What would a post-scarcity society look like? This was a question I asked my sister over a year back, but we weren’t able to come up with a satisfying answer. Today my interest was rekindled by a podcast where James Burke (creator of the Connections series of science programs) argued that a lot of problems that we are wrecking society over now will be solved in 50 years once nano-replicators come.
To envision a nano-replicator, think of a printer which sits on a desk in your home. You feed it cartridges of easily available stuff like carbon, sand or iron and some design schematics. It spews out whatever thing you asked for. You could build a Mercedes piece by piece and put it together with a spanner and some nuts (also built by the replicator).
In my opinion, this will solve nothing. We have already have had a replicator for over 30 years for all kinds of performing arts and information, the VCR.
Today of course, if you are reading this, you already have an information replicator in front of you. But how much has changed? Certainly, the affected industries have new business models. But new movies still get made, music albums still get released. Now, it is in the industry’s interest to keep trends changing faster than ever. How much that can be controlled is debatable, but they certainly try.
So sure, you can download the design for the latest Ferrari, if you don’t mind an ‘Eat at McDonalds’ sign across your bumper. On the plus side, you may look like their F1 team.
Your future car?
There is another aspect that bears looking into. A number of years ago, a survey was done among children asking them how they thought the future would look. Children from developed countries talked about flying cars, teleportation, space travel and the like. Children from poorer countries talked about pollution and overpopulation.
No technical revolution is fair or even. Successive revolutions likely exacerbate the inequality. The industrial revolution which led to the Imperialist conquest of Asia also paved the way for the information revolution. It is no surprise that the information revolution started in the same countries that had reaped the greatest benefits of industrialization.
We don’t have enough data for the agrarian revolution, but some historians believe that the large populations and armies that could be supported by agrarian economies likely drove off the older foraging communities. It took a long time, before benefits reached most people.
So if the nano-replicator comes, it won’t be for everybody at the same time. You may argue that a single nano-replicator could make as many copies of itself as it wanted, but I am confident that people will find a way to perpetuate inequality. Things will likely get worse before they get better.
Human nature that took millennia to develop to deal with scarcity will not be overcome by a few decades of prosperity. People will remain hierarchical long after the benefits of hierarchy dwindle. Aladdin used his lamp to build a palace for himself, not to eradicate world hunger.
See the hovels outside the palace
Then, there is the underbelly. With the industrial revolution, for the first time, we had a serious world wide a pollution problem and the nightmare of total war. With the information revolution, we have fake news, omnipresent pornography, invasion of privacy, credit card theft, cyber bullying and Stuxnet.
Before the industrial revolution, war was sometimes seen as a manly pursuit essential for the development of a nation. It was only with industrial production of high power weapons that everyone (even the powerful) became serious about the pursuit of peace.
If anyone would like to guess what kind of problems will be thrown out by a nano-replicator revolution, please send me a comment. Maybe border searches will be pointless because everybody will make as many drugs as they like in their own homes. Terrorists won’t need to transport bombs or guns, they will make them wherever they need them.
Finally, just because we have information, does not mean everybody tries to use it. If you have an internet connection, you can be as informed or educated as you want. Your limit is determined by how much effort you want to invest. What will people use nano-replicators for?
Finally, I’d encourage anyone reading this to visit the podcast linked at the top. Like me, you may not agree with what you hear, but it will provide food for thought.