the late teens, the average form of at least white collar work throughout the world is actually to be participating in social networks or group minds that allow enterprise to focus the humans on the things that the humans can really do and can do much better than any contemporary machine. I mentioned at the beginning of the talk that in past years I kind of turned up my nose at the human thing in the long run, because as I said ‘biology doesn’t have legs.’ However I think it’s true that at the present time, there’s no machine on earth that is of the intellectual caliber of a human being. Personally I think that we will get that and things that are much better. But the present situation is that we don’t have anything like that. On the other hand, we already have an installed base of seven billion human equivalent intelligences out there, and they’re self sustaining for the most part. That is really a remarkable resource, and this talk could be regarded as talking about how to make that resource all that it can be, for the benefit of humanity.

Essentially Vinge is describing a theoretical crowdsourcing platform (or platforms) that could systematically harness human minds and direct them towards the tasks humans still do best. This is actually very consistent with the point of view expressed in Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s book Race Against the Machine, in which unemployed human beings are described as a large “slack resource,” one that hopefully some entrepreneur or platform designer will figure out how to put to efficient use. I do think this is a very credible possibility and I particularly like Vinge’s image of a few bright shining stars of human ability twinkling against the blackness of algorithmic space. True, over time, more and more of those stars might blink out, and new stars might become much harder to find, but it’s entirely possible that there are still enough stars out there to see us through the coming transitional period, and computer networks might have the potential to help us identify and exploit those stars.

Of course today we do not have anything like such a platform, though we might have potential precursors. Vinge’s examples from the talk, such as Wikipedia and Foldit, have been tremendous successes, but they do not compensate the people involved. Alternately many of Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s examples, such as eBay and Threadless, are merely retail marketplaces and don’t seem particularly future proof to me. Taskrabbit and Mechanical Turk seem a bit more promising, though neither works on the scale or level of efficiency that Vinge seems to be implying might be possible or necessary. It will be fascinating to see what entrepreneurs come up with over the next ten years.

During the Q&A section, Vinge was asked (by Federico Pistono, interestingly enough) to elaborate on technological unemployment and how we might transition to a post-scarcity economy. Vinge began by addressing issues with the term “post scarcity”:

“Let me start out with a small disagreement in terms of terminology.  A “post scarcity” economy is certainly not a post singularity idea. I think that the reach of the mind will always exceed its grasp. Whatever is thinking will always be able to think of projects that are beyond what it can presently do. And that automatically gets you into a sort of scarcity situation. So sometimes when I read utopias, where everyone has everything they want and that’s the start-off assumption, that’s something I disagree with.”

While this is merely a semantic point, it is one I agree wholeheartedly with and tried to express in my own way in a recent blog post. As long as some mind somewhere wants something, then scarcity will probably exist. However, in Federico’s defense I believe that he was using post scarcity more in the sense of “post material scarcity”— as in a society where everyone’s basic needs are met and people have the ability to opt out of wage labor and the market economy if they so desire.

Vinge then continues:

“On the other hand, there’s still the very valid point about what happens when large numbers of people cannot economically compete with what they do and that there is no alternative project on tap. I don’t call that post scarcity, but I do see it as a problem. Up until about six weeks ago I was kind of in a tailspin about this issue. But then I started preparing this talk, and it occurred to me that we still have a lot of mileage left, if you take advantage of the fact that we no longer have to have physical location involved in our work—and I mean that in a much stricter way than just telecommuting. At that point, the fact that there’s all these billions of human level intelligences out there is very powerful, and if you’re willing to work in that way, I think there is plenty of career left for any such person. That takes us a long way, and I think eventually I’m very much in favor of the [intelligence amplification] stuff. I think we will get into a situation where those people who prefer to work, in addition to having the social networking and group mind stuff, will have real group minds (that is where you have connections at the mind level) and intelligence amplification.

“Let me say a little bit more about real group minds. It’s scary in its own way because you come face to face with issues of identity and awareness. I’m gonna get mystical here for a minute. Imagine that the human soul is like processes not just on a single machine operating system, but on a network. In that case, depending on the bandwidth and depending on the size of the problem, the size of the mind that is working on it changes. In that sort of world, you’d have super intelligences for a few minutes and then they would decrease perhaps into isolated intelligences if there was some reason for working in that way. So there are some very strange things that are gonna happen in the latter era as we get into the singularity and I don’t claim to know what they are. What I just went through is some dreaming about how strange it could be. I think there is full employment in a situation like that, and our goal as present day group minds is to make sure full employment is entertaining to us.

“I think that especially if things work out in a mellow way that there will be significant number of people who choose to be consumers but not participants. And that the people who make things, and the automation that makes things will be plenty powerful enough to satisfy those consumer desires.”

Later, in response to another question, Vinge continues along these fairly optimistic lines:

“About five or six years ago I gave a talk at a corporate research center and I brought up the issue of the internet as a testbed for group enterprise involving large numbers of people and someone raised their hand and said, “The average person, do you really think they have either the motivation or the talent to be of use?” And I think I can give a somewhat better answer now than I did in that case. The short answer is: yes. And then caveats: I think it was Voltaire who said the average person just wants to cultivate their garden,’they’re interested in their friends and their family, and they don’t want someone to come and blow it all away. But that still is a human level intelligence. If it turns out that a group mind or social network sort of employment is still something that can pay them money, they may very well be willing to donate their human level intelligence to participating in social networks to solve problems and get money for it. Then also if you look at the demography—this is intuition now, off the top of my head—that I see in contributors to Wikipedia, I think that there is an enormous number of people—perhaps still a small minority compared to the total human population—that have intellectual interests of a certain sort and certain sorts of talents, and they really think it’s cool to work with that and get that out to where it can be used…

“This is very likely going to be the sustainable form of employment for the next fifteen or twenty years, and I think that gives them plenty of encouragement to do something that otherwise is very pleasurable to begin with. So I do think the human race as a whole has these segments that can happily participate in doing very clever things.”

Of course there are a lot of unresolved questions regarding Vinge’s vision. It’s not clear that the marketplace will actually compensate people who participate in these crowdsourcing/social networking/group mind schemes. As Vinge points out, people participate in these tasks for a variety of reasons, often because they enjoy it (Wikipedia), or because the designer of the platform has managed to make the task into a game (Foldit). Making sure people get compensated for the crowdsourcing work they do might require some sort of government mechanism. It is unclear at this point.

However, as far as the general notion that we might “still have a lot of mileage left” in terms of useful tasks for humans to perform, I think that position does have a fair amount of plausibility.

The Term “Post Scarcity” Could Maybe Use Some Clarifying

I have always found the term post scarcity problematic. The common definition of scarcity defines it as, loosely speaking: insufficient supply to meet demand. If we take this definition at face value then we have achieved post scarcity the moment nobody demands anything. Therefore, we could achieve post scarcity simply by taking happy pills and making ourselves artificially satisfied. Alternately, we might never achieve post scarcity if some cosmic beings somewhere in the universe still want the same rivalrous good, such as to be “undisputed king of the Milky Way”.

Thus when people talk of post scarcity what they often mean is something more like post material scarcity. This isn’t necessarily a great term—it’s added length means it doesn’t roll off the tongue with the same ease—but it is clearer in intent. In the short term, what we should strive for is not necessarily the end of all scarcity, but rather the creation of a world where all of people’s basic material needs are met.

This of course raises the question of what constitutes “basic material needs”. I would propose that the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy—physiological and safety needs—might be a sufficient starting point, with the added qualification that ideally no one ought to be coerced into work they don’t want to be doing. This landmark alone would constitute a pretty big change to the human condition.

Some Possible Effects of Near Future Technologies on Real Estate Prices

Real estate is one of those goods that will remain scarce for the foreseeable future. It is hard to imagine a time when territory on planet Earth will not still be considered a valuable resource.

However, real estate prices might be dramatically affected (and in many cases lowered) by some near future technologies that are already on their way:

  • Automated construction techniques will allow buildings to be fabricated with less workers, at a lower cost, and in less time. Thus the price of actual structures, if not necessarily the underlying property, should fall accordingly.
  • Likewise, new automation-enabled architectural designs might allow the creation of structures that more efficiently and comfortably fit larger numbers of people within the same plot of land.
  • The growing efficacy and acceptance of telecommunication technologies should allow increasing numbers of people to choose where they live regardless of whether that location is near a job site.
  • Growing numbers of permanently unemployed people who have given up and dropped out of the labor force may find it increasingly compelling to move away from cities and other centers of economic activity. If they are not going to find work anyway, they might as well live where things are cheaper.
  • Commuting in self-driving cars will be a vastly improved experience—why not enjoy a movie or a nap during your two hour drive? Thus it may become increasingly viable to live farther away not just from your job site but from your loved ones and other amenities. Do you necessarily need to live right next to nightlife, for example, if an automated chauffeur will drop you off wherever you want and then pick you up at the end of the night?
  • Virtual reality will improve our currently narrow-bandwidth communications technologies. Over time, people will be able to get more and more of the benefits of being “face to face” by simply connecting remotely.
  • Eventually virtual reality may even get good enough that people will be able to tolerate living in much cheaper and more cramped living quarters. What if after you got home, you could put on a headset and be transported to a virtual mansion?
  • New food production methods (such as lab-grown meat) might allow us to reclaim land currently devoted to tasks like farming. Similarly, technological disruption of industries might lead to many formerly commercial districts getting repurposed as residential.

Ten Responses to the Technological Unemployment Problem

On the internet and in the media there has been growing discussion of technological unemployment. People are increasingly concerned that automation will displace more and more workers—that in fact there might be no turning back at this point. We may be reaching the end of work as we know it.

What happens if vast numbers of people can no longer make money by selling their labor? How should society respond? What follows is a list of possible responses to technological unemployment. This list may not be complete. If I have missed anything, or misrepresented anyone’s views please say so in the comments below. Also these responses are not meant to be mutually exclusive; many of them can overlap with each other quite nicely.

(1) THERE IS NO PROBLEM; TECHNOLOGICAL UNEMPLOYMENT IS A MYTH

There are many economists who still maintain that technological unemployment cannot happen, at least not on the large scale described above. The reasoning for this argument is called the luddite fallacy, which explains that although automation does displace workers, it simultaneously leads to lower prices. These lower prices in turn stimulate consumer demand and provide the basis for new industries, which in turn hire more workers. The luddite fallacy has more or less held true for two hundred years. The question is will it continue to hold true in the face of the computer revolution and accelerating technological progress? How can we be sure new jobs will arrive fast enough to offset the jobs lost?

(2) UNCONDITIONAL BASIC INCOME

This is a fairly straightforward solution. Since growing numbers of people won’t be able to earn money from their labor, it might make sense to just give everyone a guaranteed income whether or not they work. This would allow the market economy as we know it to continue, since putting money in people’s hands would prop up the cycle of consumer spending. Often this idea is characterized as socialist, and in some senses it is, but this characterization overlooks that the goal of a UBI is actually to save market capitalism. Moreover, with a guaranteed basic income many other socialist programs like social security, unemployment, and food stamps could be dismantled and replaced with this far more streamlined system. An obvious question is, where does the money come from? A variety of ideas have been suggested; Marshall Brain details several possibilities in his essay Robotic Freedom.

(3) OPT OUT OF CAPITALISM AND TAKE ADVANTAGE OF DECENTRALIZED TECHNOLOGIES

This is a more individual approach that does not rely on government intervention. By taking advantage of new decentralized technologies and living as cheaply as possible, people might be able to increasingly just opt out of capitalism and consumerism entirely. This approach is advocated by Federico Pistono in his book Robots Will Steal Your Job But That’s Okay and could be facilitated by forward thinking engineering projects such as Open Source Ecology, as well as upcoming advances in technologies like solar panels and 3D printers.

(4) RESOURCE BASED ECONOMY (OR AUTOMATION SOCIALISM?)

This is an alternate economic system advocated by The Venus Project “in which all goods and services are available without the use of money, credits, barter or any other system of debt or servitude. All resources become the common heritage of all of the inhabitants, not just a select few.” This arrangement is made possible by aggressive use of advanced technologies to create an abundance of resources and thereby negate the need for any sort of rationing. Although Jacques Fresco, the founder of the Venus Project, claims his system is distinct from socialism, it appears to me to be fairly consistent with an extreme version of what has been called “automation socialism.” I believe the socialist comparison is apt since RBE implies the end of both private property and wealth concentration. In any event, this system sounds idyllic in principle but naturally raises the question “How could we get from here to there?”

(5) WEALTH REDISTRIBUTION ACCORDING TO AN INCENTIVE SYSTEM

This approach is advocated by Martin Ford in his book The Lights in the Tunnel.  His approach overlaps heavily with the unconditional basic income idea in that his goal is the same: put money directly in people’s hands so they can spend it and keep the market economy going. The main difference is that instead of making the income unconditional, Ford advocates doling out money according to an incentive scheme that encourages behavior society desires. Among the hypothetical examples Ford mentions is paying people to read books.

(6) WORK TOGETHER WITH THE MACHINES
In their book Race Against the Machine, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson suggest that we should try racing with machines. In addition, seminal futurist Ray Kurzweil has repeatedly expressed his view that we are destined to “merge with machines.” How might this resolve the technological unemployment problem? Well, technological unemployment ultimately stems from the fact that automation advances much faster than people can learn new skills. So if we can find a way to directly upgrade human minds—such as through the use of brain-computer interfaces—then workers would be able to keep pace with technological change and readily adapt to new jobs and industries as quickly as they crop up. Moreover, super intelligent humans might develop new desires which would in turn stimulate new industries. Alternately humans might become enlightened and decide they no longer need a market economy. Either way the problem would be solved.

(7) SMALL SCALE POLICY ADJUSTMENTS DESIGNED TO ENCOURAGE EDUCATION AND FOSTER INNOVATION

A lot of more traditional pundits admit there is a potential problem with technological unemployment (or at least technological inequality) but seem uninterested in any of the more drastic solutions mentioned above. Instead they push for a series of common sense policy fixes, such as fixing education to better prepare people for STEM fields or reforming the patent system to mitigate drags on innovation. These policy tweaks are designed to make the economy function incrementally better in this new technological era.

(8) GET THROUGH THIS TRANSITIONAL PERIOD AS FAST AS POSSIBLE

One line of reasoning argues that technological unemployment can only ever be a temporary problem, since the day is approaching when we will literally print out all of our food and other necessities. Thus the problem only arises in the awkward transitional period: after we’ve automated large numbers of jobs, but before technology has lowered the cost of living to near zero. Therefore we should try to accelerate technological progress by whatever means necessary so that we can make the painful transition as short as possible—much like tearing off a bandaid.

(9) OPTIMISTIC LIBERTARIAN

This position argues that as long as government stays out of the way the transition will be relatively smooth and painless. Yes, there will be less jobs available, and certainly people’s incomes will suffer, but technology will simultaneously bring down the cost of living at a fast enough rate that people will survive just fine without the need for government invention or economic restructuring.

(10) ISSUES LIKE TECHNOLOGICAL UNEMPLOYMENT ARE DWARFED BY EXISTENTIAL RISK

It’s possible a technological unemployment crisis would simply be a pitstop on the way to a much more dangerous crisis involving artificial general intelligence.  Once AGI arrives we will have much bigger issues to contend with, such as will the human race survive being displaced as the most intelligent beings on planet Earth? So while technological unemployment might be worth worrying about at the margins, really the bulk of our energy ought to be devoted to this more substantial threat on the horizon. This position is advocated by the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and others.

(Thanks to the Google+ Technological Unemployment community and commenter Yosarian2 for contributing to the ideas in this article.)

Erik Brynjolfsson Diagnoses the Problem in the Economy But Has No Solution

In this talk Erik Brynjolfsson clearly makes the case that productivity and employment are decoupling from each other. His presentation is a fantastic description of what is happening today and a fitting answer to the stagnationists.

That said, his solution at the end of this video amounts to little more than a clever turn of phrase: namely he suggests that we need to race with machines. In my detailed review of Erik’s book Race Against the Machine I criticized this idea:

The first suggestion the authors make can be summarized as “race with machines.” A human-machine combo has the potential to be much more powerful than either a human or machine alone. So therefore it’s not simply a question of machines replacing humans. It’s a question of how can humans and machines best work together.

I don’t disagree with this point on the surface. But I fail to see how it suggests a way out of our current predicament. The human-machine combo is a major cause of the superstar economics described earlier in the book. Strengthen the human-machine combo and the superstar effect will only get worse. In addition, if computers are encroaching further and further into the world of human skills, won’t the percentage of human in the human-machine partnership just keep shrinking? And at an exponential pace?

Moreover, as I’ve written about before on this site, the human-machine partnership can sometimes be less than the sum of its parts. Consider the example of airline pilots:

“In a draft report cited by the Associated Press in July, the agency stated that pilots sometimes “abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems.” Automation encumbers pilots with too much help, and at some point the babysitter becomes the baby, hindering the software rather than helping it. This is the problem of “de-skilling,” and it is an argument for either using humans alone, or machines alone, but not putting them together.”

At some point it may be possible to literally race with machines in the sense of actually merging man and machine together. But this has not been the current trend. What we have been seeing instead is people offloading cognitive tasks to independent machine algorithms. How many of us remember phone numbers anymore? Indeed memory has been one of the first cognitive tasks to get offloaded.

In order to race with machines I am convinced we need to actually enhance human intelligence directly. This is probably not impossible, but will require a much better understanding of the brain, and as a solution it will probably not arrive in time to stave off the massive decoupling that is affecting our economy.

Here is Eliezer Yudkowsky on the relative difficulty of agumenting humans versus developing standalone artificial intelligence:

“I originally gave the example of humans augmented with brain-computer interfaces, using their improved intelligence to build better brain-computer interfaces. A difficulty with this scenario is that there’s two parts to the system, the brain and the computer. If you want to improve the complete system, you can build interfaces with higher neural bandwidth to more powerful computers that do more cognitive work. But sooner or later you run into a bottleneck, which is the brain part of the brain-computer system. The core of your system has a serial speed of around a hundred operations per second. And worse, you can’t reprogram it. Evolution did not build human brains to be hacked. Even if on the hardware level we could read and modify each individual neuron, and add neurons, and speed up neurons, we’d still be in trouble because the brain’s software is a huge mess of undocumented spaghetti code. The human brain is not end-user-modifiable.

“So trying to use brain-computer interfaces to create smarter-than-human intelligence may be like trying to build a heavier-than-air flying machine by strapping jet engines onto a bird. I’m not saying it could never, ever be done. But we might need a smarter-than-human AI just to handle the job of upgrading humans, especially if we want the upgrading process to be safe, sane, healthy, and pleasant. Upgrading humans may take a much more advanced technology, and a much more advanced understanding of cognitive science, than starting over and building a mind from scratch.”

The Declining Cost of Doing Good

One of the things that makes me optimistic about the future is that as technology progresses, charity should become dramatically less expensive in terms of both time and money. I base this assumption on the fact that historically almost all goods have gotten both cheaper and more convenient, and I don’t see why charity should be any different.

Imagine you are watching TV late at night and one of those ads comes on imploring you to help feed some child in Africa for just five cents a day. If you are like me there is a strong chance you might just change the channel and pretend you never saw that ad. Sure, the deal being offered is good: just five cents a day and you could dramatically improve someone’s life. But on the other hand, it’s just one kid out of billions—hardly a dent in terms of global hunger—and if I do decide to follow through then I am going to have to momentarily stop what I am doing, dial some phone number, maybe go to a website, and then, worst of all, I’ll actually have to take my credit card out of my wallet and type in all the numbers listed there—oh, what a chore!

Does this make me a terrible person? Maybe. But it also makes me human, and fairly typical of humans in general. If it weren’t so easy for humans to ignore the plight of others far away, then we would probably live in a far more equitable world.

Now imagine instead of one kid, it’s 1000 kids. And instead of five cents a day it’s five cents a year. That deal is starting to get pretty hard to ignore. Imagine also that some startup company has solved the micropayment problem and established a widely adopted standard for sending money. Imagine I don’t need to reach for my wallet; I don’t have to log in anywhere; I can just look at the TV and blink my eyes, and this will signal my augmented reality glasses to go ahead and send payment, no extra hassle necessary. Perhaps my payment will also be followed by a satisfying video game sound effect and an icon showing me I have just earned 1000 “points”.

All of which is to say: even in the face of a potential bad future where work is increasingly hard to find, where government fails to provide for people, and where access to helpful technologies is needlessly restricted by intellectual property law and digital rights management—even in a future run by sociopathic elites who could care less about the rest of us—even then there is hope that the masses will be alright. Because as lazy and solipsistic and selfish as people are, I’m convinced that if technology makes it cheap and easy enough, growing numbers of average people around the globe will simply choose to help each other out. Because at that point, why not?

The Intensifying Battle Over Public Goods vs. Club Goods

I believe there is a growing battle between those who would like to see many goods become public, and those who would like to keep them locked up. I think this battle will only intensify in the coming years as technology continues to accelerate. To explain what I mean, I’d like to go over a few quick terms from economics.

Economists often classify goods according to two major criteria: how rivalrous they are, and how excludable they are.

A good is rivalrous when consumption by one person excludes simultaneous consumption by another person. An example is a painting. If I have an original painting in my house, you cannot also have that same painting in your house.

In contrast, a non-rivalrous good is a good that multiple people can use simultaneously. An example is a recipe. If I cook using a particular recipe, that in no way prohibits you from using that same recipe in your own kitchen.

A good is excludable if it is possible to prevent people from accessing the good unless certain conditions have been met (such as payment). Again, an original painting is a convenient example. If I want to exclude you from accessing my painting, I can just keep it locked up in my private studio until someone pays me what I consider an appropriate amount.

In contrast, a non-excludable good cannot easily be withheld from other people. A classic example of a non-excludable good is a lighthouse. Any ship within sight of a lighthouse can benefit from the lighthouse’s presence. It is not easy to include some ships and exclude others.

Why does all this matter? Because I think one of the recent effects of technology has been that it is taking many types of goods and doing this with them:

The first example we are all familiar with is music. Music used to come in the form of rivalrous, excludable goods like CDs. But once music made the transition to digital form, it became both non-rivalrous, and non-excludable. Digital music is non-rivalrous because if I copy a song from my friend, neither of us has to give up anything. We now both have equal access to the same song. Likewise, digital music is non-excludable, because its distribution is very hard to control.

Non-rivalrous, non-excludable goods are called public goods. One might argue that these are the best kinds of goods since we can all enjoy them with equal opportunity and without competing with each other. Examples of other public goods include nice things like fresh air, knowledge, and national defense.

And yet, somewhat understandably, the response from the music industry (and other similarly affected industries) has been to try to do this:

In other words, affected industries have made an effort to take public goods and make them excludable. They typically strive to accomplish this using a combination of intellectual property law and digital rights management.

Goods which are excludable and yet non-rivalrous are sometimes called club goods. Club goods include golf courses, movie theaters, and cable television.

The act of turning a public good into a club good is not always easy, as the music industry has found out. There has been a great deal of natural resistance to the idea of taking something which could be publicly available, and instead locking it up so that it can only be accessed by members of a private club. And this is where the battle breaks out.

Now, as long as this only applies to a few goods like music, one might ask “Who cares?” The answer is that as technology progresses we are going to see a lot more goods get moved into the lower right corner of this chart. And consequently a lot more businesses are going to fight to move those goods back into the lower left.

For example, if household 3D printers become widely adopted, we are going to see a lot of physical objects like tools move into the lower right corner. Or imagine: if the new Watson software ends up being runnable on smart phones some day, we could see even a normally expensive good like medical diagnosis move into the lower right.

Now step back and ask yourself: do you want a critical good like medical diagnosis, something we all need, to be treated more like fresh air, or like a golf course? Which is the world you’d rather live in? One where useful goods are ubiquitous and free for all, or locked up and under elite control?

Already today we have the potential to make all of the world’s books free for everyone on the planet. Google already has the infrastructure lined up to accomplish this. And yet they are prohibited from doing so. Why? Because of the demands of a few people in the publishing industry. If enlightened aliens came to visit us, do you think they would believe we are making the correct choice in this matter?

Traditional economic theory argues that the market will under provide public goods; therefore these goods need government intervention (i.e. intellectual property) to encourage their production. As with technological unemployment, I believe this is another area where conventional economic theory has simply failed to keep up with technological change. Computers are dramatically lowering the cost of creating many goods, and as such, the additional help provided by government is less necessary. The wealth of free, useful content on the internet, most of it produced by complete amateurs, is testament to this reality.

True, there are some public goods like street lights which still require government funding or else they would not exist. But we are seeing a vast explosion of new public goods—digital music, digital video, blogs, free apps—that I do not believe are susceptible to this traditional argument. People are naturally inclined to create, and once they have powerful computers, they seem to do so, with or without a government-backed monopoly.

My biggest fear is we will continue losing key battles in the war between public goods and club goods, and that the stakes will only increase as time goes on. As I pointed out earlier, music is one thing, but as physical objects and important services begin to move into the category of digital non-rivalrous goods, this battle will only become more heated and more critical. I sincerely hope that various industries will fail in their mission to turn public goods back into club goods. While this might help profits in the short term, in the end we will all be worse off.

The Road Forward Paved is With Decentralized Technological Solutions

In a previous post I articulated how most problems have three types of solutions: cultural, legal, and technological. Suppose a hundred people are stranded on an island, and they keep fighting over limited food resources. To fix this problem, one could implement:

  1. A Cultural Solution – Try to convince everyone to be nice.
  2. A Legal Solution – Design laws that dictate the distribution of food. Create a government to enforce these laws.
  3. A Technological Solution – Invent new food technologies that ensure there is more food than anyone could ever eat.

Now the idealist in me likes (1) a lot, and it might even work in the context of a small island where everyone knows each other, but let’s face it, such solutions are generally not effective, especially as societies get bigger. Humans don’t necessarily respond well to just being told to “play nice.” Especially when it only takes a few bad people to ruin everything.

As for (2), it’s a necessary evil most of the time, but it has tons of undesirable side effects. Creating any government is going to lead to a concentration of wealth and power as per the iron law of oligarchy. Certainly some governments are more desirable than others, and we can quibble over those details, but at the end of the day I don’t think it matters whether or not you opt for a libertarian private property scheme, a socialist wealth distribution scheme, or anything else in between, once you start giving certain islanders spears and the authority to stab people who disobey, I think  inequality and abuse of power are likely to be unfortunate byproducts.

But as I articulated in the original article, (3) has tons of advantages. By finding a way to create more food you have potentially done an end run around the difficult challenge of getting people to be nice to each other.

However (3) has a big caveat: Who controls the technology? Is it centralized, or is it decentralized?

Some technologies are decentralized or centralized by their very nature. For example, fire, one of the first technologies, is naturally decentralized. The raw materials to create fire are cheap and readily available. All you need is some basic knowledge. Nuclear power, on the other hand, is an example of an extremely centralized technology. Clearly you cannot just create a nuclear power plant in your backyard.

The problem with centralized technological solutions, is you potentially run into the same sorts of problems as legal solutions. Let’s say the islanders develop an effective new farming technology, but there is only a very small patch of land on the island with useable soil. Then a situation arises in which the people who control that piece of land are effectively in charge of the food supply. This simply gives rise to another form of governance, albeit one based on leveraging technology rather than just force. Such a scenario is again highly likely to lead to inequality and abuses of power.

However, it’s not hard to imagine a more decentralized technological solution. For example, if the islanders discover a robust food-producing plant that can grow anywhere on the island, then this solution will be much more resistant to elite control. Thus, I would argue, it is decentralized technology solutions that have the most potential to create real progress. These are the types of solutions we should actively promote if we want to achieve a better, more equal society.

Of course, governments will often resist such developments as they tend to undermine government power. It is all too common for governments to take a decentralized technology and try to recentralize it into the hands of a few people. For example, we could easily imagine the government of the island making it illegal to grow certain plants unless you are part of a special farmer’s guild. (If that sounds silly, keep in mind that the effect of seed patents today isn’t all that different in principle.)

Because I believe in the power of decentralized technological solutions to create real progress, my political beliefs are shaped accordingly. I favor any government that enables decentralized engineering solutions to flourish, whether by actively funding research in a socialist fashion or simply getting out of the way in a libertarian fashion. Specifically, I want a government that:

  • Does not actively wage war on decentralized technologies (see the war on drugs and the war on piracy)
  • Does not enforce complex legal schemes whose main aim appears to be locking down knowledge that would otherwise be decentralized (see intellectual property law)
  • Encourages the development of new decentralized solutions (see solar panels, open source software, household 3D printers, mesh networks, etc)