Friday, February 4, 2011

Cheap goods do not ruin society

It's amazing how the Cracked magazine, a weak and transparent imitation of the almost-funny Mad magazine has been reborn as, 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:

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.

There are two charges here. Replicators would both destroy jobs and significantly change society. Both are true.

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?

Mission accomplished!

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.


  1. I think a "replicator" itself would make any form of currency seem crude and outdated. You said destroying jobs is making progress, but then why keep the currency system? It would be just like a capitalist society to make something that's basically an endless wish box and then not let people use it. The things being replicated would only need to be "designed" by the person using it, and I'm sure many templates would exist that would allow normal people to make tweaks to just about anything - cars, computers, etc.

    A future with matter replicators would work best in an Anarchy. But then how does we get the replicators in the first place durp? I don't know, but to say that matter replicators and a dollar bill can exist at the same time is pretty ridiculous. I assume in this case that the resources to run the replicator would be nearly limitless - water and whatever other matter gets shooped in there.

  2. If we look at the universe that replicators exist in (star trek) we notice a few interesting things. 1) Money doesn't exist - at least for earth and the federation, although it seems like there is a economy in the universe. 2) the federation is a socialist society. 3) replicators are limited in what they reproduce.

    It is said in the star trek show that people work for personal accomplishment, not reward or power.

    We're seeing some interesting things as the cost of plastic mold printers is decreasing. When you have the ability at home to make your own plates, cups, action figures, musical instruments, and a ton of other products, what will happen to the economy? Probably not much, although the toy market will probably take a hit. You'll see an increase in "printer templates" as a new market emerges for those who an't use CAD programs to design their own items.

    Replicators won't destroy the economy, they'll simply replace it as motivation for work. Add universal health care and a lot of your basic needs are met. You'll see an increase in hobbies become pursuits and an increase in drug use (dangerously so) for those who can't manage to find a use for their time. Entertainment will skyrocket and we'll walk a dangerous line to become a society of inactivity.

    Then everything will come together and we'll have a new society that functions under the new conditions in a positive way. Probably as the result of war.

  3. Anything that gives me more time for fishing and camping is good thing.

    Also I ask how could anything that has the ability to provide a limitless supply of bacon be bad? How? Not possible.

  4. @ endless bacon: Yes, please!
    @ Michael's post: Very cool topic. Kind of sci-fi and different.
    My first thought after reading: No matter what the implications of such technology, I'm positive it'll be taxed.

  5. Abner, that's a great point: I am curious to how the tax system would work on such an invention. Would it be as difficult as taxing someone for making photocopies?

  6. A lot of work is more automated now, particularly food production and advances in housing construction that require fewer workers. You'd think those two basic necessities would reduce prices enough so that people COULD retire earlier or (my preference) work fewer hours in a week. I don't see that though.

    Do you suppose something is keeping housing and food prices up forcing people to continue to work? (Population growth?) Or are people driven to consume more instead of be content with the lifestyles our parents had? Or do you think the stigma of not working 40 hours a week is large enough to prevent people from taking advantage of those advancements?

    Maybe the last one is a precursor to people consuming more?

    Either way - it sure would be nice if abundant commodities was sufficient enough now so that I only had to work 20-30 hours a week. I'd love to kayak more.

  7. Jeremy, good call. I added an update so I could include a graph of how the percentage of our income spent on food has falls. It's dramatic.

    Things are cheaper today - and the quality if often better - but people still want more. Air conditioning, music, medical technology, safety equipment and varieties of food are way up. If we restricted ourselves to 1890's technology we could all live like the Vanderbilts (with the exception of the size of our houses and the number of servants.)

  8. PS - Did you want me to make the design changes to your site yet?

  9. Let's see day one, a Star Trek type replicator is endlessly producing gold until it melts. Day two, gold market collapses like silver did with the conquistadors a few hundred years ago. Day three no freakin buy gold commercials on AM radio!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Actually, gold may collapse on its own, should someone ever find a way to mine the sea floor or asteroids.

  10. Ian is right, there would be a postive externality in the end of stupid golds ads.