Books, Essays

Looking at the FOUR FUTURES of Earth

Have you ever read a fan theory?

I’ve had the misfortune of reading (and having written) plenty. With geek franchises dominating the global cinema scene, fansites regularly run stories about the latest theories to get more than three upvotes on Reddit, banking on humanity’s seemingly endless yearning for understanding the future of what they care about.

Typically, most fan theories are terrible because the prediction rests on what they want to see and what is theoretically possible, rather than what is likely to happen. Let’s take Star Wars. In the run-up to The Force Awakens, the most common plot predictions involved the peaceful New Republic, run by Luke, Leia, Han and the rest of the gang, threatened by ancient Sith (or something to that tune). I was a lone voice on the forums arguing that the sequel would probably not have the New Republic and the old gang would no doubt have long gone their separate ways: Han and Leia would be estranged and Luke would be a hermit. This is because, if our heroes are happily running the show, there’s little dramatic imperative (which the Prequels suffered from), whereas beginning from a low point allows for conflict and drama. Plus, in the span of thirty years, it’s highly improbable that Han Solo wouldn’t have pissed off Leia in some way.

Basically, what I’m getting at is the art of making good predictions is in assessing the present and working out what is likely based on human behaviour, particularly the behaviour of those within the scenario. Peter Frase’s Four Futures is refreshing because it does this. Each of the possible futures feels fairly realistic, arrived at through empirical reasoning; it sits in the genre of “social science fiction,” Frase says.

Communism. Rentism. Socialism. Exterminism. All four futures feel possible. Which will be ours?

Frase’s prose emits logic and sensibility, prompting mostly-unwavering trust in the work. In order to outline his vision, the core tenets are deconstructed to their core. A criticism of automation and universal basic income is that work gives humans purpose, for example, but Frase notes how the movement from employment to unemployment generates significantly more unhappiness than the transition from employment to retirement. Perhaps, therefore, the purpose is socially constructed, and if this is the case, what social construction of meaning would fit best for a post-work future?

This doesn’t mean everything feels spot-on. In the chapter on Communism, Frase questions why jobs which necessitate human connections (care workers) cannot be fulfilled by a robot since we’re perfectly capable of forming connections with animals, which are similarly non-human. I can’t completely buy this, because a robot and a dog aren’t comparable: one is constructed with no free will, the other is a living being free to run and jump however it pleases.

What Frase does best, though, is identifying the role of social hierarchies in any potential future – patriarchy, racism, class, and so forth. The big mistake of many futurists is that, as technology improves and as the organisation of society transforms, those hierarchies will also disappear. Or, worse, the thinkers don’t even consider them to begin with. Just because capitalism will eventually disappear doesn’t mean the boss-worker power dynamic will disappear too, since that dynamic derives from the satisfaction of having power over somebody, not from the existence of capitalism. A world of automation, then, would probably be one of rentism, for it’s not enough just to own the robots – you have to own the code that gets the robot to do its job, too. This would transform the world into one where a small elite license the intellectual property of automation to the masses, who are mostly unemployed as a result of all this automation, meaning only a minority are able to seize the fruits of automated labour.

Dabbling further in the realm of social constructs, the final chapter, Exterminism, is, as you can no doubt surmise, the most depressing. Simply, if automation renders human labour superfluous, why not just kill the poor? It’s easy to forget how the notions that everyone has the right to work and to freedom and that government should allow freedom of opportunity are things we made up to make life more bearable. It’s entirely possible that, one day, enough people with enough power will stop believing in those notions and rid themselves of all these poor people who need money.

Of course, this may not be sustainable; income disparities would exist amongst the ‘rich’ and generate further conflict. But it’s equally not entirely unrealistic, given the extent to which states have used their powers of coercion and aggression throughout history, and continue to do so (Frase uses the example of how, back in the day, the sight of SWAT teams and tanks on American streets was a rarity yet is now commonplace). Cheery, right?

At a breezy 150 pages, Four Futures is a good read, worthwhile for anybody interested/concerned with the future of work and society. While Frase’s futures may not come to pass, I’d wager they’re significantly likelier to than many of the other visions put forth by today’s thinkers.

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