The utopian future portrayed in Star Trek takes place is a post scarcity society where money has lost it’s importance and people more or less have the access to food, energy and housing they need to live as well as the freedom to acheive their personal life ambitions without worrying about where the next paycheque is coming from.
We’re not there yet.
But we do live in a time where technology is advancing very quickly, and around the forseeable corner is things like self-driving, automated factories, delivery drones and AI that could smash millions of jobs out of the economy faster than we can adapt. Technology is driving a deflationary effect that is causing prices to drop at an accelerating pace. This has been happening for a while now (though not always apparent) and the only way that the global finance system has staved off deflation is by printing massive amounts of money to counteract price drops. This has been critical to avoiding the situation where the massive amounts of debt in the world cannot be possibly paid off with future dollars that are more abundant due to inflation. For over a decade now, we have had near-zero interest rates and massive government spending attempting to goose some inflation, but it’s been less and less effective at doing so.
The gobal situation with massive job losses, and work from home, lockdowns are a potential trigger that could cascade into a future where deflation finally takes over and prices start to fall. Suddenly people are being forced to use online shopping, click and collect groceries and finding out that there are a lot of products and services they don’t need. Stores may start to adapt by making contactless delivery the preferred way to purchase. and as a result start scaling back on retail presence. Ultimately the cost savings from this will turn into lower prices for consumers.
I’ve always thought that things will transition to the point where ultimately the end-to-end creation and delivery of a product will not require humans in the loop – automated mining machines or farming or tree cutting will deliver materials to factories built and operated by automated robots, powered by electricity from solar panels made and installed by robots. The only scarcity will come from patents, information access, and land-use.
What would happen to the cost of electricity if robots could turn sand into solar panels and ship them to your house with zero humans required? What if the robots were open-source designed and mostly 3D printable?
Despite the unprecedented amounts of money that governments around the world are using to keep the current system going, I’m not sure it will be enough to restore consumer confidence and get people back into their old habits of spending and borrowing and investing. Time will tell if the current experiment with helicopter money directly into people’s pockets keeps things rolling forward for long.
Right now millions of people are finding ways that working from home can be productive. Businesses are going to be looking at the productivity benefit of having office space and many will come out of this forced work from home with a realization that the ROI on office space is not worth it in some cases. retail shopping will take another shift towards Amazon for everything.
We will have perhaps a year or more of people investing in ways to continue operating their businesses without needing to have people interacting with eachother with physical proximity. These investments will accelerate towards more robots and drones.
The march towards abundance is unstoppable. Staving off deflation will necessarily fail at some point as a result. This current crisis will be the kick that forces a re-think of many of our most established institutions and accepted norms.