Fill Your Boots: my column on how technology could let us work like artisans and live like kings

My latest Locus column is "Fill Your Boots," in which I talk about how scientists, sf writers, economists and environmental activists have wrestled with the question of abundance -- how the "green left" transformed left wing politics from the promise of every peasant living like a lord to the promise of every lord living like a peasant.

One thing everyone can agree on is that market competition and technology has made material abundance a lot less material: the labor, energy, and resources in a car, a house, or a shirt are a mere fraction of what they were a couple of generations ago, and continue to fall with no end in sight. Another point of commonality is that computers make it easier to coordinate your work with other people, whether that's Github providing the scaffold for building out an open source project or Slack giving people scattered all over the world the power to plan a product launch or a birthday party.

The combination of reduced material inputs to goods and cheap coordination presents us with the possibility of a new, better kind of abundance: a world where we leave behind the demands of the assembly line and the anxiety of whether the light-switch will always turn on the lights, for one where we treat sunny days a jubilees, when we can use as much unbankable and infinite solar energy as we want, leaving the doors open and the air conditioners running. It's the best of both worlds, freeing work from the tyranny of other peoples' schedules without giving up the fantastic comforts of material abundance.

The limits to labor/energy/material efficiency are speculative. We don’t know what the hard limits are on how little material can go into a car, how little fuel can propel an airplane, or how much of the labor embodied in your house could be performed by robots.

We don’t need to speculate to understand how sweet our lives could be if they were re-tuned to the rhythms of the natural world, if every time the sun shone we stopped having to worry about closing the door, if every time it rained we stopped worrying about whether the toilet really needs flushing, or whether it can mellow for one more yellow.

My next novel, Walkaway, includes an entire subculture called ‘‘the bumblers.’’ These are the survivors of a speculative investment bubble in zeppelins, a global phenomenon that left millions around the world with the knowledge and capacity to build airships, and networks of friends, fellow travellers, and potential couch-surfing hosts all over the world. These sky-hobos go aloft in their minimally steerable zeppelins and literally go wherever the wind blows them, knowing that they will almost certainly meet someone interesting, wherever the zeppelin happens to take them. It’s not jet travel. You can’t decide where you’re going. But if you don’t care where you end up – because all you want is to get somewhere – then bumbling is superior to conventional aviation on every metric.

Here is where the green left and the bright green left can meet: using bright green, high tech coordina­tion tools, we can restore the pastoral green, artisanal autonomy that privileges mindful play over mindless work. The motto of Magpie Killjoy’s Steampunk zine was ‘‘love the machine, hate the factory.’’ Love the dividends of coordinated labor, hate the loss of freedom we suffer when we have to coordinate with others. Have your cake and eat it too.

The Jubilee: Fill Your Boots [Cory Doctorow/Locus Magazine]

Notable Replies

  1. Another interesting column, Cory. It's nice to see some optimistic takes on the future because I myself have such a difficult time imagining things turning out okay.

  2. Nicely written, Cory.

    I love the enthusiasm, the positive energy of techno-cornucopianism.

    I don't like the way pieces like this one rely so heavily on demonization of a "green left" which (as far as I can tell) does not even exist.

    If we accept that technological capability will increase endlessly and infinitely, and that new sources of energy will always be available at ever-decreasing cost, and that these new energy sources will not in and of themselves destroy the environment that makes human happiness possible (all of which I am willing to accept, at least for the sake of intellectual exploration) the barriers to achieving a eudaimonic, post-scarcity civilization are embedded in current human cultural norms that environmentalists do not endorse and certainly are not responsible for.

    Events like "Brexit" and the disempowering of humanist politicians like Denis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders aren't caused by a nefarious, obstructionist "green left" - they are caused by our culture of divisiveness that permits exploitation of the many by the few, the socialization of risk and privatization of profit, externalization of costs by corporate malefactors, and all the other very real political and economic demons of our time.

    The constant barrage of othering propaganda that has become the mainstream of our culture is the factor most likely to prevent the "bright green" dream. And the only problem I see with this otherwise insightful column is that it wholeheartedly engages in exactly that sort of othering; it offers up and endorses a division of futurism into warring factions of shiny cyborg techno-cornucopianists and hair-shirted downwardly mobile hippies. It divides where unity is not just desirable but necessary.

  3. I don't have any problem with the second half of that.

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