When anyone can have just about anything they want, what’s valuable? In a follow up to the previous article, Life After Work, we investigate what still has to be earned in a post-scarcity society.
To begin we must define what we mean by post-scarcity; the strictest definition would be a universe where nothing was at all limited. Every resource would have to be literally infinite. As far as modern physics knows, this is simply impossible. Instead, we will use the definition most often used in futurism discussions: a world where material goods can be created from raw materials with little to no human effort, and the supply of general resources is large enough that one can expect to have plenty to work with for thousands of years at least. This is the kind of world one would expect as the result of technology like cornucopia machines or as the result of a society growing in virtual space.
You’ll notice that I’ve specified material goods, as opposed to the immaterial. It’s entirely possible that artificial intelligence could provide at least some immaterial resources as well, such as blueprints for new inventions, etc. Whether AI could provide other sorts of immaterial resources, such as companionship or creativity, is a harder question to answer and in part depends on how you define the terms. Thus resources such as blueprints for material goods, friends, or even abstracts such as reputation might or might not be valuable.
We can however be certain that such immaterial resources as produced by human minds specifically would retain some degree of rarity. Indeed, it’s not unlikely that such a human touch would be in high demand regardless of the fact that the results might be objectively inferior, much as hand-crafted goods have become quite popular and valuable despite the fact that generally results at least as good could be made in a factory.
There are some immaterial resources, however, which according to current physics would always be guaranteed to have a certain level of scarcity. These include time, computing power, and energy. While these resources might become far more abundant than they currently are, there would always be an upper limit to how much was available. There is also an upper limit on how much matter is available to us, which is connected to the energy limit, as one can turn matter into energy and vice versa. Nevertheless, once we have used all the matter available, we are forced to either stop building or recycle the materials that made some of what we’ve built before.
In conclusion, even post-scarcity societies have things that are valuable, although they may be more abundant than the people of today are used to thinking of valuables being. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys building up reserves of valuable resources or working hard for your rewards, there will still be valuables for you to covet and work for.