Towards a Mass Flourishing

In this season of Breaking Smart, I will not attempt to predict the what and when of the future. In fact, a core element of the hacker ethos is the belief that being open to possibilities and embracing uncertainty is necessary for the actual future to unfold in positive ways. Or as computing pioneer Alan Kay put it, inventing the future is easier than predicting it.

And this is precisely what tens of thousands of small teams  — small enough to be fed by no more than two pizzas, by a rule of thumb made famous by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — are doing across the world today.

Prediction as a foundation for facing the future involves risks that go beyond simply getting it wrong. The bigger risk is getting attached to a particular what and when, a specific vision of a paradise to be sought, preserved or reclaimed. This is often a serious philosophical error — to which pastoralist mindsets are particularly prone — that seeks to limit the future.

But while I will avoid dwelling too much on the what and when, I will unabashedly advocate for a particular answer to how. Thanks to virtuous cycles already gaining in power, I believe almost all effective responses to the problems and opportunities of the coming decades will emerge out of the hacker ethos, despite its apparent peripheral role today. The credentialist ethos of extensive planning and scripting towards deterministic futures will play a minor supporting role at best. Those who adopt a Promethean mindset and break smart will play an expanding role in shaping the future. Those who adopt a pastoral mindset and retreat towards tradition will play a diminishing role, in the shrinking number of economic sectors where credentialism is still the more appropriate model.

The nature of problem-solving in the hacker mode, based on trial-and-error, iterative improvement, testing and adaptation (both automated and human-driven) allows us to identify four characteristics of how the future will emerge.

First, despite current pessimism about the continued global leadership of the United States, the US remains the single largest culture that embodies the pragmatic hacker ethos, nowhere more so than in Silicon Valley. The United States in general, and Silicon Valley in particular, will therefore continue to serve as the global exemplar of Promethean technology-driven change. And as virtual  collaboration technologies improve, the Silicon Valley economic culture will increasingly become the global economic culture.

Second, the future will unfold through very small groups having very large impacts. One piece of wisdom in Silicon Valley today is that the core of the best software is nearly always written by teams of fewer than a dozen people, not by huge committee-driven development teams. This means increasing well-being for all will be achieved through small two-pizza teams beating large ones. Scale will increasingly be achieved via loosely governed ecosystems of additional participants creating wealth in ways that are hard to track using traditional economic measures. Instead of armies of Organization Men and Women employed within large corporations, and Organization Kids marching in at one end and retirees marching out at the other, the world of work will be far more diverse.

Third, the future will unfold through a gradual and continuous improvement of well-being and quality of life across the world, not through sudden emergence of a utopian software-enabled world (or sudden collapse into a dystopian world). The process will be one of fits and starts, toys and experiments, bugginess and brokenness. But the overall trend will be upwards, towards increasing prosperity for all.

Fourth, the future will unfold through rapid declines in the costs of solutions to problems, including in heavily regulated sectors historically resistant to cost-saving innovations, such as healthcare and higher education. In improvements wrought by software, poor and expensive solutions have generally been replaced by superior and cheaper (often free) solutions, and these substitution effects will accelerate.

Putting these four characteristics together, we get a picture of messy, emergent progress that economist Bradford Delong calls “slouching towards utopia“: a condition of gradual, increasing quality of life available, at gradually declining cost, to a gradually expanding portion of the global population.

A big implication is immediately clear: the asymptotic condition represents a consumer utopia. As consumers, we will enjoy far more for far less. This means that the biggest unknown today is our future as producers, which brings us to what many view as the central question today: the future of work.

The gist of a robust answer, which we will explore in Understanding Elite Discontent, was anticipated by John Maynard Keynes as far back as 1930,1 though he did not like the implications: the majority of the population will be engaged in creating and satisfying each other’s new needs in ways that even the most prescient of today’s visionaries will fail to anticipate.

While we cannot predict precisely what workers of the future will be doing — what future wants and needs workers will be satisfying — we can predict some things about how they will be doing it. Work will take on an experimental, trial-and-error character, and will take place in an environment of rich feedback, self-correction, adaptation, ongoing improvement, and continuous learning. The social order surrounding work will be a much more fluid descendant of today’s secure but stifling paycheck world on the one hand, and liberating but precarious world of free agency and contingent labor on the other.

In other words, the hacker ethos will go global and the workforce at large will break smart. As the hacker ethos spreads, we will witness what economist Edmund Phelps calls a mass flourishing2 — a state of the economy where work will be challenging and therefore fulfilling. Unchallenging, predictable work will become the preserve of machines.

Previous historical periods of mass flourishing, such as the early industrial revolution, were short-lived, and gave way, after a few decades, to societies based on a new middle class majority built around predictable patterns of work and life. This time around, the state of mass flourishing will be a sustained one: a slouching towards a consumer and producer utopia.

If this vision seems overly dramatic, consider once again the comparison to other soft technologies: software is perhaps the most imagination-expanding technology humans have invented since writing and money, and possibly more powerful than either. To operate on the assumption that it will transform the world at least as dramatically, far from being wild-eyed optimism, is sober realism.

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[1] The classic 1930 article by John Maynard Keynes, Economic possibilities for our grandchildren, remains the dominant framing for understanding technological unemployment. Keynes understood that technological unemployment is a temporary phenomenon and that new wants and needs soon appear to create new employment. He viewed this as a spiritual problem of sorts: that of endlessly expanding materialism and spiritual degeneracy. We will discuss his proposed solution, the concept of a leisure society, in a later essay.

[2] Edmund Phelps’ Mass Flourishing (2014) is a magisterial survey of the rise of corporatism and its stifling effects on the economic dynamism that marked the early decades of the industrial revolution.  By critically examining a wide variety of economic indicators (ranging from job satisfaction and values surveys to employment and growth data), Phelps constructs a powerful case for abandoning corporatist economic organization models. Compared to the much more heavily publicized economic blockbuster of 2014, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Centurywhich focused much more narrowly on income inequality, Phelps’ work takes a much broader multi-model approach. For readers interested in a broad understanding of the economic context of software eating the world, Phelps’ book is probably the single best resource.