Humanity is the only species on Earth to have developed knowledge. I will make the term ‘knowledge’ increasingly precise as we go along, but for now will say that we are the only species that is able to read and write books. And this knowledge has enabled us to create increasingly powerful technology. Technological advance has the effect of broadening the ‘space of the possible’; for instance, with the invention of the airplane, human flight became a reality.
When the ‘space of the possible’ is broadened, it brings with it both good and bad capabilities. This duality of technology has been with us from fire, the very first human technology. With the discovery of fire, it became possible to warm ourselves and cook, but also to burn down forests and enemy villages. Today, the Internet broadens free access to learning, but it can also spread hate and lies on a global scale.
And yet there is something special about our time: we are experiencing a technological non-linearity, in which the ‘space of the possible’ expands dramatically, thus rendering predictions based on extrapolation useless. The current non-linearity arises from the extraordinary power of digital technology, which far exceeds anything that was possible with industrial machinery, due to two unique characteristics. Digital technology delivers ‘universality of computation’ (it can compute anything) at ‘zero marginal cost’ (extra copies can be produced for free).
To understand what is happening, we therefore need to zoom out in time. Humanity has previously encountered two similar non-linearities. The first occurred roughly ten thousand years ago with the invention of agriculture, which ended the Forager Age and brought us into the Agrarian Age. The second started with the Enlightenment about four hundred years ago, which helped to usher in the Industrial Age.
Consider foragers one hundred thousand years ago, trying to predict what society would look like after the invention of agriculture. Even something that seems as trivially obvious as living in buildings would be hard to imagine from the viewpoint of migratory tribes. Similarly, much of what we have today – from modern medicine to computer technology – would resemble magic to those living as recently as the mid-twentieth century. It is not simply the existence of smartphones but also the availability and affordability of such technology that would have been hard to foresee.
The World After Capital has two goals. The first is to establish that we are currently experiencing a third period of non-linearity. The key argument is that each time the ‘space of the possible’ expands dramatically, the defining constraint for humanity shifts, meaning the scarcity that most requires allocation in order to meet humanity’s basic needs changes. Specifically, the invention of agriculture shifted scarcity from food to land, and industrialization shifted scarcity from land to capital (which throughout The World After Capital refers to physical capital, such as machines and buildings, unless otherwise noted). Digital technology is now shifting scarcity from capital to attention.
Capital is no longer scarce in some parts of the world and it is becoming rapidly less scarce everywhere. We should consider this to be the great success of capitalism. But markets, which were the crucial allocation mechanism for capital, will not solve the scarcity of attention. We are bad at allocating attention, both individually and collectively. For example, how much attention do you pay to your friends and family, or to the existential question of the meaning of your life? And how much attention are we paying as a society to the great challenges and opportunities of our time, such as the climate crisis and space travel? Markets are not able to help us better allocate attention because prices do not, and cannot, exist for many of the issues that we should be paying attention to. Consider paying attention to your purpose in life: there is no independent supply and demand; it is up to you alone to allocate enough attention to this question.
My second goal in writing The World After Capital is to propose an approach that will help us overcome the limits of market-based capitalism and facilitate a smooth transition from the Industrial Age (in which capital is scarce) to the Knowledge Age (in which attention is scarce). Getting this right will be critical for humanity, as the two previous transitions were marked by massive turmoil and upheaval. We are already seeing signs of increasing conflict within societies and among belief systems across the world, fueling a rise of populist and nationalist leaders, including Donald Trump in the US.
How should we approach this third transition? What actions should society take now, when the non-linearity we are facing prevents us from being able to make accurate predictions about the future? We need to enact policies that allow for gradual social and economic change; the alternative is that we artificially suppress these changes, only for them explode eventually. In particular, I will argue that we should smooth the transition to the Knowledge Age by expanding three powerful individual freedoms:
Economic freedom: instituting a universal basic income.
Informational freedom: improving information access and shifting control of computation away from large corporations.
Psychological freedom: practicing and encouraging mindfulness.
Increasing these three freedoms will make attention less scarce. Economic freedom will unlock the time that we currently spend in jobs that can and should be automated. Informational freedom will broaden access to information and computation. And psychological freedom enables rationality in a world in which we are overloaded with information. Each of these freedoms is important in its own right, but they are also mutually reinforcing.
One crucial goal in reducing the scarcity of attention is to improve the functioning of the ‘knowledge loop’, which is the source of all knowledge and consists of learning, creating and sharing. Producing more knowledge is essential to human progress; the history of humanity is littered with failed civilizations that didn’t produce enough knowledge to overcome the challenges facing them.
To achieve collective progress through increased individual freedoms, we must establish a set of values that include critical inquiry, democracy and responsibility. These values ensure that the benefits of the knowledge loop accrue broadly to humanity and extend to other species. They are central to a renewed humanism, which in turn has an objective basis in the existence and power of human knowledge. Reasserting humanism is especially critical at a time when we are coming close to creating ‘transhumans’ through genetic engineering and augmentation, as well as ‘neohumans’ through artificial intelligence.
The World After Capital argues that increased freedoms combined with strong humanist values are the way that we will transition from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Age. Though I am profoundly optimistic about the ultimate potential for human progress, I am pessimistic about how we will get there. We seem intent on clinging to the Industrial Age at all cost, which increases the likelihood of violent change. My hope is that in writing this book I can in some small way help to move us forward peacefully.