July 25, 2014

The Subsistence Trap

Technology has always been feared and revered at the same time. It has always been this dual destructive/liberating boogieman/hero that divides people. And with good reason. The way it eases human life can be addictive --sometimes pathologically so. But also disruptive (the word has been used --and abused-- ad-nauseam lately). We know what happens when new things disrupt the way we live our lives. Our conservatism bias (that miniature devil who sits on our shoulder and keeps us stuck at the same jobs for years and years) fights the heck out of it.

These days there's been a plethora of analyses about the way technology will reshape jobs around the world. The topic is ripe with speculation. Will it create an army of destitute willing to wage revolutions to fight to get their stolen livelihoods back? Will it save us from the planet's resource depletion? Will it allow for people to adapt and learn new skills to complement the technologies that will automatize (i.e. render redundant) their erstwhile cozy 9-to-5 jobs?

The debate on disruptive technologies has naturally gravitated to a lonely (but important) island of capitalism in the middle of a sea of anti-capitalist folks: Sillicon Valley. Its critics charge that the current tech bubble is narrow-minded, and only focuses on the things that affect the same 20-somethings who are building those start-ups. They have a good point. Solving the world's real problems --like Gate's new toilet or bringing clean water to Africa-- should take precedent to spending energy, money, and time on an app that does nothing more than send the text Yo (notwithstanding how pretentiously cool it sounds). Unfortunately, it doesn't. Why?

The argument of technology allowing us a better standard of life is strong. After all, it is technology which has historically allowed us to reduce the average workweek since the dawn of the industrial revolution: from 64 hours in 1850, to 53 in 1900, to 42 nowadays. We should assume that our liberation from the concerns of subsistence (at least in the developed world) should allow us to devote energy in really important matters --purposeful matters. Keynes certainly thought so in 1930. Larry Page nowadays recognizes the conundrum: What do we do with the extra time we get from increased productivity? We spend it overworking, overstressing, and inherently unhappy about our own choices.

Alas, we are irrational animals. We certifiably prefer electric shocks (which we will happily self-administer) over being left alone in silence with our own thoughts. Even the brightest minds fall pray of the reputational-egotism trap and hoard insane amounts of money as a signalling mechanism to perpetuate their own perception of prestige, instead of using those resources to do more meaningful things --as Keynes mused we would do in 1930.

In a system where the allocation of resources is driven by profitability (and capital is invested only in what is profitable) consumption --and our immediate desires-- rule. Even if that consumption only lasts 7 seconds. Money will chase that consumption as long as our desire to consume is there.

Keynes envisioned a world in which our ├╝ber-efficient productivity would relieve us from the excrutiating burden of subsistence. He thought a time would come when we would have purpose; when we would transcend our basic, primal desires. Eighty-four years after his essay, we have become orders of magnitude more productive, but we have not moved on from our subsistence, consuming selves. Breaking this means dismantling deeply ingrained thought processes --it means conquering our perpetual wanting need.

But let's not fret about not being there yet. Keynes gave us one hundred years in 1930. We still have sixteen to get there.