Friday, May 16, 2014

Post-labor sci-fi

In my writing update, I mentioned an idea for a speculative sci-fi novel which I scrapped.  The underlying concept was that I wanted a post-labor economy, where robots and unlimited energy have taken most of the jobs.  Since jobs are the main way money is distributed, the abundance of free labor impoverishes people.

Incidentally, there was a recent article on 3 Quarks Daily which covered this same idea (via The Barefoot Bum).  So there are people who speculate about this in real life.  And sure, I speculate about it in real life too.  I agree with the idea that there are a lot of bullshit jobs in our society, and I would prefer if instead we had fewer work hours.

In my invented world, when all the jobs disappear, it's primarily the service workers who remain.  Robots can't replace the human touch, or the gracious smile.  Everyone else survives on what little welfare that the upper class begrudgingly grants them.  Presumably there's lots of propaganda to persuade the public that welfare is a moral hazard.

But if I were to speculate for the real world rather than for a story, I'd think that service workers would lose their jobs along with everyone else.  I mean, if robots can replace engineers and business managers, of course they could also replace service workers, smiles or not.

But leaving service workers allows me to create a society where politeness and etiquette form a sort of cultural currency, valued above and beyond their real worth.  A thousand rules of etiquette bloom, and a college education is the only way to understand them.  Personality defects would practically become disabilities.

It's sort of a commentary on the way that anything produced by upper classes are seen as the Highest Art, while anything enjoyed by lower classes is unfashionable.  Like the way that classical concerts are seen as the highest forms of music, above modern rock or even classical music recordings.  Or the way that baby names tend to start among upper classes and migrate down to lower classes (and also from male to female!).

Anyway, it was a cool idea, but I'm really not keen on speculative fiction.  I write so much nonfiction that I'm used to striving for accuracy.  So if my story were speculative, I'd spend too much time on little details that don't make the story any better.  And then I'd feel bad about not being a good enough fortune teller.


miller said...

You should read the works of Jack Vance.

miller said...

He's written a lot. Is there a particular work you'd recommend?

miller said...

The Demon Princes series (5 shortish books) is especially good.

miller said...

Also, the novella, "The Moon Moth," depicts a society where etiquette and status are the sole economic currency.

Almost all Vance's work is anthropological/cultural rather than technological.