A Dystopian Future Is Not Inevitable

As the unemployment crises of developed nations persist, there’s a growing sentiment that technology is to blame. It’s not just a neo-Luddite backlash against progress, but a fear amongst tech proponents that the bleak predictions of cyberpunk fiction may be coming true. They don’t have to.

It’s debatable how much technological progress is to blame for the current unemployment crisis, but it certainly will be a central issue eventually. Software engineer Jon Evans sums up the problem quite nicely:

America, Europe, and Japan all seem to be lurching from crisis to crisis without respite; most of the developed world is struggling with debilitating levels of unemployment; but at the same time, the tech world is booming like it’s 1999. Doesn’t that seem kind of weird?

It’s beginning to look like we might have entered a two-track economy, in which a small minority reaps most of the benefits of technology that destroys more jobs than it creates. As my friend Simon Law says, “First we automated menial jobs, now we’re automating middle-class jobs. Unfortunately, we still demand that people have a job soon after becoming adults. This trend is going to be a big problem…”

This problem, of course, is income inequality. In this plausible future (again, machine elimination of jobs is hardly the complete explanation for today’s crisis), the people employed to design and maintain automated systems would be the only ones with particularly well-paying (or essential) jobs. But there are seven billion people in the world, and it’d be hard to argue that there would be seven billion such jobs available. Those not fortunate enough to land one of the few crucial engineering positions would be left to do whatever menial work hadn’t yet been automated.

What a shame. After all, isn’t the entire point of developing technology to make things easier for human beings? In fact, as Capitalism++ argues, “Unemployment often creates the greatest breakthroughs in human history. We should not be striving for full employment, we should be striving for full unemployment.[Emphasis original] Unemployment offers a lot of free time which, at the least, can be put towards leisure, and at best, can be channeled into creativity and realization of ideas. So what a shame that technology seems poised not to free billions of people from work, but to cut off or drastically reduce their means of supporting themselves.

Such horrible levels of inequality are an injustice; people on a mass scale forced to struggle to survive, all because they weren’t fortunate enough to snag one of the few top jobs. Even in a perfect and fair meritocracy, where all of the winners truly were the most qualified, the losers would hardly deserve their fate.

Surely, though, no one would stand for this. The disenfranchised would rise up and fight for their dignity, wouldn’t they? Jon Evans isn’t so sure:

It’s even been suggested that inequality may cause unrest and violence in the Western world. Don’t bet on it. True, inequality has provoked the Occupy movement, and to a lesser extent the Tea Party; but I’ve been around the block a few times, and take it from me, the world is full of nations with a tiny minority of the very rich, a slightly larger well-off elite, a small middle class, and a great majority who are various degrees of poor and struggling. Brazil, China, India and Russia, for instance, to name a famous foursome. There’s nothing unusual or inherently unstable about that kind of inequality. In fact, in most of the world, it’s the norm.

Perhaps inequality isn’t inherently unstable. Maybe a mass uprising and fight for justice isn’t inevitable. Then again, as Evans’ comment about the Occupy and Tea Party movements earlier in the paragraph attests to, inequality isn’t inherently stable either, and a mass uprising isn’t impossible. The bleak, unequal, cyberpunk-esque dystopia that Evans believes may be approaching is only one possible future, and it depends on us doing nothing to stop it.

Let’s not forget that labor-saving is far from the only thing that technology does. For example, manufacturing robots eliminate the need for human factory workers; they can also eliminate the need for factories. File-sharing and the Internet have worked to disrupt and threaten to collapse the entertainment industry, while simultaneously obsoleting it by empowering independent creative people to finance, promote, and distribute their work through peer-to-peer channels. Automated farming and hydroponic technology has put farm laborers out of work, but also opened up the possibility of low-maintenance indoor farms in every town and city. These are only a few examples of how for every swath of jobs destroyed by technological process, a whole new range of possibilities are opened up.

In this future, where most menial labor is automated, billions of people have no workplace to go to and be told what to do all day. They also have the tools to manufacture anything that they can model on a computer, release any artwork they can create to the world at large, and grow food right in their own communities. Suddenly, the playing field seems a lot more level. Instead of finding jobs, people can create their own.

Technological progress may very well create a future in which employers have less things that need to make people do. Good. It’s about time that the paradigm of supporting yourself by finding somebody to tell you what to do fell out of favor. But we need to ensure that once there are no more jobs to find, we all have the necessary tools and resources available to us to create our own jobs. We need to shift our society and our way of life towards this goal, and challenge the common notion that job-creation and entrepreneurship is only for a small minority of crazy, passionate, or rich people. It’s achievable, it’s doable, but it won’t happen all by itself.

A better world is possible, but it’s no more inevitable than a worse one. Making it happen is the first job we need to create for ourselves.


  1. DavidXanatos

    The solution is a Unconditional Basic Income for all humans.

    1. Anonymous

      Hey Mao’s China did that already.

      1. DavidXanatos

        Unconditional Basic Income is by far not the same a Comunism,

        Comunism attempts to make all people equal and to prohibit anyone form having better live than the rest.

        A Unconditional Basic Income, however does not pose such limitations, in a Unconditional Basic Income society you still can have bills gates and ruperts murdocs and all this other rich guys.

        A communism is a limitation for people in booth directions, no way up but no fall down.

        Unconditional Basic Income provides only half that functionality by preventing people form taking the way down.

        It guaranties any human a decent but not luxurious lifestyle.
        Anyone who wants more is free to get a job and earn additional money.

  2. Nobodyspecial

    I agree that a better world is possible but I feel that it won’t come to pass because there are far too many powerful companies and organizations with a vested interest in the destruction of the middle class and the erosion of personal freedoms to help line their pockets and cement their positions of influence during this crisis that they themselves have created. The really sad thing is that more than half of America thinks that this is a /Good/ thing and by the time they realize its not it may be take years to undo the damage.

  3. buglord

    communism, the essential spirit of sharing, no leaders allowed… to be honest, no leader is allowed in democracy either, because EVERYONE has to vote with equal power. the word leader implies he IS the power.

    too bad humans do not manage to use communism or democracy, they’d both be viable ways to resolve all of this.

    on where you vote on what is done, if the basic needs are covered by the collective, and one where all is shared, work, products, innovation.

    personally, I preffer communism, the work is shared, knowladge is shared, power is shared, the only reason to innovate would be so they could be more lazy, improve their lives and make something of themselves.

    or take a look at nature for true development, the weak, old, sick and other unwanted are cast away, killed or eaten, making only those who can survive, survive, the stupid fall into the traps of the smarter, the weak cannot outrun the strong, it gives a certain ballance of progress, at one point it lead to the dinos, some of which where small, fast and hard to get, others which were big and strong which could just fight back, there is no system, nothing to prevent one from being better than another except themselves.

  4. Anonymus

    “the world is full of nations with a tiny minority of the very rich, a slightly larger well-off elite, a small middle class, and a great majority who are various degrees of poor and struggling.”

    I don’t think so. The poverty in these countries is caused by scarcity. You can’t expect that poverty caused by overabudance will be equally stable.

    1. hkjonus

      “The poverty in these countries is caused by scarcity.”

      Scarcity of what? Certainly not scarce of labor. Natural resources? Hmmm well look at countries that are loaded with excess oil. Almost all of them have a large under class. Look no further than Venezuela, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. In the end whats lacking is productivity.

  5. extro24

    Technology makes it possible to extract the resources of a country without having to use the rest of the population. The elites then trade with each other to get what they want.
    Like you say, this has always happened in many other countries. It is now starting to happen in the US as well.
    How are you going to grow your own food when you are homeless? Or cramped in a small flat? The elites have long ago monopolized the means of production. Beggars competing as entrepreneurs? Dream on.
    The ideas of Thatcherism and Reaganomics were fantasies. Capitalism and technology leads to extreme poverty for the underclass.
    A basic Citizen Grant would solve the problem. And the country belongs to the people, so they have such a right. But the elites are too selfish or delusional to allow it.
    They will blame the poor for their own poverty.

    1. Zacqary Adam Green

      Don’t forget, though, that political activism and revolution are also entrepreneurial efforts. Technology has made these things easier as well.

      That’s part of the reason the Pirate Parties exist — because technology absolutely has the potential to empower everyone, and not just a few elites, if only we’d apply it sensibly.

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