Design within and for “post-scarcity” — opening lecture

Introduction and General Thesis

A note on how designers think about the future

Automation is not the answer, nor is it the cause

A not-so-shiny new future

  • Sharing of necessary labor, including dissolving the differences between waged and unwaged (hidden/domestic) work.
  • Deciding democratically what is socially necessary
  • Dividing according to aptitudes and proclivities, such that division of labor “neither leaves important tasks undone, nor reproduces an elite class of technicians”
  • More people participate in necessary work so that the amount any individual has to do is reduced
  • Workweek reduced to as few hours as possible, perhaps under ten
  • Reconceive of the relationships between production and consumption such that one is not divorced from the other, nor obscured by it.
  • Overcome the mentality of scarcity. This is different than “luxury communism,” in that, as the epigraph to this section states, “abundance is a social relationship” and not a “technological threshold to be crossed.” In other words, the title of this workshop is something of a red herring. Resources will always be “scarce” in the sense that there’s a limited amount of freshwater on this planet, a limited amount of bauxite or columbite-tantalite. “Post-scarcity” is, then, a mindset cultivated by a practice.
  • Solving (in communally autonomous ways) the general issues posed within the socialist calculation debate via technological interventions that eschew their capitalist origins. This requires using some technologies to coordinate a community/state’s needs and activities through the design of algorithms, protocols, and democratic processes for designing, auditing, and changing them.
  • Reconstructing the realm of necessity leads to increased social solidarity, which leads to the expansion and equitable sharing of the realm of freedom
  • In redefining abundance for ourselves, and in reimagining the realm of necessity, we would achieve through a “collective social project what the automation theorists hope to achieve technologically.” In other words, we don’t need everything to be automated to enjoy what they say would happen if it were.
  • “The reorganization of social life to reduce the role of necessary labor is not, therefore about overcoming work as such; it is about freeing people to pursue activities that cannot be described simply as either work or leisure.” (p.91)
  • How will resources be allocated to these pursuits? Through democratic decision-making, voluntary participation in associations and federations of those associations.
  • Dynamism and innovation would primarily come through these pursuits as opposed to within the realm of necessity. People would be free to pursue their interests, especially as members/participants in voluntary groups and associations, through which tools and knowledge would be shared and resources allocated, and these pursuits would lead to new innovations both within and across sectors of the society.

Degrowth, the Pluriverse, and Conviviality

Parallels: food sovereignty and tool sovereignty

  • An emphasis on resilience, diversity, and contextually-appropriate, place-based, indigenous knowledge; avoidance of dependence on external inputs.
  • Technological innovation as a semiotic and solidarity-building process.
  • The cultivation of an intentional — politically- and culturally-aligned — dialogue between “traditional knowledge” and other (perhaps western) scientific approaches.
  • Direct opposition to “silver bullet” technocratic cures that emerge from outside the community and the technological manifestation of this opposition.


  1. We assume that the dominant western, capitalist, colonialist, and patriarchal ways of living, working, and being, are not only unsustainable but actively destroying any chance of a better life for humans and non-humans alike.
  2. We assume that the “answer” to this problem is not the automation of all “work,” because empirical evidence shows that automation does not have the power ascribed to it in popular and academic discourse.
  3. The answer is therefore a political and social one, and not a technocratic one. Changing our ways of living, being, working — a new ontological design is first and foremost about changing our values, our understandings of what “work” is, what is “necessary,” and how we arrive at these determinations in the first place. It requires a decentering of the individual and a recentering of the community, of relationships and of interdependence.
  4. Doing the above requires a renewed sense of imagination, one that reaches beyond the confines of its atrophied condition under the global hegemony of capitalism. This is a “design imagination that avoids the traps of capitalistic industrial instrumentation and goes beyond the ontology of separation that thrives on hierarchy, competition, aggression, and the control of humans and nature.” (Escobar, p.18)
  5. It is the goal of this workshop to help you begin to cultivate this kind of imagination. You do not need to find answers, you do not need to “solve” the problems that this lecture has laid out in front of us. That is the fallacy of individualism to which designers, like everyone else, have succumbed. I ask merely that you start. To try to imagine something different. If only briefly.





Artist, scholar, educator // Associate Professor of Graphic Design & Experience Architecture at Michigan State University // Opinions are mine.

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