Post-scarcity optimism in science fiction

6 Nov 2023

Imagine a world where everyone has enough, and people are free to live their lives as they choose. What would that look like?

Let's assume we survive as a species, make it through the great filter, spawn artificial beings more intelligent than ourselves, all without becoming locked in to some dystopian state. What would it even look like for life to keep getting better over that time scale? Who would be our descendants, and how do we imagine their lives?

I love science fiction for its ability to do these long range thought experiments, for being able to lift our vision beyond the troubles of today to paint compelling, or sometimes disturbing, visions of what could be. Two authors manage this especially well, the late Iain M. Banks famous in his epic Culture novels, and Greg Egan in his hard science fiction novel Diaspora. Both answer these questions in different ways.

A sea of humanity

The Culture novels depict a vast, pan-human and pan-species civilisation operated by Minds, artificial intelligences that outstrip human capabilities by orders of magnitude. The Minds serve as ultimate parents and caretakers, ensuring that people grow into full human beings, able to explore their potential and all the experiences that such a rich civilisation has to offer.

So what do people do with their lives, in such conditions? They do everything you and I enjoy, but more.

They explore a huge variety of skills, hobbies and interests, for the pure challenge of them. They form relationships, both fleeting and substantial, and enjoy an enhanced and prolonged form of sex thanks to their altered genetics. They travel, change genders, have families, raise children and live to see their children become their peers. People live as long as they like, safe in the knowledge that they can be restored from backup if they were injured or killed. Eventually, they tire of it, and choose to gently end their lives, having seen it all, or otherwise ask to be stored until "something interesting" happens and awoken then.

Overall, it's a majestic, utopian, humanist vision: each person able to live out their lives in safety and comfort, yet open to an immensity of experience that we cannot quite imagine today.

A thousand flowers blooming

Egan's "Diaspora" likewise imagines humanity blossoming into a huge variety of forms, but with these forms limited to human-like intelligence, except perhaps faster. Garden variety homo sapiens still exist, as do gleisners who inhabit robotic bodies, but it's the digital citizens who serve as our true descendants.

What do their lives look like?

Citizens are people like you and me, but digital people, genderless and free from physical forms. Like us they are more or less rational, and social, and take on all kinds of hobbies and projects. They form important and deeply fulfilling relationships, and with their indefinite lives they also see children develop to become their peers. Although there is little left to contribute in the way of science, mathematics provides a life-long pursuit for some, as does artistic creation. Since the resource utilisation of each citizen is so much smaller than a normal human, there are a huge number of citizens, and they have transcended the need to endlessly colonise and expand.

Egan's vision is less bombastic than that of Banks, yet equally utopian. Freed from the tyranny of death, we live alongside people we care for, doing challenging but fulfilling pursuits, all of our own choosing. Each of us develops into our own fullness.

An end to scarcity

The common thread in both works -- the key that allows such utopias -- is the emergence of a post-scarcity society, where people simply have enough and do not compete with each other for the things they need in life.

In Banks, it's driven by benevolent super-intelligence and the emergence of technology that provides more or less free energy (the "energy grid"). With Egan, it's the extremely low resource utilisation of the citizens, combined with changes to moral attitudes towards endless expansion.

Even in such societies, resources are not endless, they are simply routinely surplus to people's requirements. Likewise, people still enjoy the attention and time of others, leaving the way open to endless competition for status. But Banks and Egan envision our descendants as raised secure enough in themselves that, generally speaking, their need for status is mild and does not overly shape society.

And in reality?

In the real world, we have escaped the Malthusian Trap -- we produce food faster than we produce people, leading to a gradual rise in living standards and an ongoing reduction in the worst types of poverty even as the global population has increased. The world is forecast to reach 10.4 billion people around 2085, then slowly decline in population based on current trends.

If we can manage to overcome major challenges such as climate change, the risk of great power conflict and of misaligned AI, we can expect to be rewarded with continued growth in living standards and -- if we have the political and moral will for it -- a true end to poverty. This could genuinely lead us to a world where everyone has enough, and people are free to live their lives more or less as they choose.

That's a world I want to live in, and one I want to help build.