In one of those lucky dip moments I picked Adreinne Mayor’s Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines and Acnient Dreams of Technology off the pile. What a good move. I know nothing about ancient Greek mythology but it turns out that not only are the myths rip- roaring tales of sex and violence, they are also stuffed with automata, robots and cyborgs. Pre-digital, clearly, but vividly imagined. And even in some cases (simple automata) possibly even real.
Mayor writes: “Homer’s myth reminds us that the impulse to ‘automate’ is extremely ancient. … The myths demonstrate that automata were thinkable, long before technology made them feasible.” And even in the time of Homer and Hesiod raised questions about free will and the difference between humans and not-humans, nature and artifice. Myths were sort of the sci-fi of their day.
Mayor concludes by suggesting the myths provide food for thought today as we grapple with the same questions as raised by AI. Indeed, all the more so as the day approaches when technology brings some of the things dreamt of by the ancient Greeks out of the realm of myth and into reality.
I’ve been sorting through the book pile and have started reading Hugh Pym’s Inside the Banking Crisis: The Untold Story, which so far is a very vivid account of the decision-making in the Treasury and Bank of England. It’s intriguing to get his more rounded perspective, having heard through my own contacts just a few strands of the story.
I’m also taken by the look of The Bubble Economy: Is Sustainable Growth Possible? by Robert Ayers, an INSEAD-based economist and physicist. It’s partly about energy and decarbonisation, and partly about financial bubbles and sustainability too, which is intriguing because (apart from my own interest in the links in The Economics of Enough) relatively few people see the different aspects of unsustainability as related to each other. The link, as far as I can tell from just paging through, is discouraging financial speculation in favour of the financing of investment in green technologies that will generate real returns.
Standard modern economics notoriously ignores energy use and has been criticised for this since at least Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen wrote The Entropy Law and the Economic Process – an almost unreadable tome, so it’s no surprise it had so little impact. What’s odder is that standard economics ignores resources in general and land in particular, despite its prominence in classical economics. Landlords were villains in all the classical versions, according to Thomas Sowell’s On Classical Economics. In Ricardo, as in Piketty, landlords were “the passive beneficiaries of progress,” as the share of rental income in national income would inexorably rise.
I’m not sure why the postwar mainstream dropped land from economic models – was it really because they could only do the algebra with two factor-models? Whatever the explanation, there’s no excuse for omitting resources from thinking about the economy, alongside labour and capital. And what do we think about the race against the machines when we need to think about energy consumption too? Is a robot economy a sustainable one?