If we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run – and often in the short one – the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative.Arthur C. Clark, The Exploration of Space, 1951
This started out as an extra credit essay I wrote for ECN-150 in the fall of 1987 while studying economics at Wake Forest University. The original title of this essay was “We are four inventions away from the collapse of capitalism.” Since then, one has already come about.
The fourth invention was “a low or nil cost method of communicating to anyone on Earth in any medium.” Well, that ship sailed and it hugely disrupted the world economy. When I was 13 (1976), I was already neck deep in HAM radio and by 1980, I was already programming APPLE IIs. By 1984, I had already built an email “service” out of a bank of Commodore 64s. I had a front row seat to the evolution of digital communication. I knew it was a matter of time before things would get really out of hand.
These last three inventions will have even more of a disruptive influence.
What I termed as “auto-abundance” is now called “post-scarcity” and it is a more descriptive term but I left the original language out. 3D printing and additive manufacturing are terms I edited into this version in place for “replicators.” Other items were rewritten to reflect events from the last 30+ years.
“The hard work of the future will be pushing buttons”Nikola Tesla
Humanity’s quest for energy has been around since we came out of the trees. It began with the catching of fire from the Gods and when fire alone wasn’t enough, we came up with new ways to make our work life easier. Some through clever inventions like nuclear energy and others were horrific blights on humanity like slavery.
Energy touches every single aspect of our lives. Every product we buy has the cost of petrodollars baked into it. The cost of materials, manufacturing, marketing and distribution all have the price of oil built in.
Oil is the biggest economic sector on the planet. For every percent knocked off of their market dominance, the more effort would be put into preventing new technologies from coming to the market. When Ronald Reagan ripped the solar panels off of the White House, it was a song to the oil industry that their market dominance would continue to be secure.
But that dominance cannot last forever. There is too much money on the table to replace oil as our primary energy source for this to continue forever. Despite Reagan’s 1982 FY budget, purposefully stunting the progress of fusion energy research, the research will proceed but at an inefficient pace that doesn’t threaten the oil industry. This may lead to other technologies to arise to augment the lack of fusion research. As I said, there is too much money on the table. Also, if Dr. Carl Sagan’s doctoral thesis on “greenhouse gases” on Venus is correct, Reagan’s lack of vision may lead us on a troubling path of ecological disaster.
My overarching point here is that regardless of the level of political meddling and the opposing forces of free market capitalism, will eventually lead us to many revolutions in energy (both on the supply side and the demand side) where energy will be “too cheap to meter,” meaning the costing of reading the meter will be higher than the cost of the energy to create, transport and deliver.
When that day comes, the third leg of capitalism will be destroyed, only leaving the last two. Democratizing energy, like democratizing media will accelerate the advancement of capitalism’s own demise. The capitalists will not be able to help themselves as that is the nature of the beast.
A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.Frederik Pohl
Contrary to Karl Marx, labor will not always be the force for manufacturing. Robotics, AI and additive manufacturing (3D printing) will kill off most labor intensive jobs.
Roger Smith, the 1980s era CEO of General Motors declared the closing of American automotive plants “essential for survival.” Whose survival? America’s? The company’s? Mexico’s? Looking back, the move was not an effort to reduce cost but to put off automation. Slave wages in Mexico at the time was about 90% of what average wages were in the United States. But again, workers never mattered, production did and automation was embraced.
Those mythical auto jobs that politicians swear they will bring back to the United States no longer exist. As soon as those jobs left the country, those human jobs were quickly supplanted by automation. Packing up a robotic auto plant in Mexico will have nil economic impact to the working class of America.
In the future, there will be a shift from centralized automated manufacturing to decentralized, or “in home” manufacturing. As 3D printers advance, so will the complexity of the things they can make. Already we make clothing, food, complex alloys and other vital items from our current crop of 3D printers. As their abilities become more vast and consolidate into fewer and fewer types of printers, we will arrive at the Star Trek foreseen technology called the “replicator.” The magic little gizmo that can replicate pan-fried catfish, a trombone or a “cup of Earl Grey – hot” will be everywhere and just another appliance in your 3D printed home.
Once manufacturing is truly localized, technology will be the death knell of the idea of products having “labor hours” associated with their creation. When that point becomes zero or nil, the second leg of capitalism will be gone.
“Any planet is ‘Earth’ to those that live on it.”Isaac Asimov, Pebble in the Sky, 1950
The single last thing that will keep capitalism alive, albeit on life-support if it survives the energy and replication revolution, will be land. As of this writing, accessible land is finite. There isn’t any more usable land being made. What is slowing creeping out and being added to total land mass due to vulcanism is being negated by land loss due to global warming. As sea levels rise, land disappears under the waves.
When jobs disappear, there will be fewer and fewer people that will be able to invest in land or building which makes the available customer base smaller and smaller. It is a spiral of death that the excesses of capitalism will never be able to tackle. There will still be profit to be made until faster than light travel is a reality thus allowing for mass colonization of other planets. This will dramatically increase the number of available acres on the market for development. But since jobs will not increase, nor will incomes, there is nothing to save capitalism from this final strike to the heart. And for every new “earth friendly” planet is colonized, the glut of available land will grow. The size of the newly accessible land will be so enormous that no market will be able to withstand it. A recent example of this was homesteading in the first century of the United States. All you had to do to own land was go there and claim it. The only difference in this new scenario would be that you would not need to “work” the land. The work has been reduced out of the equation by technology. The land is free to the occupant.
When land is given away for free or at nil cost, capitalism has no where else left to go in this scenario. No more lifeboats. No more bailouts. Citizenship and customers will no longer be a bonding element for society or government.
“Don’t panic.”Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, 1979
I know people in Silicon Valley and all around the world that are working on all three of these inventions. There are many sub-inventions that also need to be tackled, but the quest for free energy, replication technology and FTL travel continue, in multiple locations – some secret and some not-so-secret.
There are plenty of human-induced items that can block, slow or prevent these technologies from coming to light. But if the United States blocks it, you know China or Germany or maybe some kid in a garage in India will have a flash of creativity and solve one of the world’s problems. I guess my point is even if one country bans this technology then another country can pick up the ball and run with it. Eventually, one day, everyone will have access to all of this.
If Congress had the mental capacity and scientific education to understand what exactly was going on in Silicon Valley, they would have ordered a nuclear strike years ago.
But they can’t… because it would be bad for business.