( Another episode from my Great Unfinished Novel. )
I’d extended my visit with friends at La Casa de la Paz as long as I could. After a week, it was time to return to the States, there to request a sabbatical and arrange for the transport or disposition of my books and other worldly goods.
“Sree, isn’t this ‘fully-automated luxury communism’?” I asked, using air quotes.
Sree’s face blanked a moment. He touched his temple, searching for the reference. He smiled. “Ah, Bastani. Well, he was right about fully-automated luxury. But he was wrong about communism, Perry.”
Sree reflected a moment. “Sharing is a very natural, very human attribute. It gives us great joy to help each other. But I am afraid that there is no end of useful, interesting work, even with luxury automation.” Sree swept his hands about, encompassing the very well-automated complex. His mother Amman was puttering in the garden. His co-wife Sheila was supervising several tweens, who were slicing and dicing and cooking. Tiny housebots tidied and watered and weeded and swept, nimbly avoiding humans, cats, and dogs. Four small children were playing in a sandbox; two were reading in the shade.
“We have a well-equipped autochef, but Sheila and Amman prefer to cook manually. They enjoy the creativity, the fragrances, the tasting. Every meal is a great participatory adventure for them and the children. But who invents this new automation? The sweepers, the autocars, the self-adjusting furniture, the autochefs, the video walls, the organic computers, the roadhogs, the electric supersonic aircraft, and so forth? Creative people and Artillects do. Now it could be said that we create a great deal for the love of solving interesting puzzles, and we certainly do that.”
Sree loaded my luggage into the self-driving van which would take me to the airport. “But we come to a huge problem. Which of those millions of brilliant ideas shall we pursue? Each of us comes up with dozens, hundreds. We could suffer from analysis paralysis, trying to decide. Or we could throw some dice, empower some dictator, or hope that some supercomputer might make choices which are agreeable to all.”
“But we have a simpler, universally distributed method, which efficiently reconciles and uses many sets of widely-dispersed information. There are your values and mine and the values of each person in our extended community. There are the costs, in terms of resources needed. There’s the knowledge of the relative values and efficiencies and production methods and other decisions. How do we measure and reconcile them? By taking polls? No, polls are highly unsatisfactory. Instead, we simply ask “What will you pay for how many units of X?”
Sree closed the luggage compartment. “The way we ask is to offer millions of exxes at prices Y sub x, and see whether they sells well or badly. When you have to make choices between X and Y, you must weigh for yourself which is better, out of all the potential choices you could make. Nobody can make that choice better than you, because nobody knows you better than yourself. And throughout the market, millions of others make similar choices.”
“And as people buy and sell, the profits – the excess between the cost of production and the price to purchase – signal where to put our resources. There are losses, when production costs exceed revenues; those are signals to trim costs, raise prices, or stop that line of production.”
“Among those choices are myriads of decisions about which ideas to pursue, what to research, what to develop, what to produce, what to bring to market. The circle closes itself, using millions of local decisions which help to optimize millions of small subproblems of the whole. And over time, this process self-organizes and continuously improves and innovates and creates more and better goods and services for all of us.”
“My friend Perry, I wish you a safe and speedy trip. I hope to see you soon. It’s been a great pleasure.” Sree clasped my hand, then grasped me an a hug.
“A great pleasure for me also, Sree. I look forward to my return.”