We will be prototyping the Economic Science Fiction (Econ-SF) seminar at the Istanbul Innovation Days. As we start building it up, author Malka Older and economist Raffaele Miniaci have agreed that they want to build up their respective talks by identifying economic issue-science fiction work pairs. That is, we want to identify (a) relevant economic issues that (b) have been treated in a believable and novel way in some work of SF. The interaction will work like this: Malka will introduce the issues and describe how they are treated in the relevant SF pieces of work; Raffaele will bring an academic economist’s take on the SF authors’ take. Things like “the Deneb IV economic policy program seems to draw on Herbert Simon’s idea of bounded rationality…” or “the quasi-autonomous space habitats in the Kuiper Belt address the problem of breathable air production with a variation on Elinor Ostrom’s theory of the commons”.
Here are a few proposals for such pairs.
Innovation and intellectual property rights. Why do people innovate? Standard economic theory suggests that intellectual property rights need to be in place to induce people to innovate. Schumpeter famously suggested that innovation increases long-run productivity by “creative destruction” of existing businesses. In SF, we have several interesting takes on this:
- In Bruce Sterling’s Distraction, a large company pays scientists not to do research, as their results are sure to disrupt their business.
- In Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, IPR enforcement is so tough as to have spawned its own (unaccountable, super-violent) global police. At the same time, there is a counter-cultural biohacking scene that innovates for intellectual pleasure, prestige, and pure idealism. Big bad pharma companies tolerate that scene, and recruit from it. More about this
- Cory Doctorow has written an entire book about this, Makers, complete with a viable (but highly unstable) business model for innovation under weak IPR protection/enforcement (and vicious lawsuits by incumbent corporations). More about this
Econ references: too many to count, but a good starting point is Stiglitz 2007, Economic foundations of intellectual property rights (PDF). Includes many examples and policy implications.
Reputation economies and gift economies. In market economies, people coordinate through a price system. Prices emerge from a large number of market transactions.
Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway runs on a kind of gift economy. It explicitly criticizes the idea of reputation economies on efficiency grounds. More on this
Bruce Sterling’s Distraction features a population (nomadic “proles”) who built an economy running on “reputation servers”. Kudos are accrued, and can be spent calling in favors. i.e. mobilizing community resources.
Daniel Suarez’s Daemon imagines an economy built on “darknet credits”, underwritten by a weak AI, the Daemon, that successfully infiltrated the world’s economy and is taking a small cut from it. While execution is decentralized, the Daemon has its own agenda: a sustainable, fair economy. Initiatives that further the Daemon’s agenda are rewarded. Now that I think of it, this is what a “mission oriented economy” could look like (borrowing on Mazzucato’s work on mission oriented innovation)!
Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed imagines a semi-planned economy where some central authority makes a decision on what needs doing, and breaks down these initiatives into tasks. People then take on tasks (they are more like jobs). Everyone is taken care of. A kind of light-handed socialism.
Notice also that Doctorow, Sterling and Suarez all imagine dual economies: their systems live alongside ours. This is often portrayed as unstable. This is interesting in itself: does the economic system need to be one? Can we have several ones that coexist? Can people move from one to another?
Econ refs: there’s a ton of papers, some very well cited, but I don’t know. enough to recommend anyone in particular. Can @Raffaele help?
Automation of labor. Technical progress will replace human labor with machines. What are the economic consequences of this?
- Many SF authors have been inspired by this idea!
- One of the most radical rendering is that by Charlie Stross in Accelerando: machines trade with machines (they do so already, with algorithmic trading in any modern stock market). Since no human can be as effective at trading as machines, the economy evolves towards a system called “Economics 2.0”, where the search for gain drives the economic system to gradually turn the whole mass in the solar system into a giant computational stratum (“computronium”). Humans and their habitats are not necessary to this economy. In fact, if their mass could be cannibalized towards more computing power, some extra profit might be squeezed out of the system…
- A similar, less radical “competition between algorithms” is at work in William Gibson’s The peripheral.
Econ refs: my personal project is to read Polanyi’s The great transformation, but that might be a bit much to throw into Econ-Scifi’s reading list. I am going to go out on a limb here, and instead point to this post on Mariana Mazzucato’s blog. It contains references to resources (including fun ones like TED talks) arguing opposite sides of the debate (“robots will take your job” vs. “no they won’t”). I also found parts of this report from Eurofound to be quite instructive.
Any more ideas?