Future Economies

Science fiction writers can be overly optimistic about the future. It is tempting to paint a picture of the future where science and capitalism have solved all of our economic and social problems as well as bringing advances such as interplanetary transportation and AI. Today, science is gradually solving some of the world’s problems; for example, AIDS medicine has progressed enormously and a newly HIV positive person living in the west can expect to live as long as someone who is HIV negative. However, technological progress has made some problems worse, mainly the eradication of the planet’s natural environment.

Capitalism is the driving force behind economic impulses and scientific research is governed by the need to be profitable as much as any other industry. This means the problems it is cost-effective to solve are solved and ones it is profitable to make worse are made worse. Capitalism will not solve all our problems by itself, as some sci-fi authors believe it will. For example, in Michael Cobley’s Humanity's Fire novels, humans has progressed to be a space faring civilization, which implies we have overcome our current environmental and population problems. However we are still ruled over by the same type of governments and private business is still the focus of the economy. It strikes me as unlikely that we would have changed so much technologically but remained the same politically and economically.

Capitalism will also not last forever. Too many sci-fi writers accept capitalism as a fundamental truth that will still be present in a future that has left behind the chemical rocket and the internal combustion engine. In the future, there will be different economic systems, just as there will be different political systems. At a talk given by Iain M. Banks, he complained about lazy sci-fi authors who depict a future where the technology, government and social structures have changed but capitalism remains. It is up to sci-fi authors to imagine interesting future economies and not assume that the economic systems of the present, i.e. capitalism, will still be there in the future. The best sci-fi books imagine interesting alternative economics, for example Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief imagines a future society where time itself is a commodity and the currency.

There are plenty of sci-fi novels, with space based societies, which do not think about how the economy would have changed or evolved in the time since humanity got into space, even if it is very far in the future. Vernor Vinge's A Deepness In the Sky is set in a future where humanity has migrated so far from Earth that it is almost forgotten but the impulses of capitalism (personified by the Qeng Ho trader civilization) are still what drives human expansion. Humanity has changed enormously in the A Deepness In The Sky, technologically, politically, socially, but economically has remained the same. This seems unlikely to me.

I believe that the great economic issue of our age, which sci-fi authors should be tackling, is the massively rising level of economic inequality. The fact that future economies might bring about greater levels of inequality is overlooked in most science fiction stories. I find the film Alien and the TV show Red Dwarf very interesting presentations of the future as, unlike the gleaming world of Star Trek, they show us that in the future, there will still be people with bad jobs who strive for more money and status.

In our world, economic inequality has gotten substantially worse over the last 30 years. There were times when we were a more economically equal society, such as the period from the end of the Second World War to the end of the 1970s. In the future inequality could get better or worse. Although a lot of science fiction stories overlook the possibility that society could become more unequal, some approach this possibility in imaginative ways.

The film Gattaca is set in a very unequal future where a social elite perpetuates their power through genetic predisposition. Gattaca is world where birth, or more accurately the social class you are born into, determines the pattern of your life. In the film, we see how this rigid social structure limits the individual. This is what those of us who are concerned about economic inequality fear, a future where the economic divisions are so wide that birth determines the trajectory of your life. Gattaca explores how society’s resources might be allocated in this future and shows that, as society changes to accommodate this new technology, so too does our economic structure. This is an imaginative way of looking at what the future might be like.

Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels have a different but equally imaginative approach to the economy of the future. Culture novels are post-scarcity, where technological progress has made the resource allocation system of capitalism obsolete. The Culture is a society where technology has completely changed every aspect of humanity, its social values, resource allocation and political structures are completely different to the ones of today. The Culture is a future where everything is different.

Technological progress and capitalism will not in themselves make the future more equal. However technological changes will alter our social structures, our political institutions and our economic system. The structures which facilitate our Earth based society will have to change if we become a space-based society. Will these changes be for better or worse? Will they solve our current problems or escalate them? These are interesting topics for sci-fi writers to explore, and many interesting writers are doing so. However it is lazy to assume that capitalism or any other current social or economic structure will remain indefinitely, regardless of how much humanity changes.