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.

What can economists learn from science fiction?

Economics and science fiction are two things that you would not typically associate with each other. One is an academic discipline, and the other is a creative discipline. At a glance, there few sci-fi books that deal directly with economics – there are sci-fi books that tackle politics, sociology, religion and war, but books which look at economics are less prevalent. Is this because economics is too dry? It is too serious? Too heavily based in the real world? Is economics too reliant on data, which does not lend itself to being expressed via prose?

Recently I attended a lecture entitled ‘What can economics learn from science fiction?’, in which Cambridge economists Ha-Joon Chang argued that economics and science fiction are related. This lecture was to mark the opening of the Political Economy Research Centre (PERC) at Goldsmiths’ College in London, and featured a lively debate on issues relevant to both economics and science fiction. A podcast of the talk can be found here.

Chang argued that economics, especially neo-classical economics, is very similar to science fiction. This is because neo-classical economics - the current dominant form of economics, sometimes called free market economics - is not a science based on imperially proven laws like physics, but is instead based on the unempirical behavior of human beings. Both economics and science fiction are related to natural sciences but are not scientific themselves. Chang also argues that economists can learn a lot from science fiction, as economists lack imagination, something sci-fi writers have in abundance.

Science fiction is about imagining possible futures based on changes in institutions, technology, politics and society, and about how these changes lead to changes in individuals. He also said that individuals are shaped by the society they inhabit and that society’s technology, which sci-fi writers also explore. Changes in technology change how people live their lives; the example which Chang gave was that people in agrarian economies have a lax approach to time keeping, whereas people in industrial economies are very precise time keepers. Science fiction writers explore economic changes by looking at the type of individuals that would be produced by these changes; for example, in Iain M. Banks's Culture novels, technology has liberated humanity from scarcity, and the effect of this is the removal of hierarchy and institutions, and greater personal freedom. Banks's novels explore how social liberalism is linked to resource scarcity.

The ways in which changes in the economy will affect how people behave in the future is important ground for economists to explore. Economists and sci-fi writers can change the emphasis of the structure of the economy in the present to see how the future will be different, and then make a comment about whether this type of change should be encouraged or discouraged. An example of this from sci-fi was Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, an imagined society where our economic needs are met and there is no social, political or class conflict. However, by exploring this world and the people who are produced by it, we see that despite appearing utopian, we would not want to live in it.

Another example is Mad Max, which like many post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories, looks at the idea of the neo-classical rational individual set free by the collapse of society. In the world of Mad Max, the people have total economic and personal freedom with no state involvement; neo-classical economists suggest that this should bring about a perfect society, but the world of Mad Max is far from perfect. Post-apocalyptic sci-fi says when individual selfishness is set free the overall structure of society suffers, a comment on neo-classic economics. Mad Max also makes the point that total freedom of individuals from governments and institutions can only be brought about by the collapse of society.

Sci-fi writers can also learn from economists, Chang argued that better understanding of economics would lead to better world building. In David Brin's novel Glory Season, the inhabitants of the planet Stratos have adopted an isolationist and self-sufficient political ideology (similar to Juche in North Korea), which has had the effect of holding their economic development at an early industrial level; they have some railways, but still rely heavily on sailing ships. However, there also seems to be modern broadcasting technology, which is inconsistent. Another example is the Galactic Empire in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels: the expire exists to provide the capital world of Trantor with food and raw materials for its 40 billion inhabitants, but it is not clear what the capital exports in return, except for political tyranny. The same can be said of Suzanne Collins's ‘Hunger Games’ novels.

Chang also argued that there was a lot which science fiction writers and economists could learn from each other, as much of the work in both disciplines operates with the same underlying assumptions. Both could learn that the inevitable progress of science and capitalism is unlikely to solve all of our social and economic problems. A Star Trek-like future where scientific progress has eliminated social strife and the need for work is very unlikely; what is far more likely is a future like Alien, where there are still poorly-paid jobs in bad conditions, or Gattaca, where the benefits of technology progress are hoarded by a minority who are preselected by technology based on their genes and background. Faith in progress as a social leveler is naive – the economies of the future are likely to be as oppressive as the economies of today, and perhaps more so.

The main thrust of Chang's argument is one that I very much agree with: that science fiction and economics are closely related and they can learn a lot from each other. I certainly agree that a better understand of economics will help sci-fi writers to create more believable worlds. I also agree that science fiction is a useful tool that economists can use to see how changes in the economy might affect individuals in the future. The two disciplines are related and hopefully both will benefit from a mutually cooperative relationship in the future.