|Accelerating technological change
results in a shorter-term
Accelerating technological change results in a shorter term
economic horizon--for sound economic reasons. Production-oriented
capital equipment can always become technologically obsolete,
reducing its value. This can occur either because new technology
performs a task better, or (more dramatically) eliminates the
need for the task. Since the value of such equipment is tied to
the value of the future production to which it contributes,
accelerating technological change implies accelerating
technological obsolescence. As an example, a computer need not be
very old before its annual operating costs exceed the purchase
price of a more capable machine. Therefore, equipment need not be
built to last as long as it was 50 years ago.
Similarly, any human production skill--any type of production labor--eventually becomes technologically obsolete. Any person who does not continually learn new skills should expect to see a decline in relative standard of living, unlike the clerks of 100 years ago who had a fairly high relative standard of living with very little change in skills during their careers. The increasing ability to automate repetitive manual labor and, more recently, repetitive mental labor, reduces not only the value of such labor, but also the quantity required.
An increasing average level of education will cause the gap in value between the most educated labor and the least educated labor to narrow, not widen. This economic turnaround will occur when the number of people who are not well educated decreases faster than the number of people still needed to do undesirable jobs which have not yet been automated; this appears to be occurring in Japan today. However, the decreasing gap in rewards between educated and uneducated labor in the US is a political artifact, not an economic effect.
Information becomes less valuable when people value appearance, conformity, and other people's opinions more than quality. Capitalizing snob appeal--often, in effect, past advertising expense--becomes more important than capitalizing production technology. As an example, consider the balance sheet of a beer producer. Economies of scale in production are far less important than economies of scale in advertising. The "goodwill" referred to in corporate takeovers is a reflection of the capitalized value of past advertising which will sell more beer tomorrow.
Entertainment labor which can contribute to sales of anything--even more entertainment--becomes relatively more valuable, and production labor, relatively less valuable.
Thus, with or without nanotechnology, accelerating technological change will encourage the movement from an information society to an entertainment society. Most of these current trends in value are simply results of advancing technology in general. While some have been exaggerated by political forces, the direction of change is likely to continue with future advances in technology.
The most stunning specific effects of nanotechnology will be the magnitude of the changes, and the near disappearance of value of physical goods.
Unfortunately, not all of the effects of nanotechnology will be purely economic. Humans are not only economic animals, they are also political animals. They will attempt to acquire by means other than fair exchange. Political systems distort values, and produce distributions of wealth and income other than what one would expect from a purely economic analysis; these distortions will affect relative values in a nanotechnological society.
Some human wants are political, not economic. Too many humans have a desire to control others, without paying for the privilege by economic exchange. They wish to control others not to advise them of what might be in their best interest, but to force them to behave for the benefit of the controller.
Unfortunately, there will be no end to the religious and ethical disputes which have plagued the human race throughout history: religious practices, abortion, and mind-altering drugs. However, some political control will be more difficult once such drugs can be produced in individuals' basements; an improvement in surveillance technology will not completely compensate for this. Fanatics will still want to stamp out these "evils" everywhere, even when they take place entirely in individual homes; and fanatics will continue feuds to death over religious and racial differences.
Another form of political want is the desire for relative status, as opposed to absolute economic affluence. The vast increase in the standard of living will not make some people happy as long as any member of the human race has more income or wealth than them. One form of this want is the desire of some members of the upper class in a society to stay on top, even at the expense of foregoing absolute improvements in their own standard of living; this phenomenon explains the persistence of both "Mercedes Marxists" and anti-technology Luddites among this class. The proportion of such people seems to have increased, not decreased, in the last two centuries even as affluence has grown to unprecedented levels. We should not expect it to disappear.
One effect of political forces will be to decrease the value of land relative to labor. It is easier to confiscate land than labor, and coercively obtained land is much more valuable than uncooperative coercively obtained labor. This skewing of values will be strongest where the ethics of governments are weakest.
Individual desires to control others will also lead to the formation of groups to control others. Governments have attempted to control the masses, for the benefit of the rulers, over most of the planet for most of history. Technological advances will make monumental repression more practical. Before the introduction of large-scale agricultural technology in the last 150 years, the lack of technology limited government repression. If the government killed a sizeable fraction of the peasantry, less food would be produced, and the bureaucrats in the cities would starve.
With no need for any production labor, a tyrannical government in a nanotechnological society could proceed to kill off a very large fraction of its population. A pessimist would argue that only the desire of the rulers to have an audience of slaves left to admire their handiwork would keep the level of slaughter below 100 percent.
In the unlikely event that all of the means of production of nanotechnology were in the hands of a small percentage of the planet's population, there would still be a large demand for labor. After all, one percent of billions of people is still tens of millions, and ten million people have a large quantity and variety of needs. People would still be able to acquire a very high standard of living compared to today in exchange for very little of their time. However, this would not be true if the number of people in control of the technology were extremely small--tens or hundreds of people--as it might be if governments control the technology.
Another disturbing possibility is that nanotechnology will likely shift the balance of power between attackers and individual defenders from the defense to the offense--a shift which traditionally has benefited the state at the expense of the individual. Between 1000 and 1400, the offense prevailed--an armored knight on horseback could attack a random individual, with no significant likelihood of the individual inflicting any damage in return. Individuals were forced by this into seeking protection from other armored knights, and a feudal society resulted. Between 1500 and 1900, the bow, the musket, and the rifle gave the individual a chance of inflicting damage in return. When raids on individuals were no longer riskless propositions, they became less frequent.
The enormous advantage which nanotechnology appears to give to the attacker should not lead us to expect the revival of a feudal society. A group defensive effort does not appear to be more likely to prevail against nanotechnological attack than individual efforts; thus the protection motivation for the rebirth of a feudal society appears to be absent.
To evade attack, some people may leave the planet--and the solar system. The most successful defense may be to simply spread across the galaxy, thinly enough to avoid detection, without leaving records of where one went. After all, technology places limits on the size of an empire. The Roman and Chinese empires of antiquity never exceeded a size that could be spanned by communication in weeks, or by transportation of troops in months. Empires larger than this would be too likely to successfully rebel. Thus planetary-system empires, with communication measured in hours and transportation in days, would be very possible, but interstellar empires are implausible in the absence of faster-than-light travel and communications.
Should one be optimistic or pessimistic? Well, if the human political animal does not prevent it, the human economic animal will enjoy life in such a technologically advanced society.
Dr. MacGillivray is a member of the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group with a background in physics.
|Foresight Update 8 - Table of Contents|
In a past issue we requested help with quantum chemistry
calculations; thanks to Prof. Peter Lykos of the Illinois
Institute of Technology Dept. of Chemistry for offering
For arranging lectures on nanotechnology in Switzerland we thank Prof. H.-J. GŁntherodt (University of Basel), Heinrich Rohrer (IBM Zurich), and Thomas Rauschenbach (World Economic Forum). For arranging lectures in Japan, we thank Prof. Naomasa Nakajima of the University of Tokyo.
We appreciate receiving technical news and other information from Jim Conyngham, Jerry Fass, W.C. Gaines, Marie-Louise Kagan, Leonard Micko, Ed Niehaus, Anthony Oberley, Mark Reiners, Frederick Reynolds, E. Clayton Teague, and Michael Weber. Thanks to Chris Fry for recommending the book Molecular Machinery.
Thanks to all those who commented on our last issue; many felt it was the best so far. Especially favorable comments were received on Jeff MacGillivray's piece on economics (completed in this issue) and Dan Shafer's profile of Marvin Minsky. Russ Mills's technical column continues to be a favorite feature.
|Foresight Update 8 - Table of Contents|
In setting up a new office, FI finds itself in need of the
following equipment, new or used: a small photocopier, two fax
machines, and a second Laserwriter printer. Note that donations
of equipment or funds are tax-deductible as charitable
contributions. If you can help, call our office at 415-324-2490.
Also needed are volunteers to translate a small number of German and Italian news articles on nanotechnology.
From Foresight Update 8, originally published 15 March 1990.
Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 8 to html for this web page.
Foresight materials on the Web are ©1986–2018 Foresight Institute. All rights reserved. Legal Notices.