Skip to content

Is there anything to do post-scarcity?

Contemplating the “post-scarcity” future postulated in Science Fiction and the Economics of Utopia, one can easily wonder if the inhabitants of such a future would be left with anything meaningful to do. With all economic needs satisfied, and therefore no need for work as we understand it, might there also be no more need of engineering (this being either unnecessary since all material needs have already been satisfied, or done by machine otherwise), no more need of science (since everything “useful” has already been discovered), and so on? I was once inspired by such thinking to write some flash fiction, The Theory of Everything, imagining the scientist who proved the final theorem beyond which there were no more to be discovered (no relation to the movie of the same name about Steven Hawking).

I think it’s in Diaspora (1997) that Greg Egan has his characters amusing themselves in the “Truth Mines”, where they can go on proving mathematical theorems indefinitely. People other than die-hard mathematicians and logicians might not find the Truth Mines particularly appealing, but one can easily imagine “Art Mines”, “Carpentry Mines” and maybe even “Business Mines” that might appeal to people of other dispositions. I take the point to be that it is the striving for Truth (or Art or Carpentry) that is of interest to us rather than having any particular amount of it.

Proponents of economic growth presumably believe that we are a long way from any such state (supposing that they think about it at all); I even recall reading at least one article arguing that economic growth can go on forever because there is no limit to the quality of goods that people can desire even if there is a limit to the quantity of them that people can actually use. And I’m sure that scientists and artists would be the first to say that there remains plenty of undiscovered science and unmade art, respectively, and in a truly post-scarcity world they presumably wouldn’t need to worry about obtaining funding to do it.

Perhaps it’s even better than that: even if everything were known, and all art created, it couldn’t be known to one single person (unless perhaps people themselves were to gain infinite capacities). Even if engineers collectively knew how to build any conceivable artefact, for example, I wouldn’t possess all this knowledge and skill myself, so there would remain plenty of room for me to improve myself as an engineer, just as people can get pleasure from solving crosswords and other puzzles even though the person who set the puzzle already knows what the solution is.

If one insists that economic incentives are the only ones that matter, or that the only discoveries or creations worth making are ones completely new to the world, a post-scarcity world would indeed seem a rather boring and pointless one. But there are plenty of people today who aren’t creating great art or making new scientific discoveries (or even, arguably, doing anything economically productive at all) whose lives only the harshest commentator would describe as boring and pointless. In The Theory of Everything, I imagined the scientist erasing the board so that she could start all over again—but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Leave a Reply