human wants and needs

Peasant and Peasant Woman Planting Potatoes - Van Gogh

Peasant and Peasant Woman Planting Potatoes - Van Gogh


Meet humans' basic needs, and free them

Humans have certain basic requirements: water, food, shelter. Providing those requires other things, like security, energy, resources, etc. - and of course after the basics are met people will still have many other desires. But the more of the fundamental needs we can reliably and cheaply provide, the more we will free up human time and energy to pursue higher goals. And the more humans we can securely raise to the first level of Maslow's pyramid, the greater the number of hands and minds that will be available to raise us to the next and higher levels.

There is a revolution happening in the nature of work, and in who or what performs it. Both physical and mental work are being increasingly taken over by software and robots, and this automation of the tasks necessary to support human life in the manner it has become accustomed to is an immense opportunity, both larger in scale and different in kind than the previous revolutions in work that resulted from the domestication of animals or the invention of powered engines. It is an opportunity, but also a threat, because we humans are not altruistic enough to spread the resulting wealth adequately to compensate for the means of livelihood it will take away from billions of people, nor organized enough to proactively arrange for that outcome even if we collectively wanted it. 

What I think is most likely to happen - given the kind of creatures we are and the nature of the world that we have so far built - is that a handful of companies will develop revolutionary programs and robots that will suddenly (by historical standards; a handful of years, maybe) be able to do major kinds of work far better, faster, and cheaper than any humans can do, and the humans that used to do that work will be rapidly put out of work at a time when the same thing is happening to many other humans in many other kinds of work. There will be no employment for all the displaced people to move into, and they will either starve or fall back on private and governmental charity programs, which will be stressed far beyond their designed capacity. The safety nets which were intended for far more stable times will be inadequate to the new conditions. 

If that happens, and if there are no sufficiently powerful, rapid, and adequately scaled responses, chaos is likely. Looting, murder, riots, revolutions, mass immigrations to seemingly better off countries - all the last ditch efforts of people desperate not to die or to let their families die.

The question is whether states, or other organizations of humanity in general, are capable of adjusting themselves in sufficiently radical ways before, or in time to deal with, the threat. But it will be difficult for conventional democratic governments to make large enough moves before it is already too late, because most political incentives do not support those who try to make sweeping changes that inevitably cost a great deal while fixing problems that haven't happened yet and are consequently invisible to most people and not absolutely certain even to those who see the possibility coming. The strength and the weakness of conventional democracy is that it is responsive to the felt needs of the majority of people, which means that it is good at slowly responding to existing problems, and bad at responding to problems that haven't manifested themselves in many people's lives yet. Historically this has not been terrible, because the relatively slow pace of change in human history so far has meant that there has been a significant lag between a problem that is merely looming, vs. a problem that is hurting people now, vs. a problem that is actively killing millions or billions of people. But the rate of change has been growing increasingly fast, and the intuitions that we built under past conditions, about how problems arise and are resolved, may not hold under present and future conditions.

I'm doubtful whether governmental institutions are adequate to the problems that will happen at the pace of the near future. But this is a time of unprecedented power for individuals and small groups to make far reaching, powerful changes to the world, and to do so with a flexibility and speed that governments are unable to match. This responsiveness and flexibility is offset by a lack of accountability and oversight - it is often too easy for a private group to enact some change that affects huge numbers of people without an opportunity for those people to have any say in the process. And even in the best case of a process that has been carefully considered by many people, and no matter whether an action is governmental or private, there are often large unintended consequences that no one anticipated. Which is all to say that humanity is incapable of perfect actions or perfect knowledge, and that everything we do even with the purest intentions may go wrong - but that nevertheless we would be wrong not to try to fix the problems we think we see, using the best moves we have available to us. And it may be that non-governmental actions are the only ones available to us, for now, that can move at the speed of the problems that are approaching us.