Friday, December 15, 2006

Economics and Sci-Fi

Back in May of 2006, in a post on productivity, I mentioned a couple of readings that might be used in explaining economic systems and productivity. One was Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, and the other was as a short story titled The Little Black Bag by C.M. Korbluth.

The stories differ in their vision of the future, (indeed, in Kornbluth's story, the vision is seen only through occasional glimpses). But in both cases, the future is essentially controlled by technocrats. These technocrats basically control economic production.

In the case of Vonnegut's story, the technocrats are identified early in their lives and trained to become managers of large-scale production facilities. Those not so identified are relegated to "lesser" rungs in the economy, essentially restricted to government/public service, or small scale entrepreneurial undertakings. The basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) are provided by central planning at low/minimal cost.

In Kornbluth's story, technocrats have designed a world where anyone can be any profession they want. This is because the technology they need to do the job is "smart" technology. Essentially it has all been programmed to do the problem-solving for the worker. (In the story, it's a doctor's bag that allows anyone to be a physician because all of the tools in the bag have the ability to diagnose, prescribe and treat virtually any disease or injury.)

The interesting question for both of these readings is whether or not centrally planned economic production can provide a comfortable standard of living (through increased application of technology/capital and productivity), or whether something is lost in choices and the ability to undertake risk. I think one could even talk about psychic income (happiness?) from pursuing a career/job that one truly enjoys.

The question for you is, are you familiar with either/both of these stories? If so, do you think they have applicability in the classroom within the context I've outlined. I look forward to your comments.

Posted by TSchilling at December 15, 2006 10:01 AM

I think the stories can be used within the context you identified and other ways. I am more familiar with Player Piano, and I think it is useful in demonstrating how psychic income can be derived from selecting a product and being a consumer, in addition to selecting a career as you pointed out. The same satisfaction cannot exist with a centrally planned production system that spits out products to "consumers" who have no choices in what they receive.

Posted by: Josh Lipman at December 22, 2006 10:26 AM

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