Monday, 26 November 2012

Capitalism Reborn

I'm trying to pull a lot of different themes together today, and that might make this a very long post...

I try to keep the key theme of this blog as being that 'the future' is already here. By 'the future', I mean the technological utopia - or at least, the technologies to create and sustain that utopia - envisaged in a particular kind of (predominantly 1950s and early 60s) optimistic vision of the future. Sometimes that relates very clearly to writing, sometimes less so.

Last week, I presented a two-stage argument that the future has already in a sense left us behind, but that the problems we see and fear in it are still within our powers to face and defeat. In essence, I argued that technology not only is but should be here to stay.

Today, I want to take these ideas, which may not seem to have much direct contact with the writing business, and link them to where I'm going with my professional efforts as a writer. In doing so, I want to outline a radical change that we have the opportunity to make in how capitalism as a system works.

This starts with a big concept - scarcity - and a set of technological advances - the e-reader and the internet. Basically, it's now incredibly cheap to distribute 'books' (and lots of other things that are like books in some way, or can otherwise be digitised). I can put a book up on Smashwords, and it can be reproduced infinitely and distributed for a negligible cost.

Books, and digital content in general, have become 'post-scarce'. For people above a certain technological threshold, there is no material limit on the number of books we can own or acquire (okay, there's hard drive space, but I'm pretty sure even my aging hard drives could store more books than there are remaining hours of my life to read).

Capitalism as we know it, and as we've been developing it for the last two or three thousand years, is based on scarce commodities - commodities of which the supply is limited. It's that limit that has justified charging a price for anything, and the only things you get for free have always been the things you carve out from nature using your own labour. So our current understanding of capitalism is pretty poorly-equipped to adjust to post-scarce commodities (as you may have noticed...)

That's all very abstract. Here, for me, is the key difference-making shift: the pay-what-you-like model (PWYL). It's now possible for Smashwords (and Bandcamp, and the Humble Bundle, etc. etc.) to offer my work for free and let readers decide what they think it's worth. Heck, I wouldn't need to learn a lot more programming before I could host a website where I did this myself.

Obviously, PWYL is at the moment only feasible for digital goods (though I just learned that Jon Bon Jovi's foundation runs a non-profit restaurant that works on a similar principle), because these are the only goods that are in any way post-scarce (and, yes, not post-scarce for everyone, which is a problem we need to fix). There's a fascinating question to be asked over whether essentials could ever go to PWYL, but it's a question for another time.

Let me detail the change I see PWYL making to capitalism. As I understand it, the purpose of any economic system (if such an idea has any meaning at all) is to ensure that goods are traded at something approximating to their actual value. To put it another way, the idea of capitalism is that it should set an appropriate value on things.

Now, whether capitalism is a good system for that purpose overall is open to debate. The modern version is certainly preferable to the gold-standard mercantilism that it replaced (which was basically an instrument for European nations to exploit 'the colonies'). The triumph - if triumph it is - of capitalism over communism is more ambiguous, if for no more reason than that the communist states that were actually triumphed over generally did quite a bad job of their communism. All that's a debate for a different time, and probably a different blog.

The problem (or at least, the one I want to talk about) with capitalism is that it involves two separate layers of guesswork about the value of any item. First, the producer or distributor guesses at a price to set, and then the consumer or buyer guesses at whether the item is worth that much to them. That's two chances for the calculation of what something's worth to go awry.

With PWYL, the risk is halved (and, honestly, I think consumers tend to be better than producers at price-guessing, so it's the bigger half that's removed). People will pay what they think your book is worth to them (which, as I've argued in the past, is the only way something is ever worth anything). It's still a guess, but it's a guess based purely on how much they trust you to entertain or enrich them through your writing.

That greatly streamlines the whole process. In particular, it brings to the fore what I view as the key element of a career in the creative industries - trust between producer and consumer. You have to earn the right to make a living from your creative work, and you earn that right by earning the trust of your readers.

Let's be completely honest for a moment. As writers, we are all people who, if we were born rich or otherwise independently wealthy, would still write and want people to read our writing. Even if there was no reason for us to want money for the process, we'd still write. We might write a little less frantically, and I imagine we'd all cut right back on the marketing (doesn't that sound heavenly?), but we'd still be doing it. That's who and what we are.

The thing is, while books have become post-scarce, a writer's time has not (how could it?).
As far as I'm concerned, when a reader pays for my work, he or she is not reimbursing me for time already spent - after all, it's time I'd have spent at some point anyway, just to get the voices in my head to pipe down for a bit :-P. They're making a statement of the value they put on my literary career.

(sidebar: obviously, I'm not claiming that when a reader pays (let's say) $2.99 for a book by me, they're saying they think my career is worth $2.99; they're saying it's worth that much to them per unit. The total value of my career is then worked out as [consumer 1's valuation * number of units consumer 1 buys] + [consumer 2's valuation * number of units consumer 2 buys] + ... + [consumer n's valuation * number of units consumer n buys]. I'm not claiming that a consumer makes a guess at this calculation before choosing a price - the beauty of this way of thinking about it is that it simply and efficiently creates a composite of all these distinct valuations.)

With PWYL, there's a huge boost to the freedom readers have to make that valuation. A system that was rigid, a system that entrenched mistakes, has become much more flexible, which can only be a good thing.

Why am I making such a fuss about it? Well, this Saturday, as I've been hinting I might do for a while, I'm publishing a standalone short story on Smashwords, on PWYL. It's called 'Immortal Remains', it's just over 8,000 words long, and it's up to YOU to choose what it's worth. More information on Saturday, so stay tuned!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Fight the Future?

I argued on Monday that the future has already left us behind - that we will never again be conceptually and morally on top of our technology (never mind legislatively). But technology is optional - we could abandon it, turn it all off etc. If, as I suggested on Monday, it's potentially dangerous and disruptive, shouldn't we do exactly that?

Let's put aside the semantic question of what counts as 'technology' (i.e. how far should we roll our technology back, or at what point does technology become morally corrupting?), and the practical question of how many people would die if we did try this (we can't feed everyone on Earth with current technology; rolling back our tech is not going to make us more agriculturally productive).

Even with those issues out of the picture, I'm still going to argue that the answer is a resounding negative. It's not just that it would be impossible to get everyone to abandon technological society; it's that focussing on the problems of technological society leads us to overlook just how much it improves our lives.

Think of the Luddites, smashing up looms and other industrial machines which were putting them out of what had been skilled jobs. Did they gain anything by this activity? Their economic niche had closed, and all the power remained in the hands of the mill-owners, who certainly had no interest in cooperating to preserve expensive jobs or protect those they had just sacked.

(sidebar: don't take this as indicating that I'm against collective bargaining or industrial action in general. There have been some (very few) industrial actions which were simply attempts to fight the future, but in general, collective bargaining absolutely is and must be a right of employees - otherwise far too much power resides with employers).

Notice the real source of the problem? Economic niches have been opening and closing all through mankind's history, just as societies have risen and fallen. Change happens. The problem that created the Luddites was the fact that they were shafted by their employers; the mill-owners made no effort to soften the blow of progress, to make it possible for the weavers to support their families through whatever spell of unemployment that progress created. I would imagine that if newly-fired weavers were offered anything at all, it would have been along the lines of 'Well, we can re-hire you as an unskilled loom operator if you want.' Not helpful behaviour.

So, it's still a human problem. It's a problem of people who hold the upper hand being, not to put too fine a point on it, douchebags. But surely it was a technological step forward that enabled and/or encouraged this behaviour - so isn't technology still to blame?

This, as I understand it, is a key part of the Amish belief structure. Now, I have to confess a visceral feeling of revulsion for Amish culture. With the exception of truly extremist anti-progressives like the Unabomber or the Pakistani Taliban agents who shot Malala Yousafzai, I view the Amish value system as one of the most diametrically opposed to mine. Their only saving grace is pacifism - notice how every other anti-progressive action I've mentioned has involved violence?

Anyway, I'll do my best to be objective about the Amish. Their creed on modern technology seems to go something like this:
The Amish anti-individualist orientation is the motive for rejecting labor-saving technologies that might make one less dependent on community. Modern innovations like electricity might spark a competition for status goods, or photographs might cultivate personal vanity. (from Wikipedia)
I could nitpick over several things here, but there's only one I want to focus on for now; notice the use of the word 'might'. Even the author of the Wikipedia article (and without wanting to rely on guesswork, it reads as if it was written by someone with considerable sympathy for the Amish, and this is probably the way it should be) acknowledges that technology won't definitely have this effect. Maybe some Amish would dispute that, and claim that technology is always corrupting, but on that point, they are definitely, demonstrably wrong.

All it takes to refute the claim that technology is always corrupting is one example of a technology-dependent system or group which is not or has not been corrupted by technology, but I can go one better than that. I can give at least one example of a community which could not exist without technology. The most vibrant, supportive and loving community I belong to is a Facebook group of authors (you know who you are, Lounge Lizards).

If you think that makes me sad and a pathetic loner, you fail to understand the power of technology to bring people together and enable the best in us as well as the worst. And that is the key point that we need to understand, that the Amish and the Luddites and every other reactionary fail to see.

Technology exaggerates what we do - it makes us able to do more of whatever it is we're doing. If we are inhuman, callous and cruel, technology will reflect our inhumanity back on us many times over. It will distance us, excuse our selfishness, shun the weak and sink poisonous claws into the strong. But if we come to our technology, on an individual level, with compassion and moral courage, we stand to see those virtues written larger than ever before across our culture and history.

We may never again have a good handle on our technology. But if we can all take a good handle on ourselves, the possible benefits are every bit as great as the possible damage. To reject that technology, though, eliminates far more of the benefits than the costs (it's here where the question of just how many people would die if we did reject our technology comes up again). It is an act of reactionary cowardice, not communitarian spirit.

A lot of these ideas came to me as a result of another lecture I was in on education, and something similar goes for education as for technology. I leave you with this, from Haim G. Ginott:

Dear Teachers:
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become more human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

Haim G. Ginott

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Problem with the Future

So, I was going to do some posts with NaNo tips, but given how hard I'm finding it to remember that NaNo is still going on (I finished in seven days, it does strange things to your perception of time - I promise I'm not just gloating ;D), I don't actually trust myself to say anything coherent on that point (and, besides 'make your characters angry with each other and then let them argue', I don't have a whole lot to add).

Instead, here's a post on an almost entirely unrelated theme: speed. Specifically, the speed of progress versus the speed of our ability to keep up with it socially, philosophically and morally.

Let me start with an example outlined in a lecture I was in a couple of weeks ago, given by a professor of education. Imagine there's a new drug which enhances intellectual performance. People taking it think faster and more clearly, and there are minimal side effects. It costs about as much as a decent smartphone data package - enough that not everyone even in rich nations like ours can afford a supply.

We'll start by considering it in the educational context the professor (whose name I can't remember, I'm afraid) brought up; there's clear evidence that this drug improves children's performance in exams. Since not everyone can afford the stuff, we obviously can't allow its use in exams, because the playing field has got to be level. Now let's imagine that the only way to detect if someone has taken the drug is something hugely invasive like an on-the-spot urine sample test.

What do we do? There's no way we can afford to test every child in the school system before every exam, even if we can overcome the ethical minefield of demanding urine samples from that many minors. Random checks won't catch nearly enough cheaters, not to mention the likelihood of discrimination creeping in as far as who gets 'randomly' selected for testing.

It gets worse when we move to the workplace, where performance is assessed in a more continuous way and there aren't even specific points at which a test could be administered. Assuming that intelligence has some sort of effect on performance and thus who gets promoted (and, however much you hate or doubt the intelligence of your boss, some form of intelligence probably put him where he is), the promotions are going to go to the people who can afford these drugs.

Basically, what I'm getting at is that a technology of this nature is going to systematically entrench privilege with a speed and efficiency that capitalism has perhaps never before achieved. After all, what self-respecting and diligent parent could be expected to turn down the opportunity to better themselves or their children?

Perhaps a drug like this is fanciful (sidebar: it almost certainly isn't, though I don't know of any drug yet that has demonstrated these effects without debilitating side-effects), but the part that really blew my mind was when the professor giving the lecture related this example to the rise of smartphones.

He talked about how teachers are increasingly facing classes full of students with smartphones, and the students who answer fact-based questions are now the ones who are fastest with their calculators or web searches. Now, obviously, you can (theoretically) ban smartphones, and phones in general, in exams, but the students who can compete technologically are going to find it easier and more rewarding to engage with their lessons and thus are going to learn better, whether or not they have a technological advantage in assessment.

This argument goes more generally for technology in education, too (remote schooling in virtual classrooms, for example). And just to bring it home to those of us caught up in the ebook revolution, just about the only good argument I've heard against ebooks is the problem that as the developed world increasingly switches to digital media, the developing world will be left further and further behind; quite simply, fewer books will make it into hardcopy forms which nations without widespread, reliable power and internet infrastructure can access.

It's going to take us some time to figure out what to do about this technological issue. The truly insoluble problem, though, is that by the time we've figured this one out, technology may be two or even three full generations ahead.

Don't believe me? Let me put it like this; when I was in primary school, no-one in my class had their own mobile phone. I moved up to secondary school in 1998, to a private school where I was mainly rubbing shoulders with the affluent section of society, and over the next five years, mobiles became ubiquitous among my generation (I can remember one of the last holdouts caving shortly before I left for a state-sector sixth form college in 2003; there, phone penetration was at most a year or two behind). Things seemed to settle down for a little bit at that point, though in reality I think it was just that the generations either side of mine began to go mobile in a big way - the revolution moved on, if you like.

The first iPhone came out in 2007, and now I'm one of the few people I know not to have a smartphone (I can't quite afford it at the moment D:). I'm seeing more and more tablets among my student friends, and 4G connectivity is arriving steadily. The Google glasses are due out somewhere between 12 and 18 months from now. The first artificial eye implants and direct neural connections have already been put into operation, though they're a little further off as a consumer product.

What's the difference between a pill that makes you smarter and a direct neural connection to the internet (which presumably can't be easily removed or deactivated)? Not much, if anything at all.

I don't have an answer to any of this, by the way. I can't even begin to see how these questions might be answered, short of some miracle eliminating the malicious component of human nature/society. But it's something to think about, even as we celebrate the wonderful world we have the chance to build right at the moment (and I'll do a more optimistic blog post on that theme next week, promise).