It's amazing how the Cracked magazine, a weak and transparent imitation of the almost-funny Mad magazine has been reborn as Cracked.com, a clever and entertaining bear trap of a website. It's like if Maxim magazine changed to covering opera and wine tastings - and did it well.
Articles follow the template of 6 Bizarre Forms of Discrimination That Can Lose You a Job and 5 Complaints About Modern Life (That Are Statistically B.S.) - a wonderful alternative to the filler-laden "top 10" circuit. Most of them are pretty good, and the headlines always lead readers to clicking several more each time.
But I recently came across a piece on overrated future technologies entitled 5 Awesome Sci-Fi Inventions (That Would Actually Suck) and it started strong with flying cars and jet packs representing untold danger to the casual user, but it finished off with a classic Luddite fallacy when it said matter replicators would destroy the economy.
Matter replicators are machines that craft objects on command, from lumps of coal to artificial hearts. Prosperity would explode, but the author warns:
There are two charges here. Replicators would both destroy jobs and significantly change society. Both are true.
The bad news is, of course, it would eliminate your job. Your job, and all your friends' jobs, and, well, almost everyone else's. No need for farms or factories or stores. The only people who'd still be working are doctors and the people who make replicators. Oh, wait, you can just have a huge replicator that makes replicators. Nevermind.
It's just as well, even if there were jobs, there would be no way to pay you. You could make bars of gold in your replicator. Yes, we're talking about the utter collapse of the entire basis by which every society has ever existed on the planet.
Preserving the jobs our society currently employs is not a worthy goal, as destroying jobs is progress. Jobs exist to produce things, not to keep people busy, and individuals jobs come and go. The time of blacksmiths came and went, along with phrenologists, court jesters, milkmen, Pony Express riders and explorers. Some of these fields still exist in different forms. Comedians have taken the mantle of the court jester, but their job descriptions are completely different. Explorers will be needed in the colonization of space, but they won't be trained on wooden ships.
So if replicators destroy factory jobs, good. That will free people up to pursue other things society needs. It will also make goods cheap and plentiful enough to allow people to retire earlier. These replicators will probably need resources to operate, and the things they create will still need to be designed. But what if those issues are solved - what if robots gather all the fuel and building materials we need, take care of our sick and protect us from harm, but give us all these things for free without expecting us to do anything in return?
The second part is the changes this would have on our world. File sharing has introduced some major copyright problems. People can copy music, movies and entire books, but matter replicators would let people copy action figures, televisions and automobiles.
It's impossible to know what laws would be introduced, but I would expect buying all of these things would become cheaper and the penalty for copyright infringement would increase, perhaps to the point of serving serious jail time for pirating a car.
As for all currency systems being destroyed by these machines, this just lacks imagination. It's true the ability to conjure precious metals would finally kill all hope of returning to the gold standard (that's a feature, not a bug) but a fiat currency could still exist. Perhaps each dollar bill would have a unique code that is scanned during each transaction, or we would have an entirely electronic currency that doesn't depend on any physical representation.
Or more likely, a technology we have never conceived of would make the idea of an electronic currency seem crude and outdated.
Society is helped, not harmed by rising living standards, abundance and cheap goods. A future with matter replicators would be a better one.
Update: Jeremy's comment asked if production of food is so much higher, why aren't we retiring earlier. Shouldn't cheap food make life easier?
Just as a warning, this is not a "zeroed" graph so it makes a stronger case then it should with an artificial Y axis.
We do have cheaper food, as well as most products. The difference is that our wants and needs are growing. We are already rich in Victorian England standards, but we new things like computers and iPhones. I am supposing that we will encounter some kind of "singularity" that will let production increase at such a rate that our desires will be met. I may be wrong about this, of course, and our desires could continue to grow.