I have to admit that just thinking about this subject completely locked up my brain for a couple of months. That and the usual distractions that keep people from writing when they have a day job. But I digress. The approach I’m going to be forced to take on the subject of future economics will reflect the ambiguity and vacillations that I’ve had for months now.
As bad as that seems, I don’t believe there are many professional economists that could adequately address this dilemma, so the only thing I can do is speculate and pose questions… so I’ll go with that.
What is the future of money?
To begin, the one trend that makes answering this so difficult, is automation. The ever increasing ability of machines to do more and more that we as humans used to claim as our exclusive domain, continues without any end in sight. Although it stretches the mind to envision a point at which robots can do anything we can do physically, and computers can do anything we can mentally, we’ve been getting clues for a long, long time.
From the legend of John Henry, who breathed his last with in his attempt to beat the steam drill in the heyday of railroad building, to Gary Kasparov battling away with Deep Blue for chess supremacy, machines and the sophisticated programs that control them have continued to advance relentlessly. I’ve seen robots play the trumpet and run up stairs. I’ve been humbled in games by AI, and been impressed at Siri’s prowess as a bonafide assistant. When a computer can drive better than I can, it’s time to concede. We aren’t unique in too many ways that aren’t already vanishing quickly.
Almost forty years ago, Langdon Winner published his book, Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. The observation that our ability to create new capabilities, before we had thought very much about how we might use them was one that unsurprisingly escaped the notice of most. Then as now, we create first and consider ramifications later. Things as simple as pocket sized lasers that interfere with safe piloting of aircraft or as sophisticated as drones that have become a ubiquitous nuisance are examples of technologies that had not been duly examined by the societies that produced them, bought them and then struggled to figure out how to tame them. With accelerating automation, the question we need to ask ourselves is not what’s possible; the question is what is it that we want from technology.
This is the essence of designing the future: first looking broadly and ambitiously at the realm of the possible, and then, peeling away the parts that don’t genuinely advance our species. What do we want machines to do for us, and what do we need to do for ourselves and each other?
My post on the iconic futurist Jacque Fresco mentioned one of his profound ideas of an economy without money. When I think about the far future, his idea seems to have some surprising merit. No matter your status in the present day, money dominates your life, in a mostly negative way. I just submitted my 2015 income tax return, and ironically the fun is just beginning. Having completed this excruciating exercise only means I can now finish cleaning up applications for college financial aid and filing financial disclosures for my employer. Yikes! Refinancing mortgages, providing elder care, planning our own estate and long term care. Our lives revolve around money, or so it seems.
A friend once returned from a stay at a luxury Caribbean resort with a gift for us of a surplus bottle of Dom Perrignon. He was careful to correct his wife, “It was NOT FREE! It… was… IN-CLU-DED!” This is what I like to imagine life in the future will be, a cruise ship where everything is included. I don’t think Mr. Fresco has thought of it quite this way, but I think it’s equivalent. It’s the Cruise Ship Economy. Once you choose your plan, the rest of what you get is ‘included’.
The idea that one could be relieved of the burden of having to manage finances has a lot of attraction. At the same time, giving up the sense of having contributed enough to earn what you take might seem hard for many of us to abandon. In a future world where technology is providing all our basic needs, what kinds of things are left that uniquely require humans to perform?