Four Futures: Life After Capitalism review – will robots bring utopia or terror?

Those who live in less vulnerable latitudes, or who can afford to insulate themselves from extreme heat and weather, will fare much better than the poorer residents of Dhaka or Miami or the Maldives.

Powered by article titled “Four Futures: Life After Capitalism review – will robots bring utopia or terror?” was written by Ben Tarnoff, for The Guardian on Thursday 24th November 2016 07.00 UTC

The idea that computers will soon steal our jobs is an article of faith among many of the world’s most powerful people. The argument goes like this: breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence will make it possible to automate various kinds of labour. Self-driving cars will replace taxi and truck drivers; software will replace lawyers and accountants. We’ll end up with a world where machines do almost all of the work.

Over the last few years, a growing chorus of pundits, academics and executives have made this scenario seem inevitable – and imminent. There are many reasons to be sceptical of their claims. But even if you accept the argument that mass automation is around the corner, you might find yourself wondering what a post-work future would look like. Would it be a heaven or a hell, or somewhere in between?

Peter Frase gives four answers to this question in Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. He offers two heavens and two hells: two ways that automation might facilitate a flourishing of human life, and two ways that it might maximise human misery. In all of these potential futures, automation is the constant; what changes is the political and ecological context – in other words, who owns the robots and how climate change affects the resources on which technology depends.

Frase’s approach stands in stark contrast to other practitioners of the genre. Many mainstream futurists predict that automation will mean lives of leisure for all, as we’re liberated from our day jobs to become artists or artisans or lotus-eaters. Perhaps, Frase responds, but technology doesn’t dictate outcomes. Rather, it sets the parameters of possibility. Utopia is an option, but the robots alone won’t get us there. That’s because the distinctly dystopian features of our present – a small number of people control most of the wealth, and global warming is heating portions of the planet past habitable levels – won’t simply disappear with automation. The day after the robots arrive, Frase points out, capitalist class relations and a collapsing biosphere will still be with us.

This might seem obvious, but it’s infuriatingly absent from much forecasting. Frase injects a sorely needed dose of reality to the conversation, and the result is invigorating. In the tradition of the finest science fiction, his futures feel plausible because they’re intensified versions of our present. They’re not narrowly predictive, but roaming, impressionistic – “social science fiction”, he calls it, a mode of speculative analysis that reads like Philip K Dick ventriloquising Marx.

The first of the book’s four futures is “communism”, a word that Frase restores to its original meaning. For Marx, communism meant not an authoritarian one-party state but the idyll that awaits us after a long period of social and technological transformation. A communist society is so productive and so egalitarian that nobody has to work to survive, fulfilling Marx’s famous dictum, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. For Frase, this ideal might be realised by robots running on an unlimited clean energy source, providing the material basis for a post-work, post‑scarcity and post-carbon world.

Just because the technical preconditions for such a world exist doesn’t mean it’ll magically materialise, however. This is the central argument of Frase’s book: building the future we want is ultimately a matter of politics, not technology. As he points out, economic elites will surely want to preserve their privileges even if a system of wage labour is “totally superfluous” for production. “Having power over others is, for many powerful people, its own reward,” he writes. And if these people manage to retain their dominance in a fully automated economy, then we get “rentism” – Frase’s second future.

Rentism is where abundance exists, but “the techniques to produce abundance are monopolised by a small elite”. This monopoly is maintained by owning not merely the robots, but the data that tells the robots how to do their job. A world where you can automate everything is a world where you can encode any task as information. You might have a very sophisticated robot, but you’ll still need to give the robot software that explains how to make pancakes or plunge your toilet. This software can be copyrighted as intellectual property, so that whenever you need your toilet plunged, you have to pay a fee.

Matt Grigsby, senior program engineer at Uber startup Otto, takes his hands off the wheel of a self-driving truck.
Matt Grigsby, senior program engineer at Uber startup Otto, takes his hands off the wheel of a self-driving truck. Photograph: Tony Avelar/AP

That means you’ll also need a job. The only problem is that there aren’t enough jobs, because all the socially useful work is done by machines. That leaves the labour required to sustain the ruling regime: you could be one of the lucky few who gets to write the software, or an intellectual property lawyer who protects it from infringement, or a cop who disciplines the large numbers of desperate people who are too poor to pay for it. But mostly, rentism will be prone to underemployment and stagnation, because the economy requires consumers and the jobless masses can’t afford to consume.

As unpleasant as it sounds, rentism still contains a kernel of utopia, because it presupposes a form of abundant clean energy. But what if that miraculous energy source never arrives? What if there’s no escape from scarcity or the ecological horrors of climate change?

Climate change is often framed as a crisis for the human race as a whole. But as Frase explains, this apocalyptic rhetoric obscures the essential fact that climate change affects different groups of people differently. Those who live in less vulnerable latitudes, or who can afford to insulate themselves from extreme heat and weather, will fare much better than the poorer residents of Dhaka or Miami or the Maldives. The question isn’t whether human civilisation will survive – it almost certainly will – but “who will survive the change”.

If we find a way to survive it in “some reasonably egalitarian way”, our society might resemble “socialism”, Frase’s third future. In socialism, there are no shortcuts. Automation exists, but the breakthrough that creates a cornucopia of carbonless energy doesn’t. This means we have to cool the climate the old-fashioned way, through a massive, state-led campaign to radically remake our infrastructure, our landscape and our patterns of consumption. Frase offers some thoughtful proposals on how to organise such an undertaking fairly and efficiently, through mechanisms such as a universal basic income, paired with market planning. But one can’t help feeling that this future, while decent and democratic, sounds rather boring when compared with its communist cousin.

There are far worse things than boredom, however. Frase’s fourth and final future, “exterminism”, is truly terrifying. Exterminism has the robots and scarcity of socialism, minus the egalitarianism. The result is a neo-feudal nightmare: the rich retreat to heavily fortified enclaves where the robots do all the work, and everyone else is trapped outside in the hot, soggy hell of a rapidly warming planet. “The great danger posed by the automation of production, in the context of a world of hierarchy and scarce resources,” Frase says, “is that it makes the great mass of people superfluous from the standpoint of the ruling elite.” The elite can always warehouse this surplus humanity in prisons and refugee camps. But at a certain point, the rich might find it more convenient to simply exterminate the poor altogether, now that they’re no longer needed as workers.

It is a testament both to Frase’s ability as a writer and the barbarism of our present moment that exterminism feels like the most realistic of his futures. I lost sleep over it. Yet he is careful to counsel his readers against despair. “The ruling class tells us that the future is inevitably bright; left-leaning curmudgeons reassure themselves that the future is inevitably gloomy,” he writes. But the future is neither bright nor gloomy: it’s what we make of it. Between the temptations of nihilism and utopianism lies politics, with its rhythms of long, slow struggle punctuated by the occasional social explosion. It may not provide the thrill of pretending to know the future, but it’s the only force capable of creating a world we might want to live in.

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