07 February 2012

Step One: If you're going the wrong way, turn around.

Charlie's Diary | Cat Valente | How Do We Get There?

I think every writer has a genre or subgenre that they admire, but find baffling. [...] Well, for me, one of those genres is post-scarcity SF. To my mind it's one of the most difficult to pull off. Scarcity has been a fact of the human condition for more or less ever, and once you remove it you have to figure out what it means to be human aside from that endless parade of want. Before you start chapter one.
So far we agree. Scarcity will always be with us. I think most "post-scarcity" writers pull this off by just shifting what is scarce. So Iain Banks' characters still compete for prestigious jobs, attention, travel, reputation, control and power, entertainment, prizes and rankings, etc. just not for food, shelter, or clothing.
On top of that, it's damnably hard to fashion a sympathetic protagonist out of someone who has never struggled in the way we struggle in our own lives, to present someone who does not come off as a monster of privilege.
I think Valente has a pretty facile view of psychology. Or at least one that is pathologically focused on material needs. Just because you grow up never wanting for any physical goods doesn't mean you don't have struggles. Daddy never approved of you; you always lived in the shadow of your older, favored siblings; you were expected to follow a path you didn't want. Bottom elephant: everyone – rich, poor, privileged, down-trodden, or in between – has problems.

Side note: I would not want to have dinner with someone who thinks that people who have their material needs met are monstrous.
Yet I've been thinking about it constantly, as even this morning the lead news story on the radio are about tens upon tens of thousands of jobs being vanished as a cost-cutting measure for American Airlines, who surely have not lost ten billion dollars in the last ten years due to cargo carrier and flight attendant salaries.
"Surely"? Really? She's sure about that? Because depending on fuel prices, labor is either the number one or two largest cost to an airline. There's nothing they can do about fuel costs, short of marrying the CEO's daughter into the House of Saud. Is it really that crazy that American would try and reduce the single biggest cost they can?

(And don't forget Amdahl's Law. If labor is 30% of your expenses and you cut it by 10%, your total costs only go down 3%.)

One more thing – if you're concerned about scarcity, you shouldn't want people to carry on doing things that are unproductive. Those "tens of thousands of jobs" aren't "vanishing" because American Airlines is run by mean people, they're going away because they aren't productive. They're destroying utility. You're never going to reduce scarcity by trying to increase the consumption of labor inputs.
But here's the thing--in most (not all, of course) post-scarcity SF, the fact of post-scarcity is a given. The Culture exists. The question of how we got there might be alluded to or skimmed over in an infodump, but I have so often been left feeling like there's us here, and then SCENE MISSING, SCENE MISSING, transeconomic future humans. Like the opening credits of Enterprise--I see all the steps in the space travel evolution chart, but there's a big gap between the space shuttle and Zefram Cochrane. I am a snake charmer--I can't see how we can get so high, in such spangles, how we can fly with such daring.
Okay, fine. Post-scarcity requires even more hand-waving than all the other things we easily take for granted in SF, like faster-than-light travel and radical life extension. People's desires outstripping their ability to fulfill them is a more ironclad law than Special Relativity.
I think it's a slightly less murky path in Europe than it is in the US right now. Our powers that be would rather drink cognac on a pile of our bones than even give us health care. The word "socialism" might as well be "Voldemort": it which must not be named.
Well there's your problem right there!  No wonder you can't imagine a way to reduce scarcity: you're looking in the wrong direction! Turn around!!

I might as well say I'm pessimistic about there ever being a cure for cancer because the homeopaths and herbalists and lysenkoists are still so far away from solving the problem. That would make about as much sense as Valente does.

Why would the solution to scarcity possibly come from the people who deny scarcity exists? How would the people who focus their efforts on shuffling resources from one group to another ever come up with a way to produce magically vast amounts of resources? If you think scarce resources are things you deserve to be "given" by the "powers" then you don't even begin to have the right mindset to imagine alleviating scarcity.

Things must be produced; they do not miraculously appear, to be "given" to the deserving.


  1. Your questions at the end were rhetorical but I'll answer them anyway. When corporate types discover ways to eliminate scarcity, they do everything in their power NOT to use them to eliminate scarcity, because without scarcity, they'd be out of business. There's no need to talk about exotic sci-fi: we've already reached post-scarcity technology when it comes to (say) music copying. We reached it through the efforts not of businessmen but of hackers and pirates-- and the businessmen are fighting tooth and nail to put the genie back in the bottle. If they had their way, people would continue buying CDs/bluerays/etc from brick-and-mortar stores for all eternity.

    1. I agree that much of the media industry is attempting to "put the genie back in the bottle" and trying to push back the tide on a broken business model. But I think the adaptation to digital, intellectual property is an aberration and not the norm.

      Businesses can only get by by fulfilling customer demand. Almost all do so through increasing supply, increasing availability, decreasing price and resources required as inputs. The exceptions are obvious, and mostly in the luxury market like DeBeers and LVMH. In these case the demand consumers have is specifically for something scarce, so that's not a normal situation. (Though notice that even luxury manufacturers try to expand their production by spinning off different brands for different market segments, rather than strictly maximizing scarceness.)

      Many of these exceptions require government-provided coercion to protect their artificial scarcity, or they can operate only if a company has a monopoly -- again, often government-granted, but occasionally natural -- on production. Most companies can't say "let's cut production to create scarcity" because one of their competitors will boost production instead. The vast majorities of companies must fulfill demand, ie, reduce scarcity, to survive.

      I don't think businesses which thrive on artificial scarcity are indicative of market actors as a whole. There are lots of reasons I could give, but I'll only say this: even in so-called "post-scarcity" fiction, these sorts of scarcities still exist. Sure, everyone in The Culture could enjoy a perfect virtual reality recreation of a concert, but there are only an artificially limited number of seats to see the live performance. Sure, everyone could have an atom-by-atom recreation of a painting, but only a limited number of them will have been made by the artist himself.