Where Does Technological Progress Lead – Ancient Greece or “Beggars in Spain”?

Ancient Greek polis are often thought to be the ideal form of participative democracy and vital cultural life of a society. Political discussions, philosophy, science and arts – male Greeks enjoyed a real “highlife” that many in the educated “elites” of today dream of. However, to engage in politics, arts, philosophy and science, one needs a significant amount of free time. Indeed, Greek vivid public life rested on a peculiar foundation: slaves. Greek citizens were free of doing most of the less pleasant (but necessary) work like washing, cleaning, production of simple everyday-use goods etc. Therefore they had lots of time to visit the Agora or the Amphitheatre.

Our society dismisses slavery as a violation of basic human rights. At the same time, ancient Greek highlife is still some form of an ideal to be pursued. So, are there other ways to achieve a state in which we could become the “new Greeks” (without enslaving anybody)? Indeed, one possibility comes to mind – technological progress. If it shall keep progressing at a pace similar to the historic productivity growth, at some point in not-so-far future we wouldn’t need to work much, too – machines would become the new slaves. But, however beautiful it may appear, this vision has many weak points, indeed.

First of all: there is no reason to assume that technological progress is going to take place forever. As Stephen DeCanio put it, “[t]he fact technological progress has been welfare-improving over humanity’s historical experience is an empirical observation, not a logical necessity.” Indeed, there are scholars (e.g. Robert Gordon) suggesting that what we in the rich parts of the world now count as technological progress (or productivity growth) is none in reality, that it has slowed down or even possibly stopped. Whether this is true or not (for the world as a whole it certainly isn’t), DeCanio’s statement remains true: if not today, productivity growth may cease any time soon.

But what would be if technological progress wouldn’t stop? Let us assume for the moment that it won’t cease before productivity increases as much as to enable us (potentially) to lead a life like that enjoyed by ancient Greeks – devoted to democratic participation, arts, philosophy and science. Even if we assume this, there is no guarantee that we shall wake up in computer-driven polis.

In 1993 Nancy Kress wrote an outstanding novel – Beggars in Spain. It is the first of 4 books describing a world where productivity growth has not ceased, which nevertheless in no way resembles ancient Greece. In Kress’s novel, the society is basically divided into two groups of citizens: the one is called “Donkeys”, the other “Livers” (there also are the “Sleepless”, but they are not important for our discussion). You may as well call them hosts and parasites. While the former commit their lives to work (they are, in a way, workaholics par excellence) and earning money (i.e., at the same time, paying taxes), the latter live off government social spending (funded by Donkey’s taxes), and they “live fast and die young” (engaging in sports, parties, rallies etc.). This would is, just as the “ancient Greece revisited” (see above) the result of very high productivity which makes it possible for a large part of the society (the “Livers”) to live off the labour of a working minority.

So, where does technological progress eventually lead? To ancient Greece or to a “Beggars in Spain” world? Or maybe to something entirely different? And is continuous technological progress possible at all? No-one can know the answers to these questions. However, when I look around, I see much more “Beggars in Spain” than Greek highlife. Maybe Greek highlife was only possible in a “dull” world bare TVs, Facebook, McDonald’s, shopping malls, Big Brother and X-Factor?

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