Post Scarcity Series, Part II: The Exponential Age

By the law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal. This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere; and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind . . . .“This natural inequality of the two powers of population and of production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way of the perfectibility of society. Thomas Joseph Malthus (1798)[i]

Prelude

This blog is a follow-up to the initial posting, titled Post Scarcity Series Part 1, in which the term “post scarcity” was described as when most goods and services can be produced in great abundance with minimal human labor (certainly physical labor), so that basic human needs become available at little or no cost. This blog is a follow-up to address post scarcity through a reflection on technology—past, present, and future.

Background to Post Scarcity

In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Thomas Malthus proposed that human populations grow exponentially and the food supply grows arithmetically. According to his theory, the future food supply would not sustain the massive potential human population growth. As few as 200 years ago this was common thinking and continued to be so until recently. I remember fearfully reading a best seller The Population Bomb (1968) written by Stanford University professor Paul R Ehrlich which forecasted the imminent breakdown of the world’s ability to feed itself. Dr. Ehrlich co-founded the activist group Zero Population Growth which advocated governmental population control. He predicted that if we did not take action then hundreds of millions would die of starvation in the next few decades. As a young Christian college graduate, I was perplexed that God would create such a world for creatures born in His image. What about the numerous Biblical passages on caring for the garden and flourishing (Gen. 2:15; Jer. 29:5; Amos 9:14-15)?

As previously mentioned in Part 1, the 1930 article by John Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, suggested that free trade and capitalism could lead to “a fifteen-hour work week by 2030 for his grandchildren” (p. 5).[ii]  With less than 15 years to 2030, it certainly is being demonstrated that both Malthus in the distant past and Ehrlich more recently were completely wrong! But could Keynes prediction be possible?

What could lead to a post scarcity world? What might life be like if daily needs for food and shelter are easily met? Will we all have jobs? If so, for how many years? And what impact will there be from technology, agriculture, energy, education, trade, and globalization? Each is interrelated, yet has a domain of its own. How will these contribute to flourishing? The advancement of technology in recent years provides some indication.

Technological Advancement

Recently, I enjoyed the movie Hidden Figures, which is based on the true story of a 30-woman computer department. The 30 were talented “colored” (using the language of the movie) women who did many of the mathematical and analytical geometric formulas needed for first, United States manned space flight. One of them was a mathematical genius who eventually broke the glass ceiling when entering the all-male control department. In the movie, a giant IBM computer is brought into the NASA headquarters which eventually replaced the need for the entire department. But, in the end, the entire retrained staff was required to operate the computer system. That computer enabled NASA to expediently solve infinitely more complex calculations to get man to the moon and back safely.

Fifty years ago, only organizations like NASA had computers. And just as achievements in space travel have far exceeded the early challenges, so has computer technology reached far beyond being housed only in places like NASA. Today, technology is in the hands of over 5 billion people, and within the next 10 years it is predicted that over 90% of the world’s population will have smart phone technology. Change is coming faster than ever before.

In another example, digital cameras were invented in 1975. The first produced had only 10,000 pixels, but followed Moore’s law. So as with all exponential technologies, photos were a disappointment for a long time. Then, in only a few short years, the technology and photos became superior and mainstream. However, one company slow to respond to the advances in technology and the demands of the consumer market met with a devastating outcome—just twenty years ago, Kodak had 170,000 employees producing most of the world’s photo paper, but a mere decade later the jobs were gone and the company faced bankruptcy due to digital photography.

Progress is moving very fast and the notion raises several questions: Will continuing advances in technology have similar implications in other areas and fields as well, such as artificial intelligence, robots, health care, energy, autonomous travel (cars, trucks, trains, planes), education, 3D printing, and agriculture? What will happen to jobs and employment? Will scarcity disappear? Such is the wonderment of exponentiality.

Welcome to the 4th Industrial Revolution. Welcome to the Exponential Age.


[i] Malthus, T. J. (1798). On the principle of population. Retrieved from http://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/ralph/workbook/ralprs27b.htm

[ii] Keynes, J. M. (1930). Possibility for our grandchildren. Retrieved from http://www.econ.yale.edu/smith/econ116a/keynes1.pdf

 

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