Friday, 31 August 2012

The lights in the tunnel

I have read Martin Ford's book with considerable interest. His main thesis is that technological unemployment will pervade and that we should plan for it.

Where I must part company with him is in his view that consumption and capitalism are sine qua non. He rejects Marx's idea of a planned economy (and I'm not here to defend it) yet at the same time posits an economy where the government arranges for the consumer to have the money he needs to keep consumption going by taxing consumption(!) and levying business taxes. This is also a planned economy.

He accepts that the planet has finite resources, but predicts that nano-technology will radically increase what we can do with available materials. I have no reason (or knowledge) to doubt or question his prediction about nano-technology, but he cannot brush away the finiteness of resources by saying we can exploit them more effectively/efficiently

He is silent on the subject of advertising, which is a key driving force in a consumption based economy. He wants to incentivise people to improve themselves and society by offering what amounts to wages for doing these things. I don't disagree with financial incentives being used to create social / environmental benefits, but presumably Ford's system will have to incentivise people to consume goods and services - that is basically advertising/marketing. As he foresees a world in which most work is done by machines, I assume that advertising will be similarly cybernated.

But in missing out advertising as a subject area, Ford has overlooked a huge gap in his thought process. We can find it by consiering what modern advertising does. It seelks to persuade you that such and such a product will make you a better, more attractive, essentially happier, healthier person. Paradoxically, advertising knows what Ford has omitted. Our true motivation is to be happy and healthy. Advertising couples that motivation to consumption to keep the economy going, because our economic system is basically one of consumption. Ford sees this, but does not challenge it - in fact it is his start point, even though he accepts that the free market is an intellectual construct. It has no physical referent.

It is the supreme and truly immutable fact that we have finite resources to work with. That, combined with the urge of humans, like any species, to survive and thrive, produces the essential train of thought of a Resource Based Economy, in which we apply the scientific method and technology to bear on the issue of how we as a species can survive and thrive on 'spaceship earth'.

It is a pity, because Ford goes so far towards deriving an RBE by his own sound reasoning, yet stops short because of assumptions about money and the "invisible hand" idea of Adam Smith which leaves the latter's ideas exposed to the criticism of being more systematic theology than a plan for how humanity can survive and thrive.

Ford has great expectations of what technology can/will achieve, and I'm not disagreeing, but another omission, and a key building block of an RBE, is applying the technology to knowing what useful stuff we have on the planet, how much of it we have, and where it is. Ford scoffs at the idea of knowledge being on the web and not in people's heads:This rather goes against his high view of artificial intelligence, but surely he must accept by his own logic that an inventory of the earth's resources would be the ultimate application for technology, and the starting point of a properly planned - I assume he does not object to all planning - approach to our survival on this planet.

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