I opened the January issue of Wired hoping to learn what magical algorithms were on the horizon for the coming year. What I found was a publication stuffed with science fiction. The editor explained, “to get a greater sense of reality,” he’d turned to stories. (“The Power of Science Fiction,” by Scott Dadich, editor, Wired, Jan 2017.) . How wise. I’ve often written that facts have little value except as condiments for ideas. Truth lies in fiction. To choose another metaphor, facts are the clay from which artists shape visions of the future. Without the dreamer’s airy imagination, our world would be empty of submarines, rockets, robots, cell phones and the like.
James S. A. Corey’s tale, “The Hunger After You’re Fed” imagines a world free from want, a world where everyone is given a basic, universal income. Next, he asks how we would change once we were free from the fear of hunger. His answer is surprising. Not much. His imagined people, like real ones, splurge on steak at the beginning of the month, then survive on beans until the next allotment. Still, Corey’s people do hunger. They hunger to feel important — which explains why the internet in his world glitters with more reality stars than those in the firmament.
Ironically, the one that shines the brightest belongs to a writer who goes by the pen name, Hector Prima. His followers are in the millions but no one knows his identity. Corey’s central character makes it a lifetime quest to solve the mystery. His journey takes him around the world until he comes to a small village in Latin America. A woman swears she can introduce him to Hector Prima, but she will need a good deal of money. The man pays the fee she demands then waits for three days by the side of a dusty road where he sees the “scars of poverty,” but none of its wounds. (Ibid pg. 059) By the third day, he begins to lose hope. An old woman who sweeps dust from her shop into the street each morning asks the man why he waits. He tells her his story. Then he adds he has no money but he is thirsty and hungry. The old woman shrugs as she continues to sweep. “At least you know it.”
Money does what money can. It buys things. But materialism is a distraction. It keeps us from living examined lives. We exist according to our wants. If we are hungry, we want food. If we have food, then we want a better house, a better smart phone, a trip to exotic lands, a fancier car. We know we exist because we want. But if all our wants are satisfied, what then?
The time may come when automation will relegate humans to an irrelevance when it comes to producing goods and services. Will we take comfort in knowing our basic needs will be met? Or will we wonder what to do with the undedicated hours? Will we, like the old woman suggests, have to find solace in knowing we still hunger?