The Economics of the Future

In the movie Star Trek: First Contact, Jean-Luc Picard comments to a woman of the 21st century that the economics of the future are very different from those of her own time.  She was awed by the size and sophistication of the Enterprise and had asked about its cost.  People of the 23rd century, Picard explained, no longer pursue wealth as a way of proving themselves.  Instead they strive to improve themselves and all of mankind.  The Enterprise was made possible by a completely different set of economic principles.

Is that really true?  Will the economics of the future be vastly different from those of the present?  Certainly the inhabitants of the Federation have a technology that eliminates most of the constraints of present day economies.  They have replicators-- devices which make it possible to fabricate any device or to prepare any meal with a simple verbal command.  On the Enterprise these devices would be driven by the immense power of the ship's engines.  On Earth the average Federation citizen would have a small residential model replicator in his or her home.  Anything you might want could be fabricated in an instant.  That would indeed seem to eliminate the need for a marketplace in which every product has a price; and that in turn would remove the fundamental market incentives of the entire retail industry.

And yet even if such devices were possible I would assert that there will remain opportunities for some individuals to profit.  For a replicator to be capable of producing, say, a chair or a chainsaw it must have a blueprint for the item to be produced.  Today the technology for making a chair is known around the world, but some styles of chairs are more popular than others.  Some chainsaws have features that are more useful than others.  The individuals who come up with the best product blueprints will have something that others would be willing to pay for.  So there is likely to be a market for the blueprints of products to be produced by replicators even if the cost of producing any individual item is zero.

And let's remember that the replication of any particular item requires an expenditure of energy.  If in the future society finds a way to produce unlimited amounts of energy (see my blog posting titled Dyson "Spheres",) then perhaps replicators could be used to produce anything and everything.  But until that time comes energy too will be a scarce commodity, and that implies that it will have its own market.

Is it really possible to create a device that can manufacture anything from a cup of soup to an electric guitar?  First we should talk about the size of the object to be replicated.  The manufacture of a couch would require a rather large device-- unless the couch were delivered in pieces.  Yes, the products of the future may very well be delivered to you with "some assembly required."  Larger items like houses or yachts would have to be assembled by large teams of people working in collaboration-- much as they are today.  The Enterprise herself was assembled in a space dock from individual components, many of which might have been replicated.

At the very least there would be continued demand for laborers who would assemble larger items from smaller replicated components.  One could even imagine a business that sells finished goods-- like furniture or shuttles-- that require assembly.  Such a business might even have a display room where one could try before buying.  It would of necessity charge for the service of assembly, for the cost of operating an industrial replicator, and of operating a large show room.  So the retail industry wouldn't necessarily die after all.

What about the manufacture of food?  If replicators were indeed capable of producing a chocolate sundae then it seems that there would be no need for agriculture.  Land could be used for purposes other than merely providing food.  But a bowl of minestrone is vastly more complicated than a chainsaw.  Vegetable matter with the right molecules in the wrong proportion or in the wrong configuration would probably taste terrible.  Foodstuffs-- be they animal or vegetable-- are grown over long periods of time.  To assemble a cube of beef or of carrot instantaneously would require an intricately detailed knowledge of cellular structures that resolves to individual molecules.  At a minimum it would require the modeling of every molecule in a cell and of every cell in a piece of living tissue.  That, in turn, would require a vast storehouse of data. Given the not inconsiderable cost of operating large computer systems in today's world, I sincerely doubt that the cost of these data would be zero.  And any non-zero cost implies the existence of a market.

The replicator would eliminate many of the elements of modern day economies, but it would probably not eliminate all of them.  So now let's return to the question of whether or not a replicator is truly practical.  The deceptive simplicity of the Star Trek replicator masks another problem concerning the materials of construction.  A chain saw has teeth.  Saw teeth made of carbon steel are stronger than teeth made of iron; and  teeth made of titanium are better still.  The replicator appears to be capable of producing any material whatsoever on the fly.  From Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity we know that matter and energy are interchangeable.  It is therefore possible to convert pure energy into matter.  In fact quantum mechanics tells us that a particle of energy-- such as a gamma ray-- can spontaneously transform into a pair of antiparticles such as an electron and a positron.  So there is no law of physics that would prevent us from transforming a store of pure energy into a material product.  But no one has been able to demonstrate in a laboratory that a supply of energy could be transformed into an atom of, say, tungsten.  Atoms have been smashed together in some of the planet's more sophisticated accelerators and have thereby produced atoms of high atomic number.  But no one has demonstrated the production of a high atomic number atom from pure energy.  The only process we know for the manufacture of atoms of high atomic number is thermonuclear fusion, and that is a process which, for the present, has a very high cost.  Until such time as physicists can demonstrate the manufacture of atoms of high atomic number in quantity from pure energy, certain types of materials will remain relatively rare.  Scarcity is the principle that produces a market.  So when Mr. Jones living in the San Francisco of the 23rd century selects a chainsaw for replication I suspect that he will pay a fee for the cost of materials and for the blueprint from which the chainsaw is reproduced.

What about human motivations?  Will they be so evolved and so vastly different from those of the present that people no longer pursue wealth?  Well, first we should mention that there are plenty of people alive today who are not motivated by the accumulation of wealth.  The world has always had its saints, and most of them have attained fame through strength of character rather than through the size of their bank accounts.  Yes, there are plenty of people whose chief interest in life is the accumulation of wealth; but that is not the only motivation that drives people generally.  Some are quite content to work in careers such as teaching that will never make one wealthy.  Many people have devoted their lives to helping others through non-profit organizations.  The accumulation of wealth is simply not the main influence on all-- or even most-- people.

Certainly there have been sea changes in human behavior over the last 5,000 years.  Slavery has ceased to be a lawful practice.  Monarchy has been relegated to mere formality.  Most modern societies have implemented one form of democracy or another.  Racial discrimination is no longer sanctioned in American law, and many other countries have adopted the tough standards that are to be found in the American Civil Rights Act.  World domination through military conquest is no longer considered feasible, even by the most deranged and bellicose world leaders.  So it is certainly possible that the world's economic underpinnings could be swept away in a paroxysm of altruistic realization.

And yet we have seen that the replicator would not be enough to eliminate the need for a marketplace of products and ideas.  Some will feast their eyes on the opportunities that the marketplace offers and will strive to profit from them.  Others will merely be content to purchase products developed by the profiteers of the marketplace.  As long as the possibility for benefiting from one's personal efforts exists, I see no reason to believe that the wondrous technologies of the future will put an end to the pursuit of wealth by at least some creative individuals.

Copyright (c) 2012 by David S. Moore.  All rights reserved.