As a technologist, I often think about Marc Andreesen's assertion that software is eating the world. It's a very provocative statement, but I can't really disagree with it. Whether we like it or not, we are building a new society in which labor is devalued. Thought workers are quickly becoming the only essential employees for many organizations. The middle class, who up until now has been dependent on their ability to trade labor for capital, is being destroyed.
Hope has been offered by the idea that we may be building a "post-scarcity society." One in which trading your labor for subsistence is no longer necessary. If we are able to optimize to cost of everything down to free or nearly free, the proponents argue, we might wind up with a new society that looks something like Star Trek. And who wouldn't want to live in the Star Trek universe?
Creating a society that even remotely resembled the Star Trek universe would surely be mankind's greatest achievement. Neil DeGrasse-Tyson once looked into why civilizations do great things like that. He was trying to figure out how to rekindle interest in space exploration. He found that all civilizations throughout history have only ever done something great for one of three reasons:
- Defense (aka War)
In the canon of Star Trek, humanity's modern renaissance happened when we were first visited by the Vulcan race. Alerted to our existence by the first successful test of a warp drive, Vulcans landed on earth with a message of peace and friendship. The course of all of humanity was changed in an instant, because that event has _all three_ of the elements that DeGrasse-Tyson describes. The Vulcans represented a potential ally in a galaxy of previously unknown aggressors. They were a new conduit for trade and commerce, opening new markets and providing new technology. Finally, proof of the existence of an intelligent race other than humans, was for the bulk of humanity, something that completely reshaped their sense of self and spirit. If you doubt the religious significance of that event, consider this: Spock was only _half_ vulcan. If having a new species to breed with doesn't change your ideas about God, nothing will.
The thing that created Star Trek was not post-scarcity. Post-scarcity was the effect, not the cause, of human-extraterrestrial first contact. The Star Trek universe was created through the unification of all of humanity into a singular guiding goal: The exploration of space. That single event was so powerful as to bring about all the changes necessary for humanity to move past the industrial revolution, and view an individual's contribution of labor not as a prerequisite for societal approval, but as an inefficiency to be happily optimized away.
We don't have Vulcans. We have the Internet. And they are not the same thing.
While the Internet is born out of military roots, its effects are primarily economic. It does not have the transformative effect that contact with a sentient alien species would have. In absence of this, we have no reason to believe that the world we are building will, in any way, resemble the sci-fi fantasy that we all hope it would.
The world we are building does not have a powerful, unifying force behind it. It has only self-interest and the legacy of societal structures that are unable to deal with new realities. America, in particular, is culturally ill-equipped to handle these new realities. The new world we are building is much more likely to be a technological feudalism than it is to be a utopian commune. If we don't take steps to shape its direction now, we will not be given a second chance.