Wednesday, October 28, 2015

future then and now

For some time I've kept a copy of an essay titled 'In Praise of Idleness' written by Bertrand Russell in 1932. Famous in life as a philosopher, mathematician, historian and political activist, as well as being a Nobel Prize winner, I'm sure he needs no introduction here.

A few days ago I came across an interview on Vice Magazine called: The Man Whose Job It Is to Constantly Imagine the Total Collapse of Humanity in Order to Save It. That man is Vinay Gupta, a philosopher, engineer, computer programmer, and one of the world’s leading thinkers on infrastructure theory, state failure solutions, and managing global system risks. Whereas I'd never heard of him until a few days ago and generally don't have a high opinion of modern futurism I found his reasoning to be most humane.

Part way through reading the interview with Vinay Gupta, having by then determined it resonated in a very profound way with what Bertrand Russell had written 83 years ago, I decided to try pulling pieces out of both compositions and setting parts next to one another to form a conversation. Maybe this was a silly thing to do (both originals are far longer and provide a more complete view of the individuals thoughts) but the following dialogue is the result that I hope you'll enjoy. That there can be such mutual philosophical reinforcement across so many decades I find very reassuring. With apologies if it's too long:

Bertrand Russell: I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.

Vinay Gupta: A global minimum standard of living is the way to go here, and it's cheap to produce if you think of it as "manufacture and distribute for free" rather than trying to hand out cash and hope people will buy what you want them to buy.

BR: First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.

VG: Nobody will admit that we are apes with ape problems. Everybody is carrying around the essentially colonialist fiction that we are in some way more than the other animals, and once that error is made, our heads fill with imaginary needs and imaginary stories. We can pretty much perfect the happy ape level of consciousness in this world, and all that it's going to cost us is our history of over-complicating all of this with our pre-evolutionary mythology about the nature of humanity.

BR: From the beginning of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard as he did, and his children added their labor as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by warriors and priests. In times of famine there was no surplus; the warriors and priests, however, still secured as much as at other times, with the result that many of the workers died of hunger.

VG: What if the objective isn't to level out the game between winners and losers, but to make life as good as possible for the losers? If we accept that most people will be losers at some point in their lives, how do we design a good life for losers, for the mediocre, the untalented, the unlucky – for every single human being, no matter how "undeserving" they may appear to some means-testing meritocratic aid bureaucracy. This is "decentralisation" certainly, but not in the usual sense that people use the word.

BR:  A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impress upon men's thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system, and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.

VG: Refugees, homeless people, disaster victims, migrants, all these people often face the same basic challenges: staying warm, staying cool, avoiding hunger, thirst, illness and injury. For those of us left scrambling in the dirt – that's a billion people today in the slums, and another two billion barely making a living on tiny little mud hut farms all over the world. For those people to make a decent life, that has been my goal.

I don't know how to fix inequality. But I do think we can – with safe, available, even cheap technology – stamp out nearly all of the suffering that poverty causes. As Gandhi said: "Poverty is the worst form of violence."

BR: Of course the holders of power conceal this fact from themselves by managing to believe that their interests are identical with the larger interests of humanity. Sometimes this is true; Athenian slave-owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in making a permanent contribution to civilization which would have been impossible under a just economic system. Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.

VG: People who have to leave where they are because staying will get them killed aren't necessarily fleeing political oppression or war any more, now we have to increasingly contend with climate-induced famine and economic factors. Where are these people going during the period of their dependency? They've largely abandoned jobs, and their savings won't last long. Where are they to go in the short term, and who is to house and feed them.

The truth is that we could solve that territorial problem right now pretty easily if we made an all-out assault on solar water desalination: all the dry coast and most of the desert in Africa, America and especially Australia would become habitable if there was abundant, affordable fresh water. So colonising the desert areas would be a big win. There's a huge leap of imagination to take our existing physical resources and purpose them into this kind of pseudo-utopian project, but it's only a leap of imagination. We have all the technology, right here, right now, this very day. It seems to me that the obvious solution would be for the oil-rich Gulf States to take them in en masse – build a couple of new cities instead and do some of that "make the desert bloom" stuff in Saudi Arabia, and settle a few million people there. Problem solved.

BR: Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war (wwi). At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since. The significance of this fact was concealed by finance: borrowing made it appear as if the future was nourishing the present. But that, of course, would have been impossible; a man cannot eat a loaf of bread that does not yet exist. The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world.

VG: When we admit that the allegedly-temporary status of "refugee" is actually the permanent status of "displaced, never to return" maybe we could start to design a lifestyle that works cheaply enough for the international community to continue support, while at the same time producing a high standard of living to the point where refugees have some real utility. My proposal, along those paths, is that we turn the refugee camps into universities. If we won't let them get jobs and work, let them get PhDs on the internet and become huge academic centres of excellence. There is no problem in this world that access to 150 million more educated human beings would not improve. At a technical level, we can certainly build as many temporary cities or countries as are required, at very reasonable prices, but surely we can do better than shoring up these broken legal fictions.

We need a legal replacement for the "refugee" concept, in the age of people being forced off their land by climate crises. All the rest comes from that. Global citizenship?

BR: Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.


  1. We will, however, go on being foolish forever, or at least sufficient of us will, until we die out and the fiery dragons take over, Nice drawing.

    1. The thing that's most notable is that the world was already in a position to do so much 83 years ago. I'm afraid you're likely to be proven correct, Andrew.

  2. Excellent idea to let B.R. and V.G. have a dialogue. Thank you.

    And very funny to see "Mister Spitfire, Sir" curtseying, obviously deeply flattered and cajoled being called "the politest dragon all over the world". :)

    1. There were so many matching points of view between them that I couldn't resist. Glad you liked it, Sean.

      As you can see I'm still working things out with these characters. Maybe there'll be something more solid by the time Annabelle has learned to read. :)

  3. Hi Susan,
    Great drawing and idea to link these philosopher’s like-minded responses from different times. Best wishes

    1. Hi Lindsay, I'm so glad you enjoyed reading it. While great minds often do think alike it's the idiots who keep making the same mistake and expect the results to be different.
      All the best

  4. I suspect there is a degree of naivete in the ideas set out by both parties. Whilst proposing a solution to what we could do with migrants, constructing temporary cities and letting them all study for Ph.D's, I wonder whether the migrants and refugees were solicited for their opinions. I was a little amused by the idea of the Gulf States taking such a salvationary role, particularly with their human rights records, and religious intolerance.

    On the other hand, I did enjoy reading the "conversation" as you presented it, but there is so much to consider that any in-depth analysis (did you want that?) would be extremely difficult to produce. As ever, your blog is a seed-bed for needful thoughts.

    1. Hah! - to be hopeful about the possibility of a social phase change is a good example of naivete, Tom. That's why our utopian visions most often involve a return to a glorious, idealized past, rather than reaching for a purely hypothetical state of being that we can create from the fruits of our imagination. It’s easier to imagine a return to a utopian past than it is to create a utopian future.

      I think Bertrand Russell enjoyed theorizing about how much better the world would be if everyone in it could only be more like him. The point is, for the most part, he knew he was joking. Vinay Gupta, on the other hand, is quite sincere in his yearning after an ideal future - one that includes generation star ships heading off in many directions in order that humanity might seed our galaxy (and further?).

      Yes, the idea of the Gulf State princes mobilizing in non-sectarian benevolent ways (the true heart of Islam, btw) is sadly funny.

  5. This conversation is very very interesting and provides food for thought. I'm made to recall a recent book by economist Thomas Piketti, as well as many studies that show how much of the world's wealth is owned by 1% of the population. Corporations vs workers - has that changed since the start of the Industrial Revolution? I'm not optimistic, I feel sad to say.

    Love the art work, Susan!

    1. Corporations exist to make money for their stockholders; unsurprisingly, many of the people who run the corporations are their own stockholders or the holders of stock in other corporations. There's no money to be made from programs that will provide decent lives to the many who don't own stock.

      Unlike, kings and emperors, corporations don't die. It's hard to find reason for optimism, Marja-Leena, but I keep trying anyway :)

      Thanks for noticing the picture - more of a scribble than artwork.