2015-08-11

Star Trek Economics Follow-Up

The ever-overly-polite reader SonofCCN has sharply noticed a detail I didn't touch in the last go on Star Trek economics:


"Fascinating blog post, you obviously have been thinking this over for a good long while. And please understand I am in no way saying your wrong, and freely admit you put many times the effort and thought into this than me, merely that this is my thoughts on trying to "understand" Trekonomics or at least how they go beyond Capitalism. 
A concept which, much like our 17th century mercantilist friend, confuses and frightens me. ;) 
Now granted when an Ipod and a rock "cost" the same to make that does make an interesting economy and I would certainty agree with you that the "scarcity of scarcity", which goofy or not I like that term, in the Federation would be mind boggling to us but, and maybe I'm just too old fashioned or don't "get it", I just can't wrap my mind around a "free lunch" as it were.

To my way of thinking to use a replicator I would need energy, raw material ( which I'd suppose could do double duty as an energy source), periodic maintenance/spare parts with an accompanying certain level of skill/expertise along with the "investment" of time needed for "manufacturing". All of which are, relatively speaking, finite and suggests to me that I can only build Ipods or clothing or shelter or any other necessity at the expense of everything else. 
And, I would argue, within any large/diverse group there will be disagreement on the inherent value of any particular item resulting in argument over resource utilization not radically different than has confronted man since dawn of existence requiring some means or method of rationing/distribution. Now again this could simply be me not being able to wrap my mind around the concept, again like that 17th century mercantilist, but my gut says some version of a Capitalistic exchange of value, whatever that might be in this economy, for goods or services would well serve as that method. Or something reasonably similar and closer related than mercantilism at any rate. 
All of which, I'm sure, sounds overly simplistic to you and have likely well considered. Obviously just from you blog post you mention the necessity of some scarcity, the needs for laws and credits touching upon resource utilization. So I do beg your indulgence and forgiveness me if I sound impossibly obstinate or what have you. It is not my intention. 
-Respectfully, Sonofccn"
I composed the following response:

No, you're good ... you nailed the conceptual gap.

Merely upending manufacturing labor cost is not sufficient to get from A (where we are now) to B (post-scarcity) ... B is actually like Z or at least E/F/G.  There are several elements that must come together, like power and computing.

Case in point is the RepRap, a 3-D printer which now has a long pedigree.  With a few small exceptions insofar as metal and certain electronic parts are concerned, a RepRap can make a second RepRap.  You can then make most any little plastic doodad you might need.  So why hasn't China, whose economy came up by making little pieces of plastic crap, completely folded already?  Because there's a lot more to it than that (and by now a lot more to China).

The RepRap needs a computer brain.  Since the RepRap was invented in 2005, though, we've gotten to the point that amazing devices running Android or Windows (even Phone) cost literally next to nothing.  The Lumia 640 is an amazeballs effing LCARS phone that Geordi would happily use and you can literally walk out the door with one for 75 bucks, and there are Android tablets sold at retail stores for 40!

I don't know if anyone's gotten the requisite software down to such devices yet, but once done the cost of the RepRap will be tiny.  They also need raw material in the form of special plastic filament that can be used in the machines, though even this is being tackled via recyclebots that melt down waste plastic into usable filament.  Even the electronic side of things is being dealt with to an extent by use of circuit printing using conductive filament.

In principle, then, one could design a whole RepRap ecosystem of printable circuits, macro-electronics, and eventually metal printing that would allow for true self-replication.  Factor in some brilliant printable solar cell and you're in business.

Of course, you still need a 3-D scanner and/or the capacity to use a CAD-like system to make new stuff.  And even using recycled plastic means you need plastic ... you can't just toss in dirt.

(And I haven't even touched on nano-manufacturing of macro-scale items.  Imagine a nano-RepRap.  Hell, evolve things a few steps, and we could build a fully-outfitted hospital with RepRap'ed drones and RepRap'ed and nano-RepRap-manufactured components.  The drone part already exists.)

A proper replicator takes all of these ideas to the next level.  A replicator with a proverbial Mr. Fusion integrated onboard and with modular parts no larger than the replicator's chamber means the whole kit and kaboodle is right there.  The scanner is already present and there's plenty of computer horsepower and software maturity to allow for people to describe the modifications or altogether new doodad they want.

So, just as Picard delivered a replicator to the Uxbridge house, so too could your neighbor just hand you one.  (And assuming proper modular designs, there's no great reason you couldn't build bigger replicators, right there in your neighborhood.)

In short, you basically have an entire Wal-Mart in a box.  No one controls it.  No one had to manufacture it in the classic sense, so there was no factory with laboring individuals, no logistics personnel to handle distribution of just the right amount to your town, no retail facility with its employees and management, et cetera.  You can't even collect sales tax.

Congratulations ... you just killed the economy.

Of course, there are caveats to consider before you go closing your bank account and preparing for the Replicator Apocalypse.  In order of the best narrative, and trying not to allow too much overlap:

1.  I have oversimplified slightly.

A replicator may weave straw into gold, or just allow gold from thin air, but there are probably still relative costs associated.  In "Year of Hell"[VOY4] Janeway suggested that recycling a big metal watch and chain ... presumably in the replicator given that's how they 'do the dishes' ... represented a meal, a hypo, or a pair of boots for someone, implying that metallic chunks are more costly in input energy than simpler organic patterns.

The labor cost is still pushing a button, in other words, but there is still an energy cost.  When energy is not scarce this isn't an issue, but if your ship's in pieces and most of your power systems are offline it starts factoring into your calculations.   On a planet where you can just replicate some solar farms or toss more crap into your Mr. Fusion this isn't an issue, but that's that scarcity of scarcity stuff again.

2.  Some things can't be replicated.

Unlike your local Wal-Mart where everything is made from atoms that show up among the first 80 or 90 entries on the Periodic Table, Star Trek has a periodic table rather larger, featuring planets with deposits of things like trillium 323 (suggesting a stable and helluva-massive atom) and direct references to the existence of over 200 naturally-occurring elements (probably way more than 200 given that the over 200 were in a specific polymer ... that being the whole number or even a big chunk would seem like one had been adding elements to your polymer just to show off).

While I don't think a replicator would have issues with most items, there have been certain things which either explicitly or logically can't be replicated.

Still, though, that means you can pretty much replicate everything up through the early 21st Century, at least, and probably up to the early 22nd.  That's sufficient to cover most every modern economic need, I should think.

(As a corollary to this idea, of course, there's the whole Sisko's Restaurant / Chateau Picard bit.  While some things can't be replicated, there are some things you don't necessarily want to see replicated, meaning there will still be some old activities.  That doesn't mean the economy survived, per se, but it does mean that there will still be niche activities . . . after all, people still make abacuses, Napier's bones, and other such 'primitive' calculation devices.)

3A.  That won't all happen overnight as soon as the Mk. I Replicator shows up.

22nd Century starships featured protein resequencers for food and whatever sort of 3-D printer we can presume they had aboard for making parts, along with whatever other machine shop gizmos they had.  Generally, though, an economy would still exist with such things around.

Early replicators would probably have been bulky, power-hungry, and only capable of simple things ... basic elements at first, perhaps, or only very basic organic compounds.  It might've taken awhile to go up the periodic table (e.g. "yay, we can finally include things made of copper!") and there may have been odd roadblocks along the way.  We may find tin alloys easy to make but for whatever technobabble reason maybe some didn't come out of the replicator well, for instance, or still don't, requiring some post-production.

In short, just as the RepRap hasn't put our favorite plastic-molding-machine operator Mike Wong out of a job, so too the first replicator doesn't spell instant collapse of the economic system in place at the time.

But, it does put people in certain industries on notice, if not the industry altogether.

3B.  Evolution minimizes disruption

Just as we have 3-D printers available in big box stores now, so too will nano-manufacturing gizmos eventually reach the market.  So the economy and laws of Earth, by the time replicators came around, had already adapted in large degree to what we would consider monstrously disruptive upheavals of technology were they to drop on us today.

For a real-world example, consider calculation.  It was only a few centuries ago that a calculator was a person, probably dressed all nerdy though I'm not sure what "nerdy" looked like centuries ago.  These were people tasked with the mundane or not-so-mundane math, using whatever tools they had (Napier's bones, abacus, slide rules, whatever) to do the tedious math work of a company . . . probably overlapping with modern accounting, but with a lot more laborious tedium involved.

Even after Blaise Pascal's mechanical calculator was invented, it still took a couple of hundred years before such technology went significantly commercial with the Arithmometer in the mid 19th Century.  Such mechanical and even electro-mechanical calculators were all the rage in the late 19th and especially the early-to-mid 20th Century.  I own a couple of old handheld mechanical calculators . . . they were awesome when that was all you had.  From the arithmometer to the incredible complexity (and majestic simplicity) of the Curta, mechanical calculation was the norm, and there were many companies and manufacturers engaged in the creation of these devices.

In the mid-1940s, however, ENIAC appeared . . . an electronic computer.  And yet, it took decades for us to go from ENIAC to the point where electronic calculators were ubiquitous, solar-powered objects that could be had for little more than a song.

The point of this is not specifically to note the demise of mechanical calculation (though I still find the fact that I don't have a Curta depressing ... they're still popular in some uses, actually), but to ponder the slow death of the field of people-calculators.  It took quite awhile, and by the time the end came there had been plenty of lurches in that direction.

Of course, we still have people-calculators of a sort today, albeit in more specialized roles and requiring massive supercomputer support.  But the point is that were we to air-drop a million cheap Chinese-made solar-powered calculators on Europe of, say, 1700, the economic disruption would've been amazing to behold.

====================================

Taken all together, I hope you can see the direction of travel here.  I can't pretend to be able to predict the actual course of events and responses thereto.  After all, in a modern legal environment where someone could legally go through your trash, collect your DNA, clone you, impregnate themselves, and then bill you child support, there are many ways in which logical progressions can go totally haywire ... and it is no accident I mentioned the Replicator Apocalypse.  Imagine ISIS with a replicator.

Still, however, I think it is easy to see that the replicator as conceived and used in the TNG era constitutes an end to economic reality as we know it today.  Unless you're doing some severely specialized work like building starships, everything you need is literally at the touch of a button.

Given how many people are already content to be useless non-contributors to society (47% by one famously-quoted estimate, though I daresay that's low), I cannot speak to what that might do to society at large.  One would think the whole Federation is just one big empire of lolcat-video consumption and chock full of space hippies.  But, then, they do seem to have done a better job at keeping people grounded in reality, and the ISIS-with-a-replicator sort of thing hasn't obviously happened, so hats off to their education system.

And of course, any super-cheap power technology will get you halfway to post-scarcity.  Back in the mid-90's a friend of mine (from the recent Uttan Narsu post, incidentally) had a sci-fi story idea where some uber-material offering virtually limitless cheap energy was found in planet cores, making the asteroid belt (as a failed planet, in his story) a rich source.  With power unlimited and virtually maintenance-free, the society was completely up-ended, for the better of course.  Reality might not be so kind, but that's why we like Star Trek ... it tells us, to paraphrase Roddenberry, that it isn't going to all end with the flash of the bombs.

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