The Wall of Plentitude

A thought about our post-scarcity future

Congratulations, you’re rich! And getting exponentially richer! What, you don’t believe me? Come on, take those blinds off! Forget the daily grim news cycle and take a macro look at our economic development as a species! Check this out, our production of stuff over time:

World GDP per capita over time


Still don’t believe you’re rich? Well, then… just wait! Technology, which is the main driver of that explosive growth of human wealth, is not done progressing. Quite the contrary, it’s accelerating non-stop! Soon, true thinking machines and mechanical bodies to host them will be developed. If I had said this a decade ago, you wouldn’t put much faith in my words. But you ain’t laughing no more, are you?

Yeah, that sweet, sweet exponential curve will soon turn into a vertical line in, say, a decade? Two? Three if you stretch it? That vertical line promises riches beyond our wildest dreams.

As a species. (Yeah, this lone, short paragraph is intended as ominous.)

We’re about to slam head-on against the “Wall of Plentitude”. And nobody knows what’s lurking behind it. Or how many of us will be left. (Definitely ominous!)

Nobody? Well, I happen to know a thing or two about science fiction, which actually offers a couple of answers to this very question. Would you like to take a peek over the fence of the economic singularity? Your favorite sci-fi author of all time is here to enlighten you with his mighty vision (anybody knows where the sarcasm emoji is?).

But before we explore the imagined worlds of sci-fi, we gotta ask ourselves with more rigor:

What the hell is the Wall of Plentitude?

Glad you asked. Bear with me, please, ‘cause this is not for the faint of heart. I’m about to delve into one of the most fascinating but unsung human sciences: economics. (Your favorite sci-fi author’s got a masters degree, for what it’s worth).

Alright, ready? Good. Let’s do this.

You are either a worker (represented in economics as capital letter L — for labor), or a capitalist (capital letter K — for Kapital, in German, ‘cause they pretty much invented modern economics). If you’re a worker, you, well, work. And get something done. In other words, you produce stuff. If you’re a capitalist, you own something that the worker needs to produce. Maybe land, tools, technology, factories. The list goes on.

With me so far? I know this is boring, but it’s crucial.

To produce stuff, you need a mix of both L and K. But this mix has been changing throughout history! Way back (and I mean mammoth-back), there was only L. You work. You produce. But then we “invented” tools and private property, and before you know it, some people own the lands and animals that others use to produce stuff. A modest amount of K has just entered human history, but it won’t get smaller! No sir! With every innovation, K grew slowly but surely. Mills, castles, steam engines, you get the picture. Always growing, compared with L. With the advent of industry, K skyrocketed while L, well, not so much. Factories produced more stuff than we ever dreamed possible with just a bunch of workers. Sounds bad? It certainly did so for a while back then to those workers, but eventually there was so much stuff produced that enough of it trickled down to them as salaries.

Notice how I so far avoided any mention of money? I’ll let you into a secret: to understand deep economics, paradoxically, you gotta ignore money—see right through it. Money is a social abstraction that blurs real underlying economic forces like, indeed, work, capital and, most importantly, stuff. That’s economics 101 for you, dear reader. You’re welcome.

Okay, you’re asking. What’s that part about getting richer? I don’t feel richer! Quite the contrary!

Yeah, sorry. Me neither. I know what you’re thinking. If we produce so much, where’s all the money? Oops! I just said I wouldn’t be using that term here! It confuses it all! No, let’s keep things simple. What’s happening is that K is getting so good at producing stuff, that it exponentially needs less and less L.

As simple as that.

But that isn’t good! you say. What do I care about humanity getting richer if I’m worse off?

*Isaac takes a deep breath*

Ok. Where to begin? Like most other sci-fi authors, I’m an optimist at heart. And I have a hopeful message for you. But I won’t lie to you.

No, I don’t believe for a second that increasing riches will keep trickling down to us mere “laborers” much longer. That’s over. It was a good run while it lasted, but with the advent of advanced AI, the amount of L per K will be so minute that most produced stuff will remain in the hands of the owners of K. When we complete the development of AI smart enough to replace any human at their job, L will be gone for good. Only K will be needed to produce stuff. What won’t change is that there will still be a social abyss between the owners of K and the rest of us. An insurmountable abyss, now that L has become redundant. Nothing will trickle down. Nothing. Humanity will just have smashed itself against the Wall of Plenitude.

And it will be messy.

Come on, Isaac, surely there’s a silver lining somewhere? You said you were an optimist!

I am! And there is! But maybe not for you, or for me. Or for our children…

Or maybe there is? Even for us?

It all depends on what’s behind that Wall of Plentitude. What will happen when we smash it? Where will humanity end? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’ve thought about this and have come up with two opposing alternatives, both thoroughly explored at length in classic science fiction, both super-advanced post-scarcity societies, but each very different from the other.

(See? We are talking sci-fi again! That’s the beauty of our beloved genre: it deals with our direst fears—and offers the wildest perspectives.)


The first peek behind the Wall of Plentitude comes from Star Trek, where after horrible fratricide wars we discover faster-than-light warp drives (dramatized in the best movie of the series, in my opinion: First Contact), which forever free us to join an amazing galactic community of alien species. There’s no scarcity in this universe, no need for money (except where the plot requires it, Ferengis anybody?). All economic needs are solved with replicators that materialize out of thin air whatever you ask for, like futuristic genies-in-the-lamp.

I’m a fan of Star Trek for many reasons (at least of the classic series up to Voyager and Deep Space Nine), including the amazing themes they explore and their escapism, both traits of good sci-fi. But the worldbuilding, realistic or not, is… fascinating (says Spock), part of which derives from their idealistic post-scarcity utopia called The United Federation of Planets. Well, the optimist in me wants to believe (here a nugget of wisdom: never trust what you want to believe) that a similar post-scarcity harmonious civilization awaits us all behind the Wall.

And there’s reason to be hopeful! We will be richer than ever. Exponentially richer, as we reach out to the riches of the solar system. And if there’s so much stuff, then we “only” need to figure out how to share it among us all. That can’t be that hard, can it? (Where was that damn sarcasm emoji again?)

Okay, so much for optimism. Let’s explore the shadows of another sci-fi universe of which I’m also a great fan. The master himself, Isaac Asimov!


I remember “studying” for my economics exams, by procrastinating with Asimov’s Elijah Baley novels—a sort of space detective. I remember being fascinated with its worldbuilding—with the robot-powered Spacers on one hand and a robotless Earth on the other. Spacers are relevant to my discussion. They are super-advanced long-lived humans, each attended by armies of robots. Isaac Asimov, always the optimistic (as most sci-fi authors), made the Spacers culturally stagnant—unable to compete with the crazed energy of an Earth powered by the ambition of short-lived humans.

There were many Spacer societies (each on a different world), but they all shared similar traits: they were a sort of “superhuman” species, long-lived (centuries), with super-advanced technology, including, of course, robots (or AI, as we would term it today). Their worlds were barely populated, each Spacer owner of fully automated huge estates. I think there was even a planet owned by a single dude? Not sure. In any case, these were post-scarcity societies too—an eerie type of utopia, wouldn’t you say? Way beyond the Wall of Plentitude. But with the distance and wisdom of age, I reflected on how a society could get there: a planet inhabited by a fistful of humans that barely saw each other, surrounded by robots doing it all. Well, unfortunately, you don’t need the savage imagination of a genius sci-fi author to figure it out. (Hey, I meant me, not Asimov!)

Imagine a world where K is owned by a tiny fraction of people, and L has just turned irrelevant. Thus, all fruits of production—all the stuff—flow into the pockets of the owners of K: the makers of AI, of robots, and therefore, of everything. Good for them, sure, but what happens to the rest of us? Your guess is as good as mine about the nitty-gritty details, my friend, but the end result is obvious, isn’t it?

Asimov Spacers.

So there you have it: two very different outcomes dreamed up by the best science fiction for a problem we are blindly accelerating towards: the economic singularity, the redundancy of work, the epitome of pure capital:

The Wall of Plentitude.

Wow! Which of the outcomes is more likely, Isaac? I’d prefer Star Trek!

Yeah, unless you own an AI company, I wouldn’t think you’d prefer anything else. Which is more likely? That’s the question, huh? The answer, I guess, depends on what you want to believe. But it’s crucial to mistrust our own beliefs—it strays us from the truth.

So what’s the truth, Isaac? Enlighten me, for God’s sake!

Okay. Fine. Anything for my fans. I’ve given this issue quite some thought, in case you haven’t realized yet. In my not-so-humble opinion, whether our future will look more like the Star Trek utopia or the Spacer dystopia depends, actually, on where you live in this world of ours. More concretely, the type of government will be absolutely crucial. A society that is able to transform itself to remake its economy to fit the new reality is surely not your average kleptocratic or tyrannical dictatorship. In strong democracies, power is ultimately exerted by the people, and people will demand change when their source of income dissipates forever. Politicians will hear these people, because of this other market ruled not by prices and money, but by votes, a market that might even survive the shattering of the Wall of Plentitude—at least if the democracy in question is strong enough to resist the tremendous political pressure that the owners of K are sure to exert. That’s my light of sunshine right there, the silver lining, my optimistic opinion: if you live in a strong democracy, you might end up living in Star Trek. So start packing otherwise, because if you live in a society of self-serving corrupt elites that funnel all resources to themselves and their cronies, what do you think they’ll do when work disappears?

Yeah, exactly.

But my worst nightmare is a post-scarcity world where both models compete, the utopia and the dystopia, kind of like in Asimov’s vision. Because which societies can compete better: those that distribute its resources among a large population to fuel a utopian leisure civilization, or those with minimal populations that focus the entire state resources on total world supremacy?

I, of course, want to believe what Asimov believed: that one of the models will become stagnant, and the other vibrant.

But should I trust what I want to believe?

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