by William Ophuls
Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved. Max Weber(1)
Tracing the history of the human race over the past 15,000 years, historian Ian Morris concludes that humanity faces a stark choice between “Singularity” or “Nightfall”—that is, between total technological mastery or utter apocalyptic ruin.(2) In short, between utopia or oblivion, as anticipated half a century ago by Buckminster Fuller.(3)
The path to oblivion is well marked. If a sufficiently large asteroid hits the earth, a remote possibility in the short term, the human race will go the way of the dinosaurs in a mass extinction event. If madmen in charge of nations decide to launch thermonuclear war, unfortunately not such a remote possibility, a nuclear winter could accomplish roughly the same end. And if current ecological trends are allowed to run their course, a lethal cocktail of pollution, disease, depletion, degradation, and destruction accompanied by economic collapse, social turmoil, and political violence will produce almost the same outcome.
This third path to oblivion is unfortunately not a remote possibility, because humankind has already overshot the carrying capacity of the planet and has so far mostly failed to come to grips with the ecological challenge. It has instead chosen denial or temporizing measures that only postpone the day of reckoning, a grudging response that will burden posterity with a legacy of insuperable problems.
So is salvation to be found in the Singularity touted by Ray Kurzweil and others?(4) Briefly stated, the Singularity denotes an accelerated perfection of artificial intelligence fostering a runway advance in technology that culminates in the emergence of a “superintelligence” far surpassing human intellectual capacities.(5) In effect, a giant computer would run the world and solve its problems better than squabbling, short- sighted human beings.
But is this vision of technological perfection achievable in practice given the constraints of physical laws and biological realities—for example the Laws of Thermodynamics and the Law of the Minimum? Or is it just the ultimate hubris of technological man, to be swiftly followed by the ultimate nemesis? More important, would it constitute a genuine utopia?
If we assume that the Singularity is indeed feasible, carbon-based human beings would become parasites on what would be tantamount to a silicon-based life form, and it is not clear that a digital overlord would suffer us to live as such. It seems at least possible that it would regard us as vermin to be exterminated as expeditiously as possible. But for the sake of argument, let us assume that the Singularity works perfectly and that it actively supports our existence by definitively solving what John Maynard Keynes called the “economic problem.”(6)
Seventy years before Kurzweil, Keynes foresaw technological advances and economic growth such that by 2030 we would exit “the tunnel of economic necessity” and attain a state of abundance allowing us to become ladies and gentlemen of leisure. We shall, said Keynes, be able to abandon the “foul” values and means of economic man and instead “honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.”
There are two problems with Keynes’s vision. First, we have attained a level of material abundance approximately double the eight-fold increase posited by him as more than sufficient for economic nirvana. Yet we have by no means exited the tunnel of necessity, because economic growth seems inevitably to produce more mouths, more wants, and, above all, more complexity. So the tunnel continuously extends itself before us. In fact, thanks to diminishing returns and an inexorable increase in the cost of complexity, we find ourselves running harder to stay in the same place.(7)Thus growth is a flawed and self-defeating strategy for achieving economic nirvana.8
The second concern was anticipated by Keynes: “If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose.” And this was no small matter: “I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.” Only the uncommon few “who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself . . . will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.” Hence
there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.
To drive home his point, Keynes noted that the existing leisure class of his time had “failed disastrously” to solve the problem of leisure: “To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing!”
Making all due allowance for an element of condescension in Keynes’s judgment, experience has shown that he was right to be concerned. Conspicuous consumption among the super wealthy has reached new heights—mega yachts approaching the size of destroyers— that would surely deepen his depression. And the “ordinary person” without special talents or deep roots has also largely fulfilled his worst fears. Merely having a roof over one’s head, food on the table, and some spending money is not enough. As the proverb has it, the devil finds work for idle hands. “Liberated” from responsibility, career, meaning, and (5) purpose, a significant minority in industrial societies has already lapsed into deviance, addiction, and violence. People who spend generation after generation on the dole in urban ghettos and rural slums or indigenous peoples huddling in reservations deprived of their traditional life do not typically become philosophers, artists, or model citizens. They take to drink or some other means of dulling the pain of existence without a meaningful life. So we are richer than Keynes thought necessary but nowhere nearer economic or social nirvana. To the contrary, dysfunction— manifested as crime, addiction, suicide, and the like—has only increased since his time, with consequences that have begun to impact politics.
The solution to the “economic problem” is not economic, it is social and political. Simply continuing to stoke the furnace of human greed is a dead end. We need a radically different, post-Hobbesian conception of the good life, one in which politics is grounded on some higher value, some standard of virtue more elevated than the satisfaction of desire. As noted in a previous essay, Thomas Hobbes became the author of modern political economy by abandoning virtue as the purpose of politics and making economic development into the end of government.(9) What is now required is a more spiritual end.
In practical terms, we must somehow rediscover how to be content with little, like our stone-age ancestors. Of course, the conditions that allowed humanity to experience what anthropologist James Suzman calls “affluence without abundance” can never be recreated, nor would we want to.(10) But the “Zen road” taken by hunter-gatherers to the “primitive affluence” of the “original affluent society” nevertheless has something to teach us.(11)
First, enjoying satisfaction and security in life seems not to depend on material abundance. Although practically destitute by contemporary standards, hunter-gatherers experienced their environment as full of everything they needed, and they possessed in fullness the knowledge and tools needed to find it. Despite cyclical privations, they therefore felt secure and content. The idea that they should aspire to more seems never to have entered their heads.
Second, they practiced a radical egalitarianism that restrained individuals from pursuing wealth and power or even flaunting their superiority. Thus a successful hunter, no matter how scrupulously he shared his kill and avoided any show of pride, could expect to be cut down to size by the recipients of his largesse. This passion for equality— or, to put it the other way round, a hatred of inequity—is a phenomenon with very deep roots in human (and even primate) history, and Suzman believes it constitutes a “fundamental obstacle” to achieving Keynes’s utopian vision:
For the hunter-gatherer model of primitive affluence was not simply based on their having few needs easily satisfied; it also depended on no one being substantially richer or more powerful than anyone else. If this kind of egalitarianism is a precondition for us to embrace a post-labor world, then I suspect it may prove to be a very hard nut to crack.(12)
Third, our primal ancestors were materially poor but culturally rich. Apart from some simple adornments and a few musical instruments, they possessed only a tool kit for hunting, gathering, and cooking that was easily carried with them on their peregrinations. Sticking to the bare necessities meant that they were not burdened with possessions and could readily go where resources were abundant. That abundance left them with plenty of free time, which they devoted to culture in the form of a large repertoire of song, dance, and, above all, stories. And to human relationships: they enjoyed an intense social life within their own band, as well as looser ties to a wider circle of trading and gifting partners.
Finally, perhaps most important, our stone-age ancestors enjoyed a profound empathy with creation, a deep connection with the land they inhabited and with the other beings peopling it. And they used various rituals and techniques to maintain and deepen that connection, which facilitated their success, fostered their contentment, and nourished their souls.
Both Nightfall and Singularity lead to the end of the human race—the first to biological extinction, the second to virtual extinction as idle parasites of the Singularity. There is still time to choose a different end: a frugal but decent solar-agrarian economy that has a limited, semi-artisanal industrial sector dedicated to providing certain modern conveniences in a sustainable fashion. Such a society would have the shape of pre-industrial societies and be organized and governed accordingly. That is, it would be hierarchical and conventional, so individuals would have to find their freedom within the bounds set by society, not by standing apart from it.(13)
This would be no utopia. Far from it. We would suffer all the joys and sorrows that humanity has experienced since the beginning of time. But we would still be recognizably human, and we would retain the capacity for a deep connection with creation, a connection that constitutes the true source of lasting satisfaction. For although we now live in cities, our hearts remain primal and will wither without a relation to the infinite.(14) To put it in the terms that Weber made famous, the only real hope of escaping the “iron cage” of a civilization grown too great, too complex, and too avaricious is the re-enchantment of the world.
1 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons, Routledge, 2001, 124, quoting Goethe
2 Why the West Rules—For Now, 2011
3 Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity,1969
4 The Singularity Is Near, 2005
5 The Wikipedia entry ”Technological singularity” provides a useful overview.
6 “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930),” in Essays in Persuasion, 1932
7 The destruction of leisure by economic development was described in Staffan B. Linder’s prescient The Harried Leisure Class, published in 1969.
8 This was also the root fallacy of Marxism: that the abolition of material scarcity would necessarily produce a benign transformation of social and political relations.
9 “Requiem for Democracy”
10 James Suzman, Affluence Without Abundance, 2017, 256. See also John Lanchester, “The Case Against Civilization: Did our hunter-gatherer ancestors have it better?” The New Yorker, September 18, 2017, which reviews Suzman in the context of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, the latest work of James C. Scott, a political anthropologist who has made it his life’s work to critique complex civilizations as instruments of oppression.
11 Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, 1970
12 Suzman, 256
13 See a previous essay, “The Shape of a Future Civilization,” as well as Plato’s Revenge, ch. 7, which proposes “Bali with electronics” as one possible model.
14 Cf Carl Jung’s “The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not?” which was the topic of a previous essay, “Soul and Shadow.”