The World is moving from Scarcity of Capital to Scarcity of Attention

I recently devoured Albert Wenger’s book World After Capital. It left a big impression on me which I wanted to write a bit in the hope that people will pick it up and we can discuss it 🙂

The first thing that piqued my interest is that Albert decided to publish the book for free online using Gitbook, which means the book is “live” — it accepts contributions from the public, can be iterated on post publishing, and has a full audit trail for all to see in a public Github repository. I hadn’t seen this done before and as we’ll see it makes a lot of sense once you hear how Albert proposes we think about Knowledge.

World After Capital’s commit history

The scope of the book is the small matter of the impact of digital technologies on our species, and how we can best adapt to these changes to build a freer and fairer world.

Homo Deus convinced me of the inevitability of machines taking over our species and redefining what it means to be human, but it felt to me as a big alarm bell without many practical suggestions for navigating this change. I was happy to see that Albert goes further.

Ushering in the Knowledge Age, one TCP/IP packet at a time

Our unique ability to create and share knowledge has enabled us to develop powerful technologies. Some of these technologies are so transformational that they overhaul everything about how we live: what our needs and wants are, who governs, how we find meaning in life, etc.

These are non-linear changes which make it impossible to predict how life will be once they have been fully deployed. As Arthur C. Clarke noted, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The 12th century knight propelled to the 20th century in French cult movie “Les Visiteurs” has no idea what anything is (e.g tarmac, a car or a radio in the below scene) — we would be just as clueless propelled into the world once digital technologies have seeped in.

There are two major, novel properties of digital technologies which put them on a non-singular path:

  • Universality of Computation: anything in the universe which can be computed can be computed by the machines we have built (Turing machines). This means that eventually they will be able to solve any problem and behave as any system of computation (e.g the human brain). I would say the current state of the art here is AlphaGo Zero or self driving cars.
  • 0 Marginal Cost Information Transfer: these computations, and any information & knowledge transfer ever created can be transferred instantly, for free, to anyone anywhere. Currently we are at 3.5Bn people with internet access, with the price of access rapidly falling (in Seoul, which has a healthy competitive environment for telecoms, there are 4G plans going for $8/month)

These properties will drastically speed up the Knowledge Loop flywheel, which is what brings about all human progress.

Albert places the arrival of digital technologies on par with only two other inventions in the history of mankind — farming, and critical enquiry — both of which ushered in a new profoundly different era:

I, too, accept edits on this table!

The end of Labor

Having established the unique properties of digital technology, Albert goes through a great first principles argument of why they should help us move to a post labor and post capital scarcity world.

It starts off listing all human needs (in a similar hierarchy to Maslow’s) and then describes how universal computation (any problem can eventually be solved) and 0 marginal cost distribution (solved once, solved for everyone) should mean we have the required capital to solve all our needs.

Importantly this is more about the total physical capital available to humanity (it is the physical capital, eg factories, software, labs, which will solve our needs) as opposed to financial capital:

It is tempting to look at this in terms of financial capital, but that again would be succumbing to the veil of of money, as was the case with the definition of scarcity. Dollar bills don’t feed people. Gold bars can’t be used as smart phones. The capital that matters is productive physical capital, such as machines and buildings.

Financial capital is not irrelevant. It is required both for the initial construction of physical capital and to meet the ongoing working capital needs of the economy. If I want to build a factory or a school, I need to pay the construction workers, the suppliers of machines, etc. before I can start collecting money. And in many businesses I pay some ongoing expenses every month before collecting revenues from customers. Cash outflows preceding cash inflows means a financing mechanism is required. To get the proper accumulation of physical capital, we therefore need to have effective ways of accumulating and allocating financial capital.

In the history of financial capital there have been many important innovations, such as corporations with limited liability, debt and equity issuance and trading, bank lending and more recently market place lending. The allocation of financial capital to projects through markets has been enormously successful, compared to attempts at various forms of centralized planning. It is the very success of the market-based approach that has now given us a physical capital base in the world that is large enough to meet our basic needs.

Hariri comes to a similar conclusion in Homo Deus, but I enjoyed Albert’s rigorous ex-economist take on the matter.

What follows is a very good case for the end of Labor — a world in which physical capital (e.g an algorithm) can solve all problems, and all goods & services can be deployed without labor thanks to the 0 marginal cost of digital technologies. This “automation” is one of the reasons why household incomes are flattening while GDP continues to grow:

Alongside this comes an impassioned defence of Universal Basic Income to continue driving demand and provide economic freedom. I won’t spend any time discussing these further as these are already hotly debated topics.

Scarcity of Attention & Individual Identity Crises

Albert goes on to describe what he sees as the next big challenge for our species — retaining our individual psychological freedom.

The base of the argument is a familiar one these days:

  • there is a limited amount of attention we all have (say 16 hours a day)
  • the knowledge age is increasingly sapping our attention — social media products are designed to gather and keep our attention & engagement, and appeal to our System 1 brains, exploiting well known psychological biases (it is estimated that the average social media user spends 2 hours per day on it!)
  • this lack of self control and deliberate use of one’s time is contributing to an identity crisis and increased depressions & suicides:
Albert makes an interesting point that a similar crisis occurred at the turn of the Industrial age, when people had to move to the cities & give up their identities formed around land and historical professions (eg farming)

This in itself is a very worrying development, but it looks like it’s finally getting the… ahem… attention it deserves with public opinion souring regarding the big social networks, whistleblowers such as Chamath Palihapitiya & Sean Parker coming out, and projects like The Center for Humane Technology making headwinds with tech companies & regulators:

From the fantastic Center for Humane Technology website

What isn’t talked about enough it seems is Albert’s next point — our Collective Attention Scarcity and the risks that for the same reasons as above (information overload, AI-optimised instant gratification cycles) humanity is not attributing enough attention on the problems that matter for our survival.

Scarcity of Attention & Humanity’s Existential Risk

Spending our collective time on critical enquiry makes the Knowledge Loop flywheel spin around faster, and enables us to solve Humanity’s problems. This has always been happening, but it has happened at differing paces through history — for instance it accelerated from the middle ages to the Enlightenment, when the scientific method started prevailing over religious dogma.

Digital technology — with universality of computation & 0 marginal distribution cost — will help accelerate the Knowledge loop, but it will also eat into our limited collective attention. The more it eats into our attention, the less time we can allocate to critical enquiry on important problems such as global warming & becoming a multi-planet species — problems which are not necessarily priced-in by Capitalism as there is no market for them.

This leads Albert to a sobering explanation to Fermi’s paradox…

I am proposing this as a (possibly new) explanation for the Fermi Paradox, which famously asks why we have not yet detected any signs of intelligent life elsewhere in our rather large universe.

We now even know that there are plenty of goldilocks planets available that could harbor life forms similar to those on earth.

Maybe what happens is that all civilizations get far enough to where they generate huge amounts of information, but then they get done in by attention scarcity. They collectively take their eye off the ball of progress and are not prepared when something really bad happens such as a global pandemic.

Taking action

Albert closes off with a set of welcome recommendations for helping smoothen the transition to the Knowledge, which fit into two categories:

  • Building the new: helping democratise knowledge (e.g with education technology such as Duolingo), building basic income systems (eg delivered through cryptocurrencies), working on digital health solutions, etc.
  • Changing the old: encouraging forward-thinking regulation at state and national levels to have more experimentation on new technologies, limiting the reach of big tech companies on our attention (the Center for Humane technology is doing a great job on this), helping digitise parts of government to improve citizen engagement, etc. But perhaps more importantly, changing ourselves — recognising our System 1 biases, and taking back control of our attention.

Thanks

To close off would like to thank nicolas debock for his tweet below which introduced me to Albert Wenger. As you’ve probably gathered I enjoyed the book and there is so much I didn’t talk about — have a read for free here. Off I go to the tatoo parlour now…

Thanks for reading, and would love to know your thoughts — don’t hesitate to reply or find me on twitter!

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