Does the Future Have Room for an Economy?

As technology changes and we’re left tiptoeing into the shallow end of what the full potential of invention might yield for humanity, economic forces have come like a tsunami threatening to stifle technological development on many fronts.  We need only look at the killing of the shuttle program and the transition of space-faring responsibility into the private sector in the United States to see proof of how concrete the relationship between the two is.  But just as the economy of today is driven largely by forces that came as the result of invention, what might the economy of the future look like and will it save us?

One of the peculiarities of science fiction is just how the economies of the future might be driven – or if they will exist in any form we would recognize today.  For example, in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek the future has done away with all notions of economic gain thanks to technologies such as the replicator – which can produce goods on a large scale simply by asking for it.  As a plot device it makes sense, but fans of the series have always voiced curiosity over the details of the arrangement described.  There’s little doubt that a fully functional “goods generator” would have a significant impact on the industrial sector of the global economy, but would it demolish an economy entirely?  And while it does serve as an interesting plot device for a television and film series, is this device too magical to ever exist in the real world?  One of the first to mention a device in the field of biology, Dr. K. Eric Drexler is often cited as one of the driving idea men of this sort of invention.

It’s an often stated fact that at any given moment a lab accident could bring forth a new principle or invention that could change all sorts of things.  While the wheel was not discovered by accident, the force of round edges reducing the resistance of an object moving forward may have been.  While rubber tires were not invented by accident, vulcanized rubber comprising them certainly was.  Invention is just around the corner, and many of the things we use every day are at least partially the result of chance.

And the matter replicator of Roddenberry’s vision does have it’s own 21st century limited counterpart in the form of the open source 3-D printing community.  The community has designed devices intended to produce goods as well as other 3-D printers.  But while their ability to print objects today is limited, it is foreseeable that in the future their abilities will increase significantly.  Could this have an impact on future materials?  What would a world economy look like if every community or every household had the ability to create whatever they needed by request?

But as the devices themselves become more popular, the limits of this form of economy will become more obvious as well.  While the objects themselves will provide the assembly for free, the cost of producing the plastic fiber components will be a limiting factor along with the actual cost of electricity to run them.  And the design process of the devices and their component parts may decline when there is no way to sell superior designs.  But is it possible that within our own lifetimes we will see a transition toward home based production of goods when before we would have to depend almost exclusively on the industrial sector for production?  From today’s simple 3D printers to the science fiction replicators of the future there is a considerable journey.  Of course even as technology has demonstrated in the past that it can change the world for the better, it may be prudent to keep in mind the things it has taken away with time.