Letting technology take more care of us will give us better lives. That’s the thesis of “technological socialism” proposed by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis.
Despite Bernie Sanders, it is still interesting to see the term “socialism” used with a positive intent in the US.
There are two main questions here:
- are technologies and their applications making things free?; and
- is ceding more control to technologies going to result in “better” lives?
Too cheap to meter?
Diamandis suggests that technologies are helping “demonetize” living. By this he means dramatically reducing costs over a range of goods and services – housing, transportation, food, health care, entertainment, clothing, education – making it virtually costless to meet our basic needs.
This sounds a lot like the “too cheap to meter” claim for nuclear power in the 1950s .
That’s borne out by some of the figures and comparisons that he uses. Rather than a dispassionate analysis, his argument comes across as boosterism and technological determinism. Both common “-isms” in Silicon Valley.
He suggests that if you own a smartphone then you have free access to tools (cameras, GPS, watches, music, games, information) that collectively would have cost nearly US$1 million several decades ago, when they first came out.
It’s true that we get a lot of useful gadgets and widgets in a smartphone, and often that means we don’t need to buy them as well (though some do). But the million dollar figure is misleading.
He is right to point out that we generally overlook the value of things when they are cheap or free. But we aren’t walking around with phones containing a million bucks worth of stuff. His example just illustrates that particular inventions or products generally get cheaper over time, which isn’t a new insight.
Just add more tech
Diamandis contends that access to information, data and research is fully “demonetized” now, thanks to the internet. However, just because something is available doesn’t mean that it is good or useful. We haven’t stopped going to the doctor even though we can look up health information online. And often we lack the time or skills or inclination, so there remains a thriving market for paying others to undertake research, analyse and compile information to meet our needs.
Another fallacy is the assumption that scientific and technological advances inevitably leads to plummeting prices.
Diamandis would probably contend that the graph below, from the American Enterprise Institute, confirms his thesis. Manufactured goods (techy stuff) gets cheaper, so we just need to add more tech to education, housing and healthcare to bring them into line too.
Data from New Zealand (albeit with a shorter time series) shows a similar pattern, except our education and healthcare price rises aren’t as dramatic.
However, competition, trade, and the degree to which consumers are insulated from the full costs of goods and services are also important influences.
We see this in the prices of certain medicines – what we, or our healthcare provider, pay can have little to do with how much they cost to produce.
Sure, you can do an online course from MIT, and cheaper access to better courses will help many less well off students. But many universities don’t want to become degree mills, eliteness has tangible value. What will it really cost you to be certified a real graduate from a prestigious (or pretentious) university? The online learning experience may in cases be good, but there are tangiblee and intangible benefits from actually being at a hallowed (or even not so hallowed) place of learning. And, if we pay more will we appreciate it more too? Like many in start-up land, Diamandis seems to assume efficiency is the key metric, discounting other factors.
A technological socialist assumes that things like autonomous cars and virtual working will set us free. We could live where we wanted, so housing would be cheaper (particularly if you could print your dwelling too). But is spending an hour or more in a small autonomous car commuting to work any better, or that much more productive, than doing so by train or ferry (an option that already exists for many)? Factors other than work often influence where we choose to live, which aren’t factored into Diamandis’ vision.
Is it socialism?
In line with many, Diamandis agrees that technologies generally improve lives. That’s not a socialist position.
Socialism is about having the means of production, distribution, and exchange owned or regulated by the community as a whole. In the political spectrum it lies between liberalism and communism:
Diamandis’ view of technological socialism seems exceedingly narrow, based largely around cost – “Make it cheaper and they will come”. He argues that low costs will lead to technologies playing a greater role in managing our lives than governments, or even ourselves. And assumes control will lie with the individual or community. Essentially his idea is about cost efficiency not socialism.
That’s a position I have my doubts about, and he doesn’t do a good job of demonstrating it. Much of the tech world is being built on algorithms designed by someone, or something, else. These have acknowledged or unacknowledged biases in them, which can obscure how much choice is really available. More than nominally ceding control to the masses would also require a substantial change in the ambitions and behaviours of the main technology companies, and government’s too.
Some will welcome an age where “Technology will begin to take care of us”, with the assumption that the people will have real choice. Would they find “Corporations will begin to take care of us” an equally appealing prospect?
There can be a very fine line between technocracies and autocracies, and The Economist has noted that technocratic societies have generally only worked well for short periods and under particular circumstances.
Efficiency, in certain circumstances, is appealing to many. But for most of us it isn’t the ultimate objective or outcome. Other values eat efficiency for breakfast.
A technology-assisted life doesn’t need to be optimized for efficiency. As a discussion on Kim Hill’s National Radio programme about Lyon as a smart city mentioned, a well configured system can enable you to choose transport routes that prioritise things other than travel time.
So there is validity in thinking that technologies help us. But it is only with people being involved in designing and configuring the technologies and applications, and allowing transparency and democratic decision making, that we will avoid becoming automatons ourselves.
Featured image: Sourced from Robot Science Fiction Magazine.