I often cite molecular nanotechnology as a transformative technology because of its significant potential implications, especially societal implications. In principle, given inputs of relatively common raw materials (including materials recycled from objects no longer in use), a full-fledged nanofabrication device would be able to build an array of goods limited more by design availability than by system capacity, from clothing to calculators to combat rifles (and, of course, copies of itself). Even if this is just a subset of the products that people normally buy, such a device would still wreak havoc upon traditional economic models. Different cultures will respond in different ways, of course, but a larger question remains. Economics, after all, is traditionally conceived as the study of exchanges under conditions of scarcity. If scarcity no longer applies, how can we have functional markets?
This is not an idle question. Although molecular nanofabricators safely remain vaporware, few specialists in the field would be surprised to see a working prototype within a couple of decades (and, if Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder are right, an abundance of extremely fast, powerful and complete versions a very short time afterwards). That is to say, if you believe that you have a reasonable chance of making it to, say, 2025, you will likely see how the question of markets under conditions of abundance turns out.
If we’re clever, though, we might not have to wait.
As ideas about molecular nanotechnology evolved over the last couple of decades, proposals for how the technology could work have become less fanciful and much more practical. Eric Drexler’s original Engines of Creation concept involved free-floating replicating nanoassemblers, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere to making objects quite literally out of thin air. More recently, the nanoassembly technology moved from hanging around in a so-called “utility cloud” to being boxed up in a desktop device: the nanofactory.
On the surface, the idea of a desktop object printer sounds interesting but not particularly revolutionary. Being able to print out a part or a toy wouldn’t make traditional retail chains go away. Most of us have perfectly decent ink jet and laser printers, but we still buy books—why would it be any different with nanofactories?
The difference is initially subtle, but important: if you print out a book at home, what you get is a big stack of letter-size or A4 paper, not a bound book; if you print out a blender (as a random example) from a nanofactory, what you get is a blender, identical in function and design to one you would have previously purchased in a store. A better analogy for a nanofabber is a CD burner. The CD you burn of a collection of music is identical in use and interaction to a store-bought CD. Anyone laying odds on the music industry surviving in more-or-less its present form through 2016? Now imagine that kind of economic impact hitting not just one industry, no matter how large, but dozens or hundreds, all at the same time.
The notion of nanofabrication is a bit mind-boggling, so to be clear, these aren’t “replicators” from Star Trek—they don’t *poof* objects into existence. As this video shows nicely, they will assemble things using raw materials, starting initially at the molecular level and moving up in scale. Given the right combination of base matter, good design, and time, a molecular nanofactory could put together just about any kind of physical good (as long as it doesn’t need water, which is really tricky to deal with—so no hot tea, earl grey or otherwise).
You’d still need raw materials (although with good designs that minimize the use of exotic components and effective product recycling, most useful materials won’t be hard to come by), you’d still need energy (although with sufficiently efficient solar and wind power units—readily built with nanofactories, of course—energy could be effectively free), and you’d still need designs (although this is exactly the kind of environment in which Free/Open Source would likely thrive). And, of course, you’d need a nanofactory.
Let’s call it the StuffStation®.
What would a StuffStation® system look like? The home StuffStation® printer would likely be big enough to make a reasonable-sized object, like a laptop or a dress coat, but probably not much bigger; you wouldn’t be likely to print out your (electric) car with it, but you’d be able to print any necessary replacement parts. Let’s say it’s as big as a typical home dishwasher. At one end you have your vat of RawStuff®, either delivered from a supplier (vendor? perhaps) or processed from trash and used gear tossed into your UnStuffStation® mass disassembler, which sits nearby. Since molecular assembly would be extremely material efficient, your vat of RawStuff® will last a good long while.
The unit would have some way for you to tell it what to print, either using a built-in computer interface or a hook-up to whatever home networking system is commonplace by 2025. This would also allow you to load in new designs, either purchased from a developer or acquired from a free design site (“StuffForge.org?”). Just like a typical home computer today, the StuffStation® would likely come with some commonly-used software, but you would need to look for (or write) new programs for additional functions.
Finally, there would be the output. Carrying through the dishwasher analogy, I’d imagine this to be a large door that unlocks when the object is complete and the scaffolding and leftover Stuff® have been recycled. When you hear the “ding,” your new gadget/toy/utensil/appliance/outfit/robot pet/weapon is ready.
Of course, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t be able to have a desktop nanofactory for printing out smaller goods, too—StuffStation Lite®!
Isn’t This Just Like…
If we’re to imagine what a world in which physical good could be printed out this easily would be like, we might start by comparing the concept to present-day analogies.
Online information offers just such a comparison. There’s little scarcity of information online; search engines like Google and Yahoo! contain well over 20 billion entries, and the blogosphere reportedly grows by 175,000 new blogs every day. This abundance has led to the near-collapse of some traditional economic models (e.g., traditional classified ads) and an explosion of new ones (e.g., Craigslist, eBay). Arguably the most abundant form of online traffic is spam, however, and the abundance of malicious hackers/bored pranksters/eager skr1ptk1dd13s necessitates constant vigilance on the part of site owners, service providers and software developers. The easy duplication of digital content has led to epic battles between intellectual property owners and, well, anyone who wants to be able to transfer a song from CD to iPod. Digital Rights Management code makes it hard for everyday users to make casual copies, even while software specialists break the DRM with relative ease.
The notion of comparing the upcoming nanoworld with the Wild West era of the Internet is not a new one. As far back as early 2001, people working in the field of 3D printing technologies talked about “Napster fabbing,” where designs for printable objects would be shared & swapped as easily as MP3s. This is potentially a nightmare for anyone who would want to be paid for nano-design work.
This line of thinking leads to more questions. What does spam look like in a nanofactory world? How about network hacking? DRM? Free/Open Source? Is the “look and feel” of a physical object copyrightable—can you be charged with theft of intellectual property by making your own version of (say) an Aeron chair, even if the design used in no way relies on Herman-Miller code?
Would nanofactories remain offline 99% of the time, with designs brought over by thumbdrive instead of ethernet, simply for security reasons?
When you are able to manipulate atoms as easily as you do bits, the rules of the bit world apply.
Playing with Models
Analogies only go so far. What if we had a space where people lived the abundance society?
We work to make money; we use money as a fungible exchange medium for scarce products and services. If products are no longer scarce, does this mean that the only jobs left will be service positions? Are there enough service positions for everyone? Or do people do the services that they find fulfilling, leaving others to lounge around and/or be non-productively creative?
I’m not a regular Burning Man attendee—the schedule rarely works out—but I have gone. My first time wandering the playa, visiting the various camps offering gifts of art, services and/or more physical forms of entertainment, I was struck with a realization: this is one model of what a post-nanotech world might look like. Assume your material needs for food, water, shelter and toys were met, and that you no longer needed to work; what might result is a world where creativity, mutuality, and the gift economy ruled… or a world where sex, drugs and sleeping until 2pm ruled. Or, as with Burning Man, both.
The classic question about services-only abundance economies is “who picks up the garbage?” Leaving aside for the moment the argument that UnStuffStations® could render the garbage question moot, or that nano-built robots could handle basic services, Burning Man is instructive on this point, as well. After the burn, individual camps pick up and haul off their own garbage, under the motto “leave no trace;” in the post-burn period, after the campers have left, volunteers scour the ground looking for traces that have been left. The National Park Service regularly commends Burning Man for keeping the Black Rock desert so clean.
Perhaps the answer to the garbage question (and, by extension, the question of the performance of otherwise unfulfilling services) is “volunteers with a sense of responsibility.”
The problem with this model is that Burning Man is a self-limiting event, which probably helps to explain why everyone can be so generous of their time, goods and (occasionally) bodies. For most attendees, it lasts less than a week; I doubt few would even entertain the idea of trying to extend that week to a month, year, or lifetime. It’s just too hard to be perpetually engaged, creative and responsible. We need to keep looking for models.
World of Nanocraft
If you built an alternate world, one in which you could control everything, from the weather to the availability of resources to the laws of physics, would you include scarcity?
Julian Dibbell, in his new book Play Money, notes that the early virtual world creators made it possible for residents to do or make just about anything within the capacity of the system. Such environments could be enormously fun… for a time. Most residents rapidly lost interest.
Contrast the total-abundance environment with a virtual world like Second Life or World of Warcraft, where scarcity is a hard-coded feature—either to provide a revenue stream for the developer (upgrading to a paid SL account to be able to do more) or to provide a competitive challenge for the players (striving to the be the first to acquire the epic Flaming Staff of Infection in order to defeat one’s opponents on the battlefield and hear the lamentations of their women). Dibbell describes it thusly:
...in the end, the worlds [people] actually wanted to be in—badly enough to pay the entrance fee—were the ones that made the digital necessities almost maddeningly difficult to come by. All else being equal, in other words, the addictive, highly profitable appeal of MMOs [Massively Multiplayer Online games] suggests that people will choose the world that constrains them over the one that sets them free. (Play Money, p. 41)
These observations derive in part from the work of Edward Castranova, who has long been the leading figure in the study of virtual world economics. Castranova noted the need for scarcity in successful virtual worlds, describing it as the “essential variable” in online economies.
Abundance and Scarcity
So in the nanofab future, what would be abundant and what would be scarce?
Broadly speaking, information and non-organic physical objects would be two categories most dominated by abundant content. In time, the physical object category would expand to include organics like food and medicine, but at the outset at least, it’s hardware.
Conversely, services could remain an economically “scarce” commodity, with the caveat that a sufficiently advanced robotics technology would make up for some of that. Until nanofabs can print a sandwich, food would remain scarce. Land would definitely remain scarce; even if super-duper nanofab technologies would allow us to “make the desert bloom,” wise environmental regulations would still have a say. In any case, people would still want to live near each other, and still want clean and pleasant environments. A beautiful vista would still be more scarce than a suburban wasteland. Time and attention would remain limited, too—nanofactories could be enormously powerful, but they won’t change the laws of physics.
Given Castranova’s observations about online societies of abundance, would that be enough? Would scarcity (in the economic sense) of services, food, land, time and attention be sufficient to serve as the ‘essential variable’ for nanofactory economics? Or would we need some artificial limitation on physical goods, too?
Ironically, the imposition of nano-era digital rights management technology might actually act as an economic stimulus, by serving as a mechanism for artificial scarcity.
What remains unknown is whether the form of scarcity serving as an “essential variable” is broadly consistent, or whether it differs from person to person. It’s likely the latter, in my view; as a result, some of us will strive to find ways around the remaining scarcities. What we need is a virtual world (or set of virtual worlds) built specifically to explore this issue. What kinds of economics emerge in a world of material and information abundance, but service, space and time scarcity? How about when DRM (or some other artificial scarcity mechanism) is added? Or open source?
Second Life partisans will undoubtedly pipe up here that SL comes very close to this, but I’m not sure that the artificial scarcity imposed by the game would offer real-world useful answers.
Imagine: a massively-multiplayer environment with plausibly realistic laws of physics; the game initially assigns individual players skills, a bit of money and lodging, and a set of pre-existing economic relationships with other people in the game; at the outset, a small number of players get ahold of virtual StuffStations®, each able to print out more StuffStations® at little cost in energy and raw materials, as well as a cornucopia of other objects. How do the devices propagate? Who uses them to gain rapid power, and who uses them for socially-beneficial (in their view) purposes? How long does it take before a substantial minority has them? A majority? Everyone? What happens when manufacturing jobs are completely unnecessary, and shipping limited to food and people? How many people try to make things for themselves, and make new designs, and how many come to rely on the goodwill of others?
What’s the ratio of creativity, mutuality, and the gift economy to sex, drugs and sleeping until 2pm?
An online game, even hundreds of them, iterated over and over, will only begin to hint at what a nanofabrication future would be like—but a hint is better than what we have now: conjecture and (very) broad analogy. I’d like to see this kind of simulation happen at different levels of social organization, as well. Let’s see Sim(Nano)City and (Nano)Civilization, or perhaps more pointedly, ultra-modern versions of Risk and Diplomacy played out in a nanofactory era.
The best way to predict the future may be to create it, but that’s also the most dangerous way. Once the future has been created, there’s no going back; we’re stuck with dealing with the results. Simulating the future may not be the best form of prediction, but it’s a hell of a lot safer. It would let us try strategies and ideas that would otherwise be far too uncertain or odd to become a real-world approach. It would let us fail safely, pick ourselves up, and try a new path.
The advent of molecular nanofactories may well end up being the biggest social change since urbanization hit the fertile crescent a few millennia back. It might be a good idea to run some tests now to see how that change might turn out. Just a thought.