I re-read Cory Doctorow‘s first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, recently as a nice way to ease into the lazy days of Christmas. The book is set in the not-too-distant future, where the end of scarcity and death has transformed society into an esteem-based economy. Your basics are free, but your perks require you to build credibility capital.
It’s a neat concept, especially Doctorow’s main character’s contention that it more accurately reflects the nature of money – for example, in the present, a “rich” man that people don’t respect will not be able to buy anything with his riches, while a “poor” man that has much respect in the community will be able to make out all right with the help of his friends. The whole idea dovetailed nicely with a conversation I had later with my father-in-law on a familiar topic: “meaningful” work.
My father-in-law’s opinion of the nature of “meaningful” work is pretty straightforward, and parallels my earlier thoughts on Adam Smith: if people buy it, it must be useful. He pointed out that without this principle, forty percent of the population would be unemployed – could I imagine what forty percent unemployment would look like? Certainly not. But it begged the question: have we already reached the point where not everybody needs to work?
Considering only a miniscule percentage of the workforce is responsible for agriculture, arguably the main requirement for life, what are the other ninety-seven percent of us doing with our time? Are we only engaging in busywork because we haven’t been clever enough to reform our system of economics to free people to pursue work that they really consider meaningful, rather than scraping out a living working on things other people consider meaningful?