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 not sure who I think is more likely to be right. But the comparison of the extrapolations of Piketty and Kurzweil makes something quite 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. This might 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. But perhaps that doesn’t follow. The worry is that the benefits of these technologies could end up going to that tiny portion of people who have almost all of the wealth.