John Lennon: Imagine there's no possessions
Every morning when I go outside, I do something somewhat Marxist. I consume a free product which I don’t own. I merely share it with others. It’s the sharing economy at its most extreme, anti-capitalism pale pink in soft teeth and blunted claw. And what is this Marxist act? Why, it’s gulping fresh air. Yes, that’s right: oxygen, the ultimate anti-capitalist resource. I breathe in but only temporarily hold air in my lunges; I breathe out so that others can share my air after a degree of recycling. And yet, I have a funny feeling no one thinks that what I do is so bad.
Isn’t the whole point of innovation to either make things cheaper or make new things, with the joint goal of increasing our satisfaction? If capitalism can make these products almost free, doesn’t that mean it has worked?
The WEF or World Economic Forum published a video that has created a storm of protest: it said that in 2030: “You’ll own nothing and be happy.” And those words have drawn ire from the left and right. The choice of words was a little unfortunate, it sounded like an order: “You will be happy,” — it’s the stuff of Aldous Huxley, a Brave New World where the state rules; people are happy in a kind of automatic uncaring way; individuality the price we paid for unthinking bliss.
But are the sentiments behind this bold claim so bad, and what is the great reset?
The reason why air is free is because its supply is so plentiful. When I breathe, I don’t rob you of your ability to breath — not usually, anyway. Actually, free, clean air is under threat. That is why in the very same WEF video, a carbon tax paid by us all, was predicted. I have no problem with that: a carbon tax is precisely the thing basic economic theory suggests we need to ensure capitalism allocates resources efficiently.
But isn’t the whole point of innovation to either make things cheaper or make new things, with the joint goal of increasing our satisfaction? If capitalism can make these products almost free, doesn’t that mean it has worked?
And this is the first problem with the critique of the WEF claim.
If something is almost free, someone or something must be producing it: and whether that thing is the state or a handful of corporations exercising near-monopoly power, it does feel like a dystopian organisation system for what should be a utopian scenario.
Don’t we want technology to create abundance? If we can solve the problem of protein folding (as DeepMind is close to do using AI), so that we can make any living organisms we choose; if nanotechnology enables us to build from the atom up; if 3D printing means we can make anything; if cultured or clean meat can create incredibly cheap meat; shouldn’t we celebrate? Suppose renewable energy continues to fall in cost and via other technologies can get around the problem of its intermittency. Within a few years, not far from 2030, energy will be so cheap, that it is virtually free. Shouldn’t we be dancing in the streets over such a prospect?
The problem is that ‘almost free’, like energy might be in ten years, is not the same as free, which, for all intents and purposes, oxygen is today. And if something is almost free, someone or something must be producing it: and whether that thing is the state or a handful of corporations exercising near-monopoly power, it does feel like a dystopian organisation system for what should be a utopian scenario. Maybe, when you drill down, utopia and dystopia are the same thing.
Competition versus monopoly
To illustrate my point, consider cultured or clean meat. Now, I am a fan. I think that the current system we have of creating meat is inefficient and cruel. Would it not be better to make the meat direct from stem cells, bypassing the messy business of grazing methane emitting, meat processing factories called livestock, spread over millions or even billions of acres worldwide, and then the nasty business of killing them? Of course, others partially agree with my sentiments but think the solution is either eating insects instead of mammals or in turning vegetarian. But others hate the idea of cultured meat because it goes against their libertarian ideal. With traditional agriculture, we have millions of farmers spread across the world, earning a living, with cultured meat they argue, it will just be a handful of technology-based companies dictating the supply of our meat.
And that’s part of the problem: if the means by which we create abundance is by applying tech, might we risk descending into a kind of dictatorship of the technology companies — you can call it Techopia, if you will.
If you discuss the idea of a sharing economy, or the non-ownership of goods, without mentioning technology, you haven’t grasped the concept.
Neither the left nor the right like the Great Reset
Naomi Klein is anti-capitalism and anti-corporate globalisation. She wrote: “The Great Reset is an attempt to create a plausible impression that the huge winners in this system are on the verge of voluntarily setting greed aside to get serious about solving the raging crises that are radically destabilising our world.”
But the right don’t like it much either. This video explains much of the right-wing anti-Great Reset thinking, but in a nutshell it is the idea that we won’t own anything that horrifies them.
From the Cloud to autonomous cars
But if you discuss the idea of a sharing economy, or the non-ownership of goods, without mentioning technology, you haven’t grasped the concept.
Take AI: we live in an age of waste. If AI can be applied to match demand and supply more efficiently, then won’t that be a good thing? The Soviet Union collapsed because its economy was based on a system of price controls — creating enormous ineptitude. By using the price mechanism to match demand and supply, capitalism appears to be much more efficient. But it still creates waste. Maybe AI linked up with the Internet of Things and big data on a really, really big scale, can eventually either supplant or perhaps enhance the capitalist way of allocating resources.
Or take Cloud thinking. These days most companies don’t own their IT infrastructure, they rent it and turn their usage up when they need it and turn it down when they don’t. The result is that IT resource is much more effectively applied — there is less waste. And of course, linked to the Cloud is the idea of software as a service, or SaaS.
If you want to discuss the good and evil of the sharing economy without referring to how it is already applied in business, you miss the point.
Now suppose that this cloud way of thinking is applied to autonomous cars. We don’t own cars; we order a super cheap robocar as and when we need it. Since cars spend 95 per cent of their time parked the transport as a service model, or TaaS, could transform the auto industry, creating one of the biggest economic shocks since the invention of the car itself. Or maybe even bigger than that — after-all, the car model just took the idea of owning a horse to another level; car sharing is an entirely different economic model.
Now I am not suggesting that one day no one will own a car — if you live out in the sticks somewhere, then ordering a vehicle when you need it may not be an option.
John Lennon sang “Imagine there’s no possessions.” I am not advocating a world with no possessions, and I don’t think WEF and its founder Klaus Schwab wanted to be taken literally when he discussed that idea. I am not willing to give up ownership of my bed, my favourite clothes, or my dog. Neither do I think anyone would want my tatty slippers or threadbare underwear which I haven’t got around to binning.
And somewhere in that line of objects we shouldn’t own, like air, or the Cloud, and our music and DVD collection, at one end, and our socks and underpants at the other end, which no one wants to share, is our home. I don’t know which side of the property ownership divide that should sit upon, but that’s an issue for a separate debate,
The point is that not owning some of the stuff we used to own is a good thing, my home looks much neater since I got rid of my DVD collection and subscribed to Netflix. I am not sure how I feel about not owning records or even books.
A more pertinent question relates to who does own this stuff
Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft own most of the Cloud — no one appears to own air. Who will own the cars we share? Maybe it will be Uber or Tesla or Apple. And I am not sure how I feel about that.
But then what we need here is a discussion. Living in an age of abundance when we share a lot of stuff is not a bad thing, however, the practicalities of who does own the stuff needs to be discussed. Should it be government, or should we have shares in the property which we share? If Netflix owns the content we watch, if Spotify owns the music we listen to and Uber the cars we order to move us around, then maybe this isn’t so bad if we all have shares in these companies. But should we own these shares as individuals or via the state? And if the state owns the shares, isn’t that Communism? When you add technology to the discussion, capitalism and communism start to converge.
And that brings me to the Great Reset. Some argue that they — I am not sure who they are, but presumably it is the Davos fraternity — have engineered this whole pandemic thing just to enable them to enforce their dystopian agenda upon us.
As we suffer under the yoke of lockdowns, the techs get bigger. Ergo, they say, it’s all a big plan.
Returning to Naomi Klein, she said: “Is it any wonder that so many find it entirely plausible that the same elites who expect them to swallow all the coronavirus-related sacrifices while they party in the Hamptons and on private islands would also be willing to exaggerate the risks of the disease to get them to the accept more bitter 'green” medicine,' for the common good?”
I think Covid is real and lockdowns and mask-wearing and social distancing, unpleasant as they all are, are necessary evils.
But I do think Covid has accelerated a trend that was already happening.
Or maybe it is more than that. Sometimes, to move forward, we have to knock down that which we have built. Change can be difficult, and sometimes we have to await another generations arrival to enact change. That is why Max Planck sort of said; “Science advances one funeral at a time.”
Maybe the Covid-19 crisis bypasses the need to await a younger generation. There’s an irony for you, by imposing lockdowns primarily designed to save the lives of older people, we no longer need to wait for their funerals to implement change.
But rather than seeing this as evidence Covid was orchestrated so that Schwab and Gates and Soros and the technorati (tech glitterati) can have their way; it was more a case of taking a leaf out of what Churchill might have said (although I can find no proof only heresy that he did) and that is “to never let a good crisis go to waste.”
However, what we do need is a debate which is cognizant of the facts and background and not a debate hijacked by either the left or right.