Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Universal Basic Income and a new Economics of Abundance -- "When looms weave by themselves, man's slavery will end"

Universal Basic Income (UBI) has become a hot topic, as noted in a recent NY Times article by Farhad Manjoo.  Confronting the rise of automation and robots, even libertarians and conservatives are warming to the idea of a universal income provided by the government, and some prominent technology VCs have become very interested. What we face is a new economics of abundance, and it will have many pervasive ramifications we can only dimly foresee -- some sooner than we may think.

The roots of this idea go back as far as Aristotle: “When looms weave by them­selves, man's slavery will end.” I read this quote in a 1964 NY Times article on automation, and it helped set the path of my "user-centered" career in technology. I wrote a high school essay taking off on it, extrapolating how it enabled utopias that blended Bellamy's "Looking Backward" and Wells' "Men Like Gods." Of course that was over 50 years ago, and my youthful utopian views were less seasoned with experience and pragmatism, but the core idea I expressed then still stands up:
...This raises the question whether the product of human labor is necessarily limited. The answer is that it most certainly is not. In this century a messiah has arisen -- perhaps Messiac* might be a better name for this role of automation. As Aristotle said, "when looms weave by themselves man' s slavery will end." The looms are now beginning to weave.
...One can easily conceive a giant automated complex, call it Messiac, that can produce nearly unlimited quantities of goods with only the labor of a few operators and repairmen. Similarly, farms can be improved greatly in efficiency by automation and eventually synthetic, mass-producable foods will be developed. Messiac could thus provide all with everything they needed or desired. It would not only eliminate poverty, but also remove all cause for stealing -- it is easier to push a few buttons for something than to steal it. Any individual who did not want to would not even need to work. The necessary labor would be of sufficient interest and lightness that volunteers could handle it. This remaining work would be of a professional nature and as such would have a high degree of interest... Messiac is thus an economic system that is far more utopian than that of the best traditional utopia.
It is timely that UBI is getting attention just as I have embarked on a much narrower and more immediate quest to develop a step toward that economics of abundance, based on some more sophisticated economics. While we undertake the long conversation about UBI, and the first baby steps on this road, there is a little-recognized opportunity for a related change in that direction.

Digital content and services already weave by themselves -- in the sense that they can be infinitely replicated at almost no cost. This has already caused great turmoil in the content industries -- journalism and music have been in crisis, and TV/video is not far behind. Content can be free, but who will work to create it, and how will they be compensated?

In my other blog, I suggest that the answer is in FairPay, a radically new strategy for pricing that adaptively seeks win-win compensation for creating products and services. Since there is no scarcity with digital, there is no invisible hand to allocate scarcity. Instead we need an invisible handshake, an agreement to set prices fairly to sustain creators, based on allocating "share of wallet" (whether hard-earned dollars, or UBI allowances).  FairPay suggests a simple, pragmatic mechanism for balancing power between consumers and creators/producers to agree on an equitable share of wallet.

Check it out. I suggest FairPay will shed light on how we will live soon, and even more so in a future world where all the looms weave by themselves.

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*That was the era where computers had names like UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer), ENIAC, and EDSAC.

1 comment:

Giorgio said...

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