Earlier this month, I spoke to Jeremy Rifkin about his new book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society. Our conversation ranged widely over many of the book’s central arguments, particularly those concerning the transition, driven by new information technologies, from a capitalist market economy to what Rifkin calls the “Collaborative Commons”. We ended with a brief discussion of the future of work. In the following guest post, Rifkin discusses in more detail the implications of the “wholesale substitution of intelligent technology for mass wage labour and salaried professional labour.”
The wholesale substitution of intelligent technology for mass wage labour and salaried professional labour is beginning to disrupt the workings of the capitalist system. The question economists are so fearful to entertain is, what happens to market capitalism when productivity gains, brought on by intelligent technology, continue to reduce the need for human labour? We are seeing the unbundling of productivity from employment. Instead of the former facilitating the latter, it is now eliminating it. But since in capitalist markets capital and labour feed off of each other, how will society respond when so few people are gainfully employed that there are not enough buyers to purchase goods and services from sellers?
Over the next several decades, the massive build-out of the Internet of Things infrastructure in every region of the world will give rise to one last surge of mass wage and salaried labor. The maturation of the Communication Internet, the conversion of millions of buildings into renewable energy micropower plants, the reconfiguration of the electricity grid into a green Energy Internet, and the changeover to an automated Logistics and Transportation Internet, will require millions of skilled and professional workers and spawn thousands of new businesses. However, by mid-century, economic activity in the marketplace is going to be increasingly in the hands of intelligent technology, supervised by small groups of highly skilled technical workers. The question then becomes what kind of economic system would we need to envision to engage millions of people in meaningful employment in a world where much of the economic activity is automated, nearly free and shareable?