World After Capital

Albert Wenger on universal basic income, blockchain and a future in which capital is no longer scarce

World After Capital, with Albert Wenger – [Invest Like the Best, EP.80]

Technological progress has shifted scarcity for humanity. When we were foragers, food was scarce. During the agrarian age, it was land. Following the industrial revolution, capital became scarce. With digital technologies scarcity is shifting once more. We need to figure out how to live in a World After Capital in which the only scarcity is our attention.

Humanity is unique, at least for now, in having developed knowledge. Knowledge in turn has enabled us to create increasingly powerful technology. The effect of technological advances is to broaden the “space of the possible.”

  • With the Internet we can give everyone free access to education, but we can also share hate speech globally
  • With artificial intelligence we can build self-driving cars, but we can also automate censorship and manipulation

A broader space of the possible contains both good and bad capabilities. There is nothing fundamentally new about this duality of technology.

  • With fire we were able to warm ourselves and cook, but we were also able to burn down forests and enemy villages
  • With steel we were able to construct more effective plows, but we were also able to forge more deadly swords

And yet there is something special about our moment in time.

We are experiencing a technological non-linearity, which renders many of the existing predictions about society based on extrapolation useless. The space of the possible for humanity is expanding rapidly due to the extraordinary power of digital technologies, which deliver universality of computation at zero marginal cost.

Humanity has encountered two similar non-linearities previously. The first was the invention of agriculture, which ended the Forager Age and brought us into the Agrarian Age [3]. The second was the Enlightenment, which took us out of our state of ignorance about nature and helped usher in the Industrial Age [4].

Imagine foragers trying to predict what society would look like in the Agrarian Age. Cities, rulers and armies all would have come as a surprise. Similarly, much of what we have today—from modern medicine to computer technology—would look like magic to most people from as recently as the mid-1900s. Not just the existence of smartphones would have been hard to foresee, but even more so their widespread availability and affordability.

World After Capital has two goals. The first goal is to establish that we are, in fact, experiencing a third such non-linearity. The key argument is that each prior time the space of the possible expanded dramatically, the binding scarcity constraint for humanity shifted. Specifically, the invention of agriculture shifted scarcity from food to land. Industrialization, in turn, shifted scarcity from land to capital. Now digital technologies are shifting scarcity from capital to attention. Scarcity, here, refers to humanity's ability to meet everyone's basic needs.

Capital is already no longer scarce in some parts of the world and rapidly less scarce everywhere. We should consider this to be the great success of capitalism. But capitalism, in its present form, will not and can not solve the scarcity of attention. We are bad, individually and collectively, at allocating attention. For example, how much attention are you paying to your friends and family, or to the existential question of the meaning and purpose of your life? How much attention are we paying, as humanity, to the great challenges and opportunities of our time, such as climate change and space travel? Capitalism cannot address these attention allocation problems because prices do not, and cannot, exist for many of the activities that we should be paying attention to.

The second goal for World After Capital is to propose an approach for overcoming the limits of existing capitalism and facilitating a smooth transition from the Industrial Age (scarce capital) to the Knowledge Age (scarce attention). Getting this right is critical for humanity, as the two previous transitions were marked by massive turmoil and upheaval—including two World Wars to get from the Agrarian Age to the Industrial Age. Already, we are seeing signs of increasing conflict within societies and among belief systems across the world.

How should we enter this third transition? What actions should society take now, when—facing a non-linearity—we can't make good predictions about the future?

We need to enact policies that allow for social and economic changes to occur gradually, instead of artificially suppressing these changes only to have them explode eventually. In particular, I will argue for smoothing the transition to the Knowledge Age by expanding three powerful individual freedoms.

  • Economic freedom: instituting a basic income
  • Informational freedom: investing in Internet access, rolling back intellectual property rights, and rethinking personal privacy
  • Psychological freedom: practicing and encouraging self-regulation

Increasing these three freedoms will make attention less scarce. Economic freedom unlocks time currently spent in jobs that can and should be automated. Informational freedom broadens access to information and computation. Psychological freedom enables rationality in a world of information overload. Each of these freedoms is important by itself but they are also mutually reinforcing.

One crucial goal in reducing the scarcity of attention is to improve the functioning of the “Knowledge Loop.” The Knowledge Loop, which consists of learning, creating and sharing, is the source of all knowledge. Producing more knowledge is essential to human progress. The history of humanity is filled with prior civilizations that failed to produce the knowledge required to overcome the challenges they faced.

To achieve this goal through increased individual freedoms, we also need to firmly establish a set of values, including critical inquiry, democracy and responsibility. These values provide the social underpinning for the Knowledge Loop. They follow directly from a renewed Humanism, which in turn has an objective basis in the existence and power of human knowledge. Reasserting Humanism is especially critical at a time when we are standing at the threshold of creating transhumans, through genetic engineering and augmentation, as well as neohumans, in the form of artificial intelligence.

World After Capital argues for increased freedoms, rooted in humanism, as the way to transition from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Age. I am profoundly optimistic about the ultimate potential for human progress. I am, however, pessimistic about how we will get there. We seem intent on clinging to the Industrial Age at all cost, increasing the likelihood of violent change. My hope, then, is that in writing World After Capital I can help in some small way to move us forward peacefully.