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Erik Rothenberg

Erik Rothenberg

Posted: May 5, 2010 06:19 PM

Capitalism and the Age of Machines, 3.0

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Back in 1995, I asked people at a party to provide their predictions for the next 30 years. My co-founder at an Internet service provider and a visionary thinker himself contributed one I never forgot: "...in 30 years, the age of self-replicating machines will be upon us and Capitalism will no longer serve as a model for wealth creation."

Last week I stumbled upon a set of links that made me revisit my colleague's prediction. Dr. Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at University of Bath, U.K. has been developing a prototype model of what may be called a "3D printer." The machine can download a design from the Internet and through extrusion technology create three dimensional plastic parts and electronic circuitry that may find their way into hundreds of uses.

What is more interesting is the machine can make parts that make other machines just like it. Right now, only 60% of the parts can be made by its "parent" machine, but give it time.
Imagine: when time-saving machines are sophisticated enough to replicate themselves, then our economic system of scarcity and growth, is due for a major upgrade if not a complete transformation. The global consequences of this have profound potential.

Check out the video. It will blow your mind.


More info on Reprap can be found here, and an article about it can be found herehere.

Think about where personal computers were 20 years ago and where we are today. This technology will eventually get to the point where 100% of the parts of a machine can be printed and most of the things we imagine need to be produced in factories can be done right at home in a safe and environmentally friendly manner.

Imagine one day being able to download and "print in 3D" a cell phone -- the circuitry, the case, etc. -- and then recycle or compost the parts of it when you are tired of it and want to print a new one. Your friend wants one? Let her print a machine herself so she can print phones for all her friends.

Some of us remember a time when we used to order CDs online or buy vinyl records at a store. Then came along the ability to download and play music on demand -- anytime, anywhere. These were disruptive technologies in action -- retail bricks and mortar locations went out of business because it was no longer necessary to move and store all that physical matter to get the desired effect. Now imagine that you can make not only copies of your music-- but copies of your MP3 player...

Considering the accelerating pace of technological innovation, we may not be more than two generations away from such a day. And fundamental assumptions that underpin capitalism - scarcity and endless growth -are vulnerable to such technology, because it distributes the production so broadly, leveling the playing field for all to participate.

On the day a machine which utilizes renewable, recyclable or reclaimed materials to make high quality products may be replicated with open source designs that are constantly improved upon by a global community, it will be very difficult for capital-intensive producers to claim exclusive domain over the means of production. This in turn will make it very challenging to justify and reinforce the assumption of scarcity of goods -- or producers for that matter.

Further, such an era of distributed mass production turns the "endless growth" mandate on its head. Endless growth is a function primarily of our debt-based capital system -- for one, more production means more investment, which means more interest and principal to pay off, thus the mandate for more growth. Also, due to efficiency gains, producers in the U.S. for example produce more than the country can consume and that drives the mandate to encourage "growth" through needless consumption (which results in all sorts of social, technological and environmental pathologies). Both the capital expenditure and consumption dynamics are lessened considerably when people hold the means of production in their hands.

These are very powerful disruptive forces in our global economy. But it goes deeper than that. Central bank issued, interest-bearing debt creates all our national currency. That currency's value itself is based upon its scarcity and its ability to grow, that is to say, collect interest. Therefore, such debt is the primary driver to the twin problems that ravage the globe; scarcity of primary needs for the many and endless growth and needless consumption by the few. When machines can self-replicate and distribute the benefits of production, not only is scarcity and growth called into question, but also debt itself, along with the form of money that it generates.

Simply put, when our own machines are doing all the work, and making all the stuff we need, why would we have to borrow -- or work for that matter -- in order to get money to buy the stuff we need?

Our hands and minds would be freer to pursue our own personal artistic and scientific passions.

Considering the pace of technological innovation versus the smokescreen that passes for financial reform in Washington, I'm betting on the machines to redefine the economic structure and not the economic structure to co-opt the potential of the machines (like it has with the Internet).

Imagine if one day our economy was based upon the value stream of one of these machines as it self-replicates on a path to serving so many human needs. It would be wise to begin adjusting to that coming world now, while self-replication and 3D printing is still in its infancy. It would be profound if we created a world that tied the value of the natural earth and everything that implies to a new global economic order.

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