I’m reading Piketty’s book. It’s of interest to a philosopher for obvious reasons; but it is also of interest to a science fiction writer because much of it is about predicting the future. Piketty projects certain important trends forward, such as slowing per capita growth and slowing population growth. His projections are simple: they’re just linear trends carried forward.
Contrast Piketty’s work with the projections of extreme techno-optimists like Kurzweil or Diamandis. Kurzweil projects exponential trends forward. I’m skeptical about Kurzweil’s belief that exponential trends remain exponential. I suspect many of his choice trends (e.g., size of memory, speed of computers…) will ultimately prove to be S curves. But, setting that aside, what’s interesting is the disharmony between the world imagined by Piketty and the world imagined by the extreme techno-optimists. Piketty sees on the horizon a world of inequality so severe that democracy and civil society will be difficult to maintain. Kurzweil and Diamandis project some technological trends forward, and see a vastly better civilization looming just around the bend.
Alas, I’m inclined to think Piketty’s world is the more likely of the two visions. The comparison of the extrapolations of Piketty and Kurzweil make something quiet clear. Piketty is extrapolating economic outcomes based on past and current economic trends. In contrast, from their technological projections, the extreme techno-optimists make leaps to predict social benefits. They’re skipping the hardest part: there is nothing in their trends to tell us how these technologies will be applied. And yet most of their ink is spilled on the joyful news of the benefits we are all going to get from faster computers and faster gene sequencers and new nanomachines. It seems to be a novel kind of fallacy: if technology X can do good, then when technology X is faster and cheaper it will do much good. That doesn’t follow. All the benefits of these technologies, if any, could end up going to that tiny portion of people who have almost all of the wealth.
It would be nice if some of our science fiction writers could imagine a third way–a better, but more realistic, possible future.