But who will collect the garbage?

Well I'm not doing it!

This post is in response to a question on Google+ by a friend “Kevin C”, when talking about a world where we don’t have income inequality to force the majority of people to work for the minority. The question amounted to, “who will collect the garbage?”

I’m going to use the term Adhocracy, by which I mean the adhoc, leaderless, tech and network powered organisations / events / revolutions / actions which taken together form a nascent world system, one which is challenging the old institutional/corporatist world system. Think wikileaks, wikipedia, the Arab Spring, Anonymous, flash mobs, facebook causes, twitter hashtags, the open source movement.

Firstly, one of the really important parts of the adhocracy is the shrinking need for people to do real work. Lots of old industry was replicated geographically, for instance, so needed armies of people doing the same thing, spread out across the globe. eg: people working at newspapers, soon people working at universities. A lot more stuff is/was replicated per org (HR? much software? record keeping/admin? middle management?) What all this amounts to is armies of people doomed to do repeated, endlessly mediocre work, like a world spanning fractal turd.

The adhoc way doesn’t need these armies of the mediocre. Instead, highly competitive reputation competitions arise in every niche, and the top couple of entities wins everything. So for example, being an Exchange administrator is a bad idea when hosted email (eg: gmail!) is taking over.

The technologically mediated adhoc setting is one in which the efforts of the best few are multiplied vastly more than ever before by a technological support structure, so that one great solution run by a few people for a niche problem can support the entire world. In aggregate, we simply no longer need the same number of people to do the things that need doing. What’s more, profits razor down very close to cost, because how much does a tiny group really need to take for their efforts, even if they have hundreds of thousands or millions of users? If they try to take more than the minimum, someone else eats their lunch. That’s something the big corporates struggle with; they need orders of magnitude more profit just to support their bloat, and it’s why the papers or the record industry or the book industry or soon the universities fail to adapt and instead collapse.

Secondly, most of the commercial work we do now is actually entirely unimportant, it’s waste. I don’t want to try to defend that statement here, instead read this paper by Kevin Carson, “The Great Domain of Cost-Plus: The Waste Production Economy” ( http://c4ss.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Political-Economy-of-Waste.pdf ) . It’s an excellent, deep study of how what we do is mostly makework, and how wages are kept artificially low to keep us working longer and harder. But really we all see it; how much of your own work is ultimately productive in some meaningful way? I hope for me the number is higher than zero, but I can’t guarantee it.

So taken together, the first two points say that most of what we do now is totally unnecessary and wasteful, and of what does remain that needs doing, we’ll need less and less people in order to do it as time moves on. So who will collect the garbage? Very few people indeed, with excellent automation.

How do we support ourselves without work for pay? Hard question, just assume there’s a way for now, and I’ll come back to it.

But what of the work that still needs doing? Who oversees those robot garbage trucks? Well, if we don’t all need to work in order to live (as we’ve just assumed) then you’ve now got a lot of people looking for something useful to do, something with meaning. So volunteering will fill the automation gap (the stuff we can’t automate fully).

I’ve been involved with a choir of retirees for the last couple of years, and it turns out they’re an excellent model here. They’re fit and healthy, they don’t need to work to live. But, they don’t just sit around doing nothing; they all do things, they all volunteer in one way or another. But what distinguishes this from paid work is that they chose what to do based on their sense of what needs doing, what is meaningful, rather than what pays well. So, I’ve never seen an instance of a retiree working as a volunteer IP lawyer, for instance, or a volunteer advertising copywriter. But they do things like looking after overseas students who need local friends, or helping out refugees, or running the counter at the local op shop, or looking after their grandkids while mum and dad are out being bankers and plastic surgeons and telephone sanitisers.

If the robot garbage truck needed oversight in the local neighborhood, and it was being run in a volunteer capacity, there’d be a waiting list of retired blokes looking for something solid and meaningful to do, volunteering to do it. After all, we all know the garbage needs collecting, and there’ll be kudos for those who step up.

Now these guys wont work like a full time grunt. They wont overwork, and they wont take orders from a foreman. But, they’ll get what needs doing done, if they have the possibility of Autonomy, Mastery, & Purpose (see Dan Pink). How will they organise? Well, this is an adhocracy, after all; the answer is, frictionlessly and effortlessly.

A society of people no longer bound to paid work wouldn’t face the problem of how to get the thankless jobs done, in my opinion. It’d have a potential problem more like Mega City One; not enough meaningful work for all the people.

But all this hinges on us not needing to work. So I need to justify that.

This is a tough one. This is where we really need the adhocracy to rise up as an alternative to the corporatist system. After all, the corporate system has us working more than ever, doing increasingly meaningless crap. But the Adhocracy is rising to this task even now.

The more adhocracy we have, the more we’ll notice that the things we need are becoming extremely cheap or free. We have that now if we choose to take it with respect to information goods; you can survive with a cheap chinese netbook and a low end broadband connection. You don’t need to buy books, music, movies, software, etc etc, if you choose to use the freely available alternatives.

The challenge is to get some of the more material basics running this way. Food, clothing, shelter, utilities.

Some ways I can think of:

  • The sharing economy is massively underrated, but is slowly become a force through pure tech mediated adhoc. Car sharing, tool sharing, people giving away their unwanted stuff, house sharing, couch surfing, bike sharing, on and on and on it goes.
  • Second hand stuff is crazy cheap and getting cheaper. EBay, et al, have revolutionised this area.
Some more sci-fi stuff, but plausible over the next few decades:
  • Power could drop to ridiculously low prices if the solar economy can get off the ground. How cheaply can we make halfway decent photovoltaics if we really push on it? What else happens to the economy if we get cheap, decentralised power? Adhoc type things.
  • The adhoc solution to food is for everyone to start producing it locally, in all kinds of crazy new ways, ways that can beat the prices of centralised production. If power drops way down in price, then food can too. What can biotech do to help here? Can we invent some self-contained food producing units that just require sunlight, water, air to make food locally (more efficiently and reliably than plants)? If we’ve got decent 3D printing, then we just need some basic local gloop production than can be feedstock for food printers.
  • Clothing, similar to food. Plus, if you’re prepared to go second hand, clothing costs next to nothing already.
  • This also covers a lot of appliances/physical objects. Can we print electronics?
  • Shelter is really, really hard. We have a very strongly self-reinforcing enclosure of all the commons. Might have to wait to see what kind of adhoc internety solutions come up in this space, hopefully not bloody revolution, although that’s becoming increasingly common.
Also most notable here is that this is the perspective of someone from the wealthy western world. We might just get the benefits of the adhocracy last, as we have the most to dismantle. Does some of this stuff emerge more easily in China, or India, or South America?

I think this is all ahead of us, and it’s hard to see how it’ll play out. I do think though, that the adhoc world system will begin to control more of the world’s resources, and the capitalist system less. It’s the more dynamic system, resources will flow into it (just think of the corporates paying money, donating time and equipment, to the open source software world on which they are now dependent). What will it do with those resources? Whatever it is, it wont be financially mediated.

As this happens more, the effect will be that, if you choose to take advantage of it, the cost of living will become lower and lower, because there will be non-monetary ways to get the things you need, ways that don’t currently exist. As the necessary monetary price of a decent life falls, and the need for workers diminishes (so unemployment rises), as some point it’ll be clear that governments can bridge the gap by bringing in a universal basic income to pay for the few remaining things that require money.

Also, as more and more people slowly liberate more and more of their time from the work-for-pay grind, you get increasing cognitive surplus pushing into the Adhoc economy. That’s an accelerating factor; they’ll tend to be pushing more capability and resources into the Adhocracy (making it better). That’s a positive feedback loop, which there’s no equivalent for in the money-based world. Just think of what happens every time an important open source software author manages to get free of paid labour – they help accelerate the process.

So in summary, who will collect the garbage?
– We’ll need less garbage collectors due to tech improvement, and removing garbage collection where it was unnecessary.
– Increasingly people will find themselves “unemployable” but also able to get by. They’ll have time on their hands.
– What still needs doing by people will, if it really clearly does need doing, will be done by those people with time, voluntarily. They’ll fight over it.
– If the job needs doing but is incredibly awful, volunteers will work to modify things so that awful job is no longer necessary.
– As this trend continues, there’ll be increasing amounts of people with increasing time on their hands all clamouring to help collect the garbage.
– There wont be strictly necessary-for-survival work for them all, but there’s more to life than that. Expect more people to live their music/dance/art dream, less to give out parking tickets.

A really important thing right now is to see this coming, shift your values toward accepting and embracing it, and begin to evangelise it. The capitalist system holds us in its thrall largely due to pre-existing memeplexes colonising our minds; ie: we are prisoners of our own unexamined values. If you believe that you’ll always need money to live and there is no other way, then that will be true. But if a lot of us can see the better way that is possible, it come, and it’ll work for us.

But who will collect the garbage?

9 thoughts on “But who will collect the garbage?

  1. Chris says:

    To buy something second hand, someone has to have bought it originally at retail and then decided to get rid of it. (Possibly by replacing it with another retail item). How will the goods go from the retailers/manufacturers to the second hand market in the volume required for it to be dominant?

    1. emlyn says:

      Think of the process. What does it mean if more people favour second hand goods? Well, it means that people are placing a higher value on reusing existing items. It’ll mean the prices rise (I would argue that second hand goods are actually currently undervalued, and new items are overvalued).

      That’ll give manufacturers of new things some new incentives; suddenly a lot more stuff has resale value. So, people who favour second hand will also tend to favour new stuff that’s going to have a resale value.

      How do you maximise that? You build stuff that’s good quality and will last. You build brands that match people’s values (and in a society with a large second hand market, what are those? Longevity? Social responsibility? Sustainable production? Value?)

      I believe the second hand market finds a more correct price for goods, stripping away most of the guff of marketing; crap that is marketed well doesn’t do well second hand, and great obscure things do very well. So, the new stuff market will increasingly need to reflect those realities. Less lying to people, more producing decent products, because high use of second hand stuff means the public now has a long view.

      The end game here? Few, durable, excellent new products, lots of reuse and repair.

      1. Chris says:

        I agree with you on the second hand market finding a more accurate price for an item. For recommended retail price the manufacturer is taking into account a whole bunch of costs associated with production that aren’t just the cost of materials and labour to produce the item. For example, research and development, design, advertising and the like. The second hand market doesn’t care about those factors.

        Reuse and repair is a good goal. Unfortunately capitalism is pretty much waste-driven, so a manufacturer who makes a product that is going to last forever is going to make less profit than a product that wears out in 6 months.

        You could argue that consumers should favour brands that are more durable and long lasting, and vote with their dollar, but we’re basically all sheep and are impressed by the latest value-add which really brings no benefit.

        It would be great to live in a world without rampant waste, but I fear the reality is that humans have come too far too quickly. We’re still dominated by the need to outdo our neighbours. 10,000 years ago it was having the most food and potential mates. Now its cars, iPhones and other random guff.

        I’m straying from the original topic a bit, I’m sorry.

        1. emlyn says:

          All good points, no apology necessary.

          I wasn’t arguing necessarily that mass adoption of second hand will happen, I was listing how I think it would play out if that adoption was to happen, which is an answer to the objection that second hand doesn’t scale.

          Now I do happen to think people should adopt second hand en-masse! But for that to happen, a change in values has to happen. So above, I’m saying that if this mass values change occurred (somehow) and everyone went for second hand, this is how it would play out, and it would be excellent.

          So I’m not saying that manufacturers should make longer lasting things, and people should want them. I’m saying that if people shifted preferences heavily toward secondhand, then that would have a flow on effect that would force manufacturers to design to goals such as durability and repairability in order to compete in that changed commercial environment.

          The hopeful thing here is that the values that bring about the adhocracy include stuff like preferring second hand. ie: there is a chance that we can escape the brainwashing of the marketing driven consumer society over the next few decades. Part of why I write this stuff is to sell that idea; that the way we live now is a bit shit, that there’s a possibility of a better way, but our first step is that we need to admit that we have a problem.

          1. Chris says:

            I don’t completely share your view of where we should be headed, but the current system is definitely unsustainable, especially once the 2nd and 3rd world tech up and adopt the wasteful practises of their 1st world cousins.

            I saw a good TED talk on the topic recently and it’s scary how bad things could get if we continue tolerating excess.

  2. jodie o'regan says:

    I salute your techno utopia. The niggle in the back of my mind, is thirst for power. I had the same niggle when reading Marx – if we just change the system people will be free to be beautiful.

      1. emlyn says:

        I totally agree re: power. It was the downfall of socialism, in large part because it seemed to require a centralised bureacracy that you could use as a power chokepoint. So does an adhocracy have that?

        The capitalist system definitely, straightforwardly does. It’s capital. Capital seems to want to accumulate mostly in few hands (according to a pareto distribution) and having a lot of capital makes it a whole lot easier to get more. Money pulls the strings of power in this system, so it’s a bad feedback loop for power accumulation.

        The adhocracy is bottom up, and seems to route around accumulations of power used against the interest of everyone else, like routing around damage. That said, I can see a couple of potential issues.

        Firstly, this stuff is all technologically mediated. You don’t get the benefits without communication tools based in the ‘nets. So who controls those tools? ie, can Apple, Google, et al become the new tyrants? To some limited extent possibly, but they have a brittle power; if they abuse the trust of their users, the users move elsewhere. The more limited the set of groups controlling the infrastructure, the worse this problem is. OTOH, I think eventually we’ll get adhoc solutions to replace corporate provision of tech resources anyway.

        Secondly, the adhoc system is governed by memetic content above the level of individuals; that’s how “leaderless” works. So, once a group starts down a path it’s hard to stop it, even if many members would like to see it stop. Now that’s more a runaway train than a power play, but it’s more problematic if some people figure out a way to manipulate the memetic space…

        … which they have – it goes under many names. Media, politics, marketing, demagoguery. Manipulating the opinion of groups is an old, old endeavour. If you can do it reliably, you have actual power in this setting. So can anyone do it reliably?

        In the networked world people hold uneven influence, again along a set of pareto distributions. Unlike with money, however, influence isn’t fungible; you can’t take your rock star cred and apply it to science research (in a way you could with your rock star money). So influence does accumulate, but in limited pools. I think this is a great improvement over money; it’s like another iteration on liberal democracy’s great concept of breaking power up and spreading it out amongst independent institutions. Nevertheless, there is a possible threat here, and it needs watching.

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