Becoming More Like The Culture, No. 1: Economics (v0.1)

The Player of Games

This is the first in a series of (slightly self-indulgent) articles entitled "Becoming More Like The Culture". The full list of articles in the series is here: Becoming More Like The Culture.

I'm a massive fan of Iain M. Banks, particularly his series of Culture novels. When he died recently, we lost a towering intellect whose commentary on society as found in his fiction was matched by his political activities in the real world. I owe Banks a great deal, his work having helped to shape the way I look at society, politics and economics. The society that he describes in his Culture books (called, as it happens, "The Culture") is massively attractive. A socialist utopia, whilst it depends to a great deal on the abundance of stuff (it's a post-scarcity model), and hugely powerful artificial intelligence, in this series of posts, I'd like to explore how we could develop into a society more like the Culture, and look at whether the conditions for establishing such a situation may not be as far off as they may seem. This first shot looks at post-scarcity economics, the abolition of money, and non-ownership.

Providing everything for free

Okay, so let's start with a simple one. Providing everyone's needs, for free, on demand. We don't have superintelligent starships to build everything for us (yet), so this seems pretty nuts, but let's give it a go, working from first principles. If you had all the money in the world, what would you do first? Well let's use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to go through them in order of precedence.

Initially, you'd look to make sure that your physiological needs were taken care of. We're talking about breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis (proper sugar levels et al), and excretion. I think we can check off the final three there. You might spend your money on sex, yes - we'll have to come back to that in a later article. I think the main ones here are food and health in general. In the developed world most of us can take those for granted. In the developing world, things can be worse. So, let's start by saying that in order to counter the need for cash, we need to provide plentiful food for everyone. We could do that right now, but the artificial scarcity introduced by market economics prevents it from happening. We could be living in a post-scarcity society. However, it's going to be difficult if the population keeps growing, so let's say, while we're at it, that we'll need to lower the number of people on the planet somehow.

The second tier of Maslow's pyramid of needs deals with security. This encompasses physical security, health, property and resources in general. None of these are things which would be terribly difficult to provide. By property, we take it that we give everyone to right to somewhere to live. If I had a great deal of money, I'd buy a big house and a nice car. So we need to arrange a situation in which each member of society has access to a big house. That means radically altering our concept of what constitutes a town or a city, and redistributing housing across the landscape. That probably also implies some level of stewardship of nature, as a world full of large houses with bare lawns isn't going to keep biodiversity ticking over very well. Again, we'll need to reduce the population to make it work, but if we got down to 100 people per square km (we're at 250 at the moment in the UK), that'd give each of us 10,000 square metres to play with, many more once you take into account the fact that some people will stay in cities, and others will live together. We'll also need a clean and efficient mode of transport to get to all these houses. We can't pave over the entire world with roads, we'll need something else. Making home-working more prevalent will help to ease this problem. It could be that broader estates of houses might focus on certain forms of production, in a similar way to the communities described in bolo'bolo by P.M.

Every tier above these in the hierarchy is related to self-actualisation. We don't need to worry about these; I think it'll be clear that they'd be dealt with very well going forward with this system.

So, in order to provide the equivalent of a rich person's lifestyle, we need to a) cut the population, b) dissolve the cities, and c) provide worldwide food to all. I don't think any of those three are outside the realms of possibility, as long as we work together rather than against one another. As Iain Banks himself says:

"Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces."

Of course, the Culture has AI to organise and plan its economy, and it looks like we do too. In fact, attempts at computerised planned economies have been on the go in earnest since Project Cybersyn, which flourished in Chile in the 1970s, before the CIA overthrew the democratic government and installed General Pinochet. Cybersyn used neural networks and control systems modelling to help run the economy. Needless to say that we have better tools at our disposal nowadays.

Moreover, with the level of robotics and mechanisation available to us now, the amount of labour required to provide the goods we need is considerably lower than even our current level. The low wages paid to factory workers in developing countries are the only thing preventing vastly more processes from being automated.

Abolishing money, getting our hands a bit dirty

So, now we're providing everything a person needs, for free, we no longer need money. Enough said. But if you were getting everything for free, would you really bother to go into work and help create all that great stuff? In Use of Weapons, Banks describes someone wiping tables clean as a hobby. I don't think that's outside the realms of possibility. Whenever you give people free time, they will generally fill it with productive activity. So how can we begin changing the way that people think about work?

  • Cross-skill - As Heinlein said, specialisation is for insects. Promote life-long education.
  • Encourage day release (ie. one or two days a week) from desk jobs to manual jobs. People will relish the change. I know I'd jump at the chance to spend a day in the field digging, I might not have to go to the gym. This would also start to break down social divisions. In fact, I've been reliably informed that this idea originally came from Marx, so hey.
  • Promote alternative forms of self-expression: In a system with no scarcity, people won't show off using money, they'll do so through their talents.

Keeping things interesting

So that brings me on to another matter. We're not trying to create some dreary communist industrial hell here with one brand of clothing for all. In our new society we want everyone to be a producer of one sort or another, and that means making sure that individuals are empowered to produce their own stuff, and give it away.

So, in summary:

  • Start to provide free food for everyone.
  • Cut the population.
  • Decentralise housing.
  • Find cleaner, more efficient, modes of transport.
  • Make homeworking feasible for as many people as possible.
  • Empower people with healthcare, housing and education free at the point of access.
  • Encourage people to take multiple jobs.
  • Democratically plan the economy with powerful AI.
  • Automate as much as possible.

None of this is beyond our power to achieve. It just seems that way because we're not all pulling at the same time. A lot of that comes from our political system, where we choose people, rather than ideas, and then change our minds every five years, giving no-one the chance to achieve anything substantial. The Culture make decisions by civilisation-wide ballot. We can do that now, we have the Internet to prompt people with policy choices and let them decide on a daily basis. I'll add some points to cover this:

  • Make decisions by civilisation-wide ballot (direct democracy, via the internet).
  • Leave execution to the experts: An expanded civil service, with access to great technology, and the time to do it.
  • Plan and execute things over long timescales: Tens, hundreds and even thousands of years.

As you can see, there's a lot of handwaving here. This is very much a work in progress, and I'd really appreciate your input to come up with a fuller conception of how we could become more like The Culture.

Up next: No. 2: Genofixing, No.3: Freedom, and No. 4: Privacy.