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Impearls: Replicators in a robust capitalist economy

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Earthdate 2007-09-21

Replicators in a robust capitalist economy

Volokh Conspiracist Ilya Somin has an interesting post on the question of “How Federal is Star Trek’s Federation?”, which you can read here.  (See also my other post deriving from Ilya’s piece, which you can find here, or use up-thread/down-thread controls in the navigation panel above.)

Ilya gets into (and the comments further explore) questions like whether the Federation was socialistic (and during which period), while commenters raise the issue of just how the presence of technological replicators affects — perhaps even eliminates the meaning of — the Federation’s (or perhaps just humanity’s within it) economy.

I certainly agree with those in the thread who maintain that the mere advent of replicators per se isn’t going to eliminate economics nor an economy.  In this regard, I was surprised no one (but me) recalled perhaps the granddaddy (SF) story concerning replicators’ possible effects on a vigorous capitalist economy — to wit, Ralph Williams’ (pseudonym of Ralph W. Stone) “Business As Usual, During Alterations,” from the grand old days (1958) of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Astounding Science Fiction — which delves into many of the issues considered here.

In the story an alien interstellar society decides to bring down human civilization (then at a more or less mid 20th century stage of development) — quietly, without much of a fuss, so they can simply take over — by providing humanity with several instances of a functional replicator device, capable of replicating most anything (’cepting your baby or pet), including notably the devices themselves.  In addition to brief instructions on their use, an inscription provides fair…  “Warning!  A push of the button grants your heart’s desire.  It is also a chip at the foundations of human society.  A few billion such chips will bring it crashing down.  The choice is yours.

So, naturally, as anybody would expect, the carefree capitalist society of the West (along with the rest of the world) immediately snatches up the new technology, oblivious to all warning (and all doomsayers), replicating everything in sight.  But — funny thing — at least in the story, Western capitalist society and its economy doesn’t collapse.  Oh, it goes through major changes, the basis of the economy turning on its head in only about a day, but it survives and thrives.

As the tale goes, from within the midst of the upheaval: 1

“Well, I’ve been thinking about it, he’s right, you know, not very many people will buy beans and chuck roast, when they can eat wild rice and smoked pheasant breast.  So, you know what I’ve been thinking?  I think what we’ll have to have, instead of a supermarket, is a sort of super-delicatessen.  Just one item each of every fancy food from all over the world, thousands and thousands, all different—”

“It won’t work,” George said with weary kindness.  “That’s what I’ve just been explaining to John here.  Why should I buy my pickled hummingbird tongues from you, when I can keep a can on my own shelf and duplicate it ad nauseam?”

“Ad nauseam, that’s why,” Simond said earnestly.  “Beans, you can eat every day.  Pickled hummingbird tongues, you can’t.  You know, when we first started selling these frozen TV dinners, we ran into something funny.  The first couple of weeks, they’d go like crazy.  Then they’d die.  We’d change suppliers, same story.  Hot, then cold.  Finally, somebody got an idea.  You take the Mexican dinner, that’s a good seller, I like it myself.  You taste the first one, it’s delicious.  The next, not quite so good.  The third or fourth one, eating’s a chore, and by the tenth you can’t stand the sight of even the wrapper—”

“C rations,” I put in.

“That’s it, same thing.  The trouble is, each one is as exactly like the other as they can be made.  You eat one, you’ve had them all.  So, we passed the word to our supplier.  Now, he changes the formula every week, a little more pepper, a few less beans, a different cut of meat, so forth.  People think they are getting the same thing, but it’s just enough different to keep them coming back for more.”

“I see what you mean,” I said thoughtfully.  “In the past, we’ve sold standardization because it was a scarce commodity.  Now, the shoe is on the other foot, we’ll sell diversity.  Instead of offering the customer as choice of GE or Westinghouse refrigerator, we’ll offer a choice of any refrigerator built, anywhere—”  a sudden thought struck me.  “Damn it,” I said unhappily.  “We still can’t get away from suppliers.”

“Not only that,” George offered helpfully.  “Those samples you’re going to offer a choice of are practically all going to be hand-made models, remember that.  Also, you’re not going to get away with duplicating them for nothing.  I think you already broke the law when you duplicated the trademarks on those cartons.  Even if you didn’t, it’s not going to take much extension of present legislation to make it illegal to copy any manufactured article without paying royalty.”
 

Not bad foresight from half a century ago into the stage we’re at now, I’d say, as a result of the advent of “replicators” in the computer software, game and media industries, not to speak of such things as automobiles that one can now have built incorporating a wide variety of individually tailored options.

Also, as longtime readers of Impearls are aware, farsighted physicist Freeman Dyson wrote a terrific piece concerning the likely impact of replicators (of a kind, both mechanical and biological) in his fascinating essay “The World, The Flesh, and The Devil,” which very much rewards perusing in its own right.
 
 

UPDATE:  2007-10-07 12:00 UT:  A reader on another thread points to this site (scroll down to “The Duplicators” and “replicator”), which does mention Ralph Williams’ story.  However, they then get it fundamentally wrong (kind of like Microsoft vis-a-vis the UNIX filesystem), missing one of the major lessons of “Business As Usual, During Alterations.”

As the site asserts:  “Lacking that” (i.e., “some substance that cannot be replicated”) “there is no way to prevent either currency or cheques from being counterfeited.  Counterfeits so good they cannot be distinguished from genuine money.”

This is incorrect, as Williams insightfully realizes.  On the contrary, while currency as such immediately becomes valueless with the advent of high-quality replicators, cheques (and charge cards) do not.  As the author points out, one can already (pre-replicators) write just as many bad cheques as one wants, and still end up in prison over it — that won’t change with replicators.  Thus, in his story the entire economy flips over instantaneously to consist solely of cheques, credit card and like transactions — no cash.
 
 

Reference

1 Ralph Williams (pseudonym of Ralph W. Stone), “Business As Usual, During Alterations,” originally published in John W. Campbell, Jr.’s (editor) Astounding Science Fiction, July 1958 [1958-07].  Reprinted in Prologue to Analog, edited by John W. Campbell, 1962, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York; pp. 230-258.

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