Newsletter 48: Free(bie) vs Free(dom)

The open source movement has a famous slogan: “free as in beer and free as in freedom.” The two are distinct forms of freedom, though they are correlated. Wikipedia is free as in beer as well as in freedom - anyone can read the encyclopedia for free (beer) and anyone can contribute to the encyclopedia without barriers (freedom).

Software lends itself easily to both forms of freedom. It’s in the physical world where the two forms start diverging, sometimes dramatically. For example, the prisoner (or worse, the slaughterhouse animal) has access to free food but not much in the way of freedom. In fact, modern economies are based on trading one for the other - when you work for an employer, you temporarily surrender your freedom in exchange for the ability to put bread on the table.

One could argue that large scale societies simply cannot function without that trade-off, that mass imprisonment (even if temporary) is the only way we can deliver food and shelter to our citizens. Certainly industrial production is impossible without wage slavery or its state counterpart. It’s clear that the mode of production dictates the freedoms available to the populace.

What about the post-industrial age? With mechanization, we don’t need human operated assembly lines. In fact, it’s expensive to employ people. Why not get rid of human labor altogether? What if robots produced everything we need, leaving us to sip wine by riverside? The robots have many things going for them:

  • For the capitalist, they are a one time cost and they don’t complain.

  • For the worker, they release you from drudgery.

  • For the earth, they can be far more efficient and waste free.

There’s a problem though - if I don’t have a job, and I still live in a consumer society, how do I get the cash to satisfy my needs? In other words, as long as goods are bought and sold, how do workers buy anything if they don’t contribute labor? If the robot barons own all the gizmos, they might not be willing to let them work for me for free.

One alternative is a robot socialism where everyone has access to a minumum number of robot hours, more than enough to provide for all their needs. That too strikes me as dystopian. If 97% of the population is useless - as in they don’t contribute anything to society - they will soon sink into despair even if their material needs are met. One only has to track the recent history of oil kingdoms to see what that might look like.

It doesn’t have to be that bad though. If production isn’t the central focus of society, we might discover that human relations and relations with nature are more interesting. Perhaps we can shift from a production oriented society to a caring society, where we spend more time stewarding our children and the earth than we do now. An entirely new universe of emotional-relational-experiential goods will emerge. If that happens, and I see signs of that happening already, men (especially of the traditional kind) will be the biggest losers. A world in which fighting, growing and hammering are done by machines is a world where men have few of their traditional sources of livelihood, power and prestige.