”Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option” - Professor Stephen Hawking
In the future, money, earning, and buying is going to be fundamentally different. The value of things will change: ownership of things may shrink away (you can try out an owning-free life today) and money itself may be valued differently. We compare missives from a fictional future with the steps being taken today to get there...
Yearning for earning
In this version of the future, there are no alarm-clocks. There are no radio-alarms, wake-you-gently “sunrise” lamps, buzzers, bells, or novelty branded waking devices.
You are woken up by birdsong, or your children, or your dog, or because you are hungry. And maybe breakfast is your hardest decision of the day. Because in this version of the future, you don’t need to work anymore.
When automation started replacing manufacturing and driving jobs, people got worried; when, in 2025, AI made automation more efficient than humans could dream of, a whole other chunk of jobs vanished too, and people panicked.
Not everyone could do a non-automatable job: there are only so many artisan wood-turners, rustic bakers, and talking therapists a society needs (although the latter did get a lot more work.)
Yet when UBI - Universal Basic Income - was introduced in 2027, and everyone was guaranteed a minimum income, the wild celebration was initially tempered with both personal and social unease. A society who’d learnt that hard work was righteous and no work was laziness was suddenly grouped together en mass, with limitless free time. Of course, the borders had to be secured immediately: everyone wanted a piece.
But increased security enforcement was literally a small price to pay for the fulfilment of a fundamental human dream: no work, all play.
As we peer over the horizon, the idea of a Universal Basic Income is increasingly plausible. Every time Tesla or Google or Boston Dynamics demonstrates a new dazzling piece of technology, time is called on another job sector: ta-ta, truckers; goodnight writers; adios warehouse workers.
And yet today it’s hard to imagine governments even beginning to consider UBI, even though it’s clear that the oncoming tidal wave of unemployment might force their hands. The main sticking points seem to be: why should we pay all of society’s lazy bums to do nothing? And what will I do if I don’t have a job any more?
The first point ignores the fact that when UBI is introduced, the likelihood is that we will all be as busy as these lazy bums; the second point is the act of looking a gift horse in the mouth.
Yannis Varoufakis, famed economist and former Greek finance minister, is blunt. Capitalism is “ending because it made itself obsolete” through its own tech advances. He argues that we have hitched our wagon to this strain of capitalism: our wages, mortgages, expenditure - everything - is centred around the capitalist idea of growth and new consumption.
And now the result of it all - automation - might stop that very same system in its tracks.
"We can all become rich-lazy, and accept our latent human desire to not do very much whatsoever."
Varoufakis views UBI in broader terms: as the rebalancing of long-term investments. Prise open a mobile phone, says Yannis, and you’ll find a variety of components and parts - and, “every single technology in it was developed by some government grant.” WiFi, for instance, was invented by a branch of the Australian government - who own the patent and get paid for each device sold.
He says that UBI can be thought of as a dividend - a return for these investments by the state from which big companies got rich.
And the lazy bums? Yannis says that our feelings of unfairness - the lazy get the same UBI as us hard-working types - misses a bigger societal concern. By acknowledging, he says, that “the right to laziness has traditionally been only for the propertied rich,” we can view the world with a new perspective. Instead of demonising the poor for laziness, we can all become rich-lazy, and accepting of our latent human desires to not do very much whatsoever.
He has a point: if humans no longer need to work, we shouldn’t, if we don’t want to - and this choice is a sign of our technological and societal improvement.
In the meantime, Google has launched a rather generous-sounding billion-dollar “Grow with Google” scheme which educates people for free. The reason you should educate yourself is, essentially, to prepare for your current skills being made obsolete faster than you can imagine - or as Google puts it:
A quick, erm, Google search reveals a slew of to-the-point headlines like “Google pledges $1 billion to prepare workers for automation.”
Why not sign up - you might need something to do with your time soon, right?
Time waits for everyone
If time = money, what do you do when you have all the money in the world? Initially, it was fun: the clubs and bars boomed, open 24 hours a day, fuelling partygoers who never ran out of credit.
The UBI is paid each month: a virtual transaction to a virtual account of a virtual government cryptocurrency you have never held in your hand, but transfer between one another all the time. For most of us, days are… easy. Childcare issues have gone. Family time has increased. Crime and violence has dipped significantly: plentifulness abounds. Book sales have shot up: people are much better read now.
Of course the super-rich still exist, still making payments in old fiat currencies. But those dollars and pounds circulate between them, as they buy the same string of yachts, supercars and jewels. The money doesn’t leave the circle, except when expensive and hastily bought gifts disappear with a beautiful (and, not turns out, cunning) ex-partner.
And after the fun, it got a bit… dull. Pleasant but boring. Like Soma. Hobbies got big. Rock climbing was particularly popular - maybe it was the sensation of ascending past other people.
Free Time might be exactly that: gratis. There will be plenty of people who still work: some who need to, some who want to, some who just can’t let the idea of more money go. But plenty will be happy on their UBI. So how to fill the time?
Automation and AI will drive prices of technology down (note that in a post-UBI world, “cost” is a very relative term), whilst boosting its capabilities. So it could be easy to get lost in VR, or in AR, or in games, or in all of the above: living out fantasies in a fantasy parallel world.
Of course, you’re probably planning to be one of the slightly pious ones who’ll, like, totally not be into VR.
But just wait until you have all the time you need, and all the VR fantasies you want: see how appealing the tofu-making course you off-handedly signed up for seems them.
Untying from buying
Shopping stopped being a past time and drifted into a necessity. So the people who worked were the people who just couldn’t let go of the dirty thrill of purchasing. They have jobs that are lucky enough to be thusfar unautomated or, for the desperate, could find.
But after a generation or so, the National Board predicts that this now-weird need to purchase will fade, and already there are so many ways to share amazing tech: cars, objects, entertainment.
Why would we want to clutter up our lives with things we only use for 10% of the time? Since disbanding the old government system, the National Board has worked hard to keep everyone happy within the UBI system, and we’re all sharing the benefits of the wise investments made by the old governments.
Rejecting ownership and accepting UBI are bedfellows, in a way. It makes more sense when you look at it from this perspective: Big companies “own” fewer of us today than ever before; so it’s normal that we should have less of their stuff too. In the mid Sixties, the most valuable company in the US was AT&T, and they employed over three-quarters of million people. Today, the most valuable company is Google, and they employ about 55,000 people.
Google’s actually worth more, allowing for inflation, than AT&T was. So where does all that extra money go? It’s sloshing around somewhere, and UBI’s credo is not that it should come to us, but that it must, to allow these companies to continue their success - and yet, we won’t want to buy their stuff any more.
We’re already looking at ownership differently. It’s partly via necessity - Generation Rent simply can’t afford to buy a house in certain cities - and it’s partly because of convenience. The by-the hour car rental model and Airbnb's by-the-day rental model, is considered not only normal, but a no-brainer.
Extending this ethos to all of the objects you now own might not sound like much fun for manufacturers. They've got wealthy off releasing a new model of Device X every six months, but our perception of ownership has changed.
When our perception of money is completely different and UBI brings utter security, the idea of permanently investing into things will be a choice; a hobby.
So are there even disadvantages of non-ownership? Maybe: there is an argument that non-ownership affects the perception of the experience because you have not invested substantially into the object.
Today, few people buy music physically; instead they stream it when they want it. And think about how this on-demand system affects your music choices: if you didn’t “get” a certain album immediately on Spotify, would you persevere listening to it until you finally understood it? Or would you skip to something else?
Alternatively, if you’d paid €25 for a double heavyweight vinyl version of that “difficult” album, you’d be more likely to dig into it out of a sense of investment.
And yet, ownership actually holds consumers back: once you have invested, you must wait before you can invest again, and other avenues of exploration and discovery are closed. The music streaming perspective is a useful analogy once again: how much more music have you discovered since streaming became normal? Has your experience, your life, your understanding been broadened as a result of this endless choice, this sense of shifting around?
And this is maybe, vaguely, is how using money will feel in the near future: we’ll be richer in experiential terms, just as long as we’re in control of our own impulses. We’ll care less about ownership of things, except for a very few, special, select cases that are highly important to us. And we’ll learn be happy with the idea of everyone being on hand-outs, just so long as we can be comfortable with us being on them too.
Your future might be lazy, mindful, and enriched. Or it might be lazy, listless, and restless. Whatever it is, it’ll be lazy. Time to embrace your inner slob.