Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Economics of Replicators

Everyone as nerdy as I am knows about the TV show Star Trek and its wondrous technology. For those of you that don't, it's a sci-fi series about the space-navy of the future. And on it goes from there.
Since it's set in the future, it has technology that makes nerds drool with envy. Faster-than-light travel. Energy weapons. Nanotechnology. Beam-medicine. Voice-operated computers. Teleportation. And the obvious spin-off of teleportation, the replicators, which teleport together pretty much anything you can request. Money doesn't exist in the world of Star Trek, because anything you need can be teleported together. People now work for prestige, self-improvement, and to brag about how awesome they are.
Now, teleporters and replicators can't happen in the real world. Heisenberg's uncertainty principles makes the necessary information discovery impossible. So the writers have a part for these machines called the "Heisenberg Compensator," as an acknowledgment of this. Asked how it works, they respond "Very well, thank you." And smile sarcastically as the geekoid who asked them stares daggers.
But let's say that somehow Replicators did get invented, Heisenberg compensator and all. How would this change the economic layout of our world? I'm going to make certain assumptions about this. One of which is that the show's internal explanation of the materials being produced from raw energy being wrong, as this would involve more than the entire energy output of the earth for even small objects. (remember my antimatter article where I showed current energy use to be about a gram per year?) I instead assume that it teleports a stash of pre-collected atoms from an internal storage, and can refill this by recycling other things.
Humor magazine Cracked correctly predicts that this would lead to the abolition of almost all jobs, and money. Where this goes from there depends on the ideology of the person who gets the first one.
In the most dystopian scenario, Replicators are the rare toys of immensely rich people, who nonetheless have abolished all non-service jobs. Most other people do their menial labor, which mostly involves shoving things in and out of replicators. You could use money, certainly, but it's only really good for replicator time anyway. Rich people's expenses are electricity, materials, labor, and Veblen-good-design. Now if you'll excuse me, my boss wants me to bring him another tray of martinis and depleted uranium bullets, as he and his moron friends want to go drunk-shooting again. And when I'm done, he has another toxic waste disposal contract that will involve my personal shoveling. Into the replicator for recycling. At least it's not polluting the environment anymore.
In the most utopian scenario, the original owner has a noblesse oblige (or similar) ideology, and the first thing he or she replicates is a kit to make more replicators. Non-Service Jobs disappear as in the above scenarios, but replicators are easy to come by and practically everyone has one. Those that don't are generally given one by those that do, just for asking. Service jobs still exist, and money is now mostly for buying energy, raw materials, and new object design. There are still rich and poor people, but the only real difference is that "poor" people's things are mass designed and "rich" people's things are designed just for them. "Poor" people often raid garbage dumps for raw materials, which the dump owners encourage because it frees up the space. (New garbage presumably comes from people who don't want to bother recycling it.)
The Free Software Foundation (or someone like them) now has GPL'd plans for food, computers, clothing, transportation devices like bicycles, and pretty much everything that people need, and more stuff that people want is released every day.
Jobs may be rare, but they are largely unnecessary. It is an age of hobby, where people largely do what they feel like after a quick foraging. Or perhaps a quick shift at a fast food restaurant, whose non-labor costs are stripped ridiculously low. Burger costs $0.02 at most. The restaurant could pay in hydrocarbons, metals, and energy coupons.
I imagine that blogs, webcomics, and fanfiction would all be really really common in this era, since people have lots of free time and material prosperity. It would also be wise to work on colonizing other planets to increase the available supply of materials. It would be easy with replicator technology to build yourself a bubble-city, especially with NASA's guidance. If they demand something in return, it shouldn't be too difficult to achieve. (Sample the rocks? Photograph surroundings? Chemical test that they can presumably walk me through?)
The biggest problem that occurs in this is rent. How will people determine where they can live? If I rent an apartment, how would I pay the landlord, who has anything they want anyway? (Perhaps landlords would require as rent a newly designed object, so such a position would accumulate useful inventions for you.) If I want land, how would I pay for it? Energy coupons? Or perhaps this will be the primary drive for space exploration -- earthly land is just too expensive.

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