Post-Keynesian Eschatology

Contrary to Niall Ferguson’s glib assertions, John Maynard Keynes in fact cared a great deal about the future, and in fact was one of the deepest thinkers on the implications of modern economics who has ever lived. His essay “The Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren” is still a sparkling read. In it, Keynes speculates that with the economic growth accumulated over future generations, humanity could at last be free of work and “the economic problem” of scarcity would be solved. At one point, he takes a swipe at greed:

the love of money as a possession — as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life — will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease

Will Wilkinson is not impressed with such sentiments:

First, Keynes is too myopic about the definition of “the long run”. That the living ever dwell at the frontier of time seems to encourage a fallacious sense that the hour is getting late… Friedrich Hegel and Francis Fukuyama spotted the end of history just ahead of them… Environmentalists tout a sort-of pagan eschatology… Yet, for all we know, this is the morning of humanity… Suppose that in 50 years a great breakthrough extends the average lifespan by hundreds of years. Our grandchildren will look upon the present age of so-called abundance as the end of the original human era, during which a terrible and absolute scarcity of time prevailed.

My second complaint is that Keynes’s assumption about the superiority of leisured pursuits is dogmatic rather than reasoned…it’s hard not to see his bias against commerce and consumption as a vestige of aristocratic ideology about the inherent degradation of market activity. The idealisation of bohemian artistic and intellectual life… [which] prevails still among artists and intellectuals, is a remarkably sturdy remnant of our feudal legacy… It seems simpler and less question-begging to say that we keep on working long hours and buying lots of stuff because, whatever the ultimate cause, we take less satisfaction in the occupations of non-commercial leisure.

Two points. First, while the apocalyptic defeatism of Paul Kingsnorth is indeed obnoxious, it is a terrible mistake to draw a straight line from religious millennialism to “environmentalist eschatology” and thereby imply that the grimmest predictions of climate hawks and the beliefs of UFO cults are similarly plausible. Take for example this paper looking at uncontrolled climate change on our current path extrapolated to 2300. It predicts that half the Earth’s currently inhabited surface will be uninhabitable—so hot during the day that people sitting in a windy shade wrapped in a wet towel would still die of heatstroke. (Needless to say, that would about wrap it up for human society in its current form.) That is highly speculative, yes, and no one can predict with any certainty the likelihood of that scenario coming to pass. But it is grounded in scientific measurements and science-based models. And furthermore, over 99 percent of all species in Earth’s history are estimated to have gone extinct. One cannot handwave past this kind of reasoning.

Second, Wilkinson supposes that even should we create some lifespan enhancer such that we all live to 300, we’ll probably all still want to work, though the reasons might remain mysterious. But so long as we’re talking speculative fiction, why not a development that allows people to control their desires directly?

First, let’s imagine the ultimate form of desire modification (or “d-mod” as I will sometimes refer to it). In this ultimate form, each person would have a computer in his or her brain that could change his or her desires, habits, beliefs, personality, and emotions in any conceivable way. Here are some thoughts about what that would imply for the human species:

1. Obviously, the technology would be incalculably dangerous. If the brain computers were hacked, people could be made into slaves, zombies, or worse. So the technology would only be adopted after extreme precautions had been taken and shown to be effective.

2. Such a technology would mean the instant end of economics as we know it. Utility theory assumes something called “local nonsatiation“, which means that people always want more of something. With d-mod, local nonsatiation goes right out the window, since you can instantly dial yourself to a “bliss point” where you are just perfectly satisfied and don’t want anything else. That’s the end of scarcity.

3. Just as personality upload makes FTL travel look a bit silly, d-mod makes personality upload look a little silly. Why bother creating new worlds when you can just like the world you’re in? Why “hack the world” when you can just “hack the human”?

4. When we can decide what we want, desire becomes less important than meta-desire. What do we want to want? And what do we want to want to want? Etc. D-mod is like putting the parameters of the utility function in the utility function itself. The result could be very chaotic if people keep changing and changing (because each new change induces a desire for another change). But most people are likely to end up in fixed-points or “cul-de-sacs”, where they want to want exactly what they currently want.

(Read on for more fascinating stuff, and a reading list should this pique your fancy.)

The point is that thinking about the future is hard, and getting more so with the increasingly complex connections between technology and humanity. Will we, like yeast, drown in our own excrement, or will we construct a socialist pleasure utopia? Or something else? Only one thing is certain—science fiction is where to find the most important questions of our time.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.