Monday 26 October 2015

What Would Happen If 3-D Printers Could 3-D Print Themselves?

Posted by Matthew Blakeway
“In the future, [the human species] will refuse to put themselves at the service of pirates. They will become what I call transhumans – who will give birth to a new order of abundance” ―Jacques Attali.
The French philosopher and economist Jacques Attali* predicted in the 1970s that the music industry would collapse. Within twenty years, he was basically proved right. If something is freely or cheaply replicable, then economic theory predicts that its value will trend towards zero. Ever since we were able to record our friends’ vinyl LPs on cassette, the ability of musicians to earn a living from recorded music was doomed – and so it turned out to be. Musicians today earn less and less from selling recorded music. I myself, as a writer, am acutely aware that it is getting harder to make a living, even in a world where people are reading more.

Now Attali is making the same predictions about manufactured goods. 3-D printing, while it still is a relatively new technology, opens the door to being able to scan a wide variety of objects into a 3-D printable file and e-mail it. Many manufactured products may become infinitely reproducible, their value trending towards zero. It has already been done, if only experimentally. We already have 3-D printed musical instruments, camera lenses, weapons – even 3-D printed refrigerators and cars. It isn’t inconceivable that we all will be able to upload 3-D printable files for such items which we can print at home and assemble Ikea-style. We could then tweet the link so that everybody else can have one.

At first glance, this all sounds as though it represents an impressive technological advancement. But actually, in an important sense, it is anti-technological – just as music streaming is anti-creative. The incentive to invent a better refrigerator or car is to make money. But if, as soon as you have done so, the value of the inventor’s work trends towards zero, then all hope that the inventor has of making money evaporates. So what is the point of innovation?

We like to think that people will continue to create and to innovate for the love of it – like inventing a new music genre. But I remember a time (not so long ago) where all waiters and bar tenders in New York City were aspiring actors, musicians, or artists. They could survive on three shifts a week and devote the rest of their time to their creative pursuits. But today, it takes six shifts to support subsistent living in a dingy bed-sit – so all those creatives have disappeared. I would like to think that they went to another, better place, but I see anecdotal evidence instead that many of them were forced to take menial office jobs.

If most forms of creative output (artistic or manufactured) will eventually become valueless in economic terms, then the economic constraints upon consumption will evaporate – as has already happened with music. But then so will all the manufacturing jobs that create that stuff, and so will the artists and inventors. In fact if we look at what is going up in value, not down, it is mostly what is not infinitely replicable, like land. The cost of education is currently going up, but this could sharply reverse through the rise of Internet education. Fossil fuels were becoming cheaper as we became more effective at extraction, but this already is understood to be a passing phase.

There is something else on planet earth that is infinitely and cheaply replicable – and that is humans. During my lifetime, the population of humans on this tiny planet has doubled. And if I survive into my eighties, it will treble. If something is freely and infinitely replicable, then in purely economic terms its value will trend towards zero. And that is precisely what is happening across the world.

The value of unskilled labour is trending towards subsistence wages – and in a globalised world, nations that value human rights are powerless to protect unskilled workers from the market forces of labour in countries far away, that have too many people doing jobs of declining worth. Real wages, even of American workers, have declined as their productivity has increased**. And this divergence of wages and productivity started in the 1970s, just as economists started preaching the value of globalisation. In the developed world, we have been trying to resist this trend, by pouring resources into education – attempting to ensure that we have no unskilled workers. But this post started by explaining why the value of the output of skilled creatives, too, is trending towards zero. This strategy only seems to defer the inevitable.

The logical conclusion is that, while people's labour will have little value, there will be few economic constraints on the consumption of products which cost little to produce. And while increased productivity should reduce the need to work, that is not the experience of the workers, who everywhere are working harder just to stand still. Even if – playing devil’s advocate – we argue that goods cost little to produce but that the cost of raw materials will offset this, it so happens that commodity prices are universally declining too.

We need to ask what this means for the future of humankind. But first, we need to ask what it means for the future of economic theory. It occurs to me that most economic theory doesn’t work in a world where there is an infinite supply of everything and therefore everything costs nothing. And if everything costs nothing, money no longer works as a means of allocating access to resources. This sort of argument isn’t trivial, and economists are currently debating different forms of the same thing: they worry about what happens when the conventional tools of economic management (among them, fiscal and monetary policy) simply stop having the effect that they used to have. Some governments have already tried negative interest rates after an interest rate of zero was found not to be low enough to stimulate growth and recovery from recession.

One way to escape this death spiral, where ultimately the planet may have billions of economic migrants, is to abandon the idea that all decision-making should revolve around money. We need to stop thinking about the monetary value of labour, and start thinking about the intrinsic and emotional value of a human life, and how this may be safeguarded and guaranteed. A good place to start is to consider how much consumption would optimise a human life. Bearing in mind that the advertising industry has been pummelling us with propaganda as to how consumption enhances our emotional wellbeing, it seems likely that we need a lot less consumption in reality than most of us think. Then we can start to consider how much consumption this planet can support. And then it becomes easy to compute how many humans we can fit on this planet before it bursts.

If economics is going to have any role in working this all out, then it is going to have to go cold turkey on its addiction to converting everything to monetary value before it can even think about it. Interestingly, we have seen powerful trends in this direction, reflected no less in the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

* Sam York. The Pop Star and the Prophet. 17 September 2015.
** Gillian White. Why the Gap Between Worker Pay and Productivity Is So Problematic. The Atlantic. 25 February 2015.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It's a powerful essay.

There needs to be something far more compelling than monetary value, even consumption, and that may be expanded bills of rights or constitutions -- something which religions, in their own way, have known for thousands of years. Their bottom line is expansive. Ours is not. Already, new, more rounded approaches to economics presuppose constitutional guarantees, human rights legislation, and development policy, among other things.

Perig Gouanvic said...

Me too, I find this essay powerful. I think it would be important to follow up on this; Martin Cohen actually wrote another piece which is in the same vein : Philosophical Investigations: The Price of Culture. Excerpt:

But the bookstore wars are long over, and Amazon won. Rarely do students and academics buy their books from the curated collections that were university bookshops, they buy them on-line where margins are shaved and prices are cheaper. Where once university presses earnestly solicited academics for their research projects, promising readers' reports, copyediting and fastidious proof checking, now even the giant, transnational presses (like Taylor and Francis and Wiley-Blackwell) have had to drastically rethink their assumptions about profits from such books, in the absence of library sales, shrinking university bookshops and a public culture of book browsing for free on the Internet.

The Journal system in particular has run its course – publishers will have to do without its golden eggs. The high prices paid for access to the precious real estate of journals sitting in a thousand library racks cannot for long survive the practical advantages of online open access. Perhaps funding through grants or library consortia will ease the transition, but Journals are heading the same way as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

To that, I answered (more or less), that the state should take a greater role in protecting the lives of its citizens, including its creators, so that creation is emnacipated from the pressures of survival. When you say, Matthew, that

The incentive to invent a better refrigerator or car is to make money.

i feel uncomfortable, because I feel that many things, many inventions and creations, are made for the sake of making things better -- for their own sake. You respond to this critique by an observation that, I think, is correct : that people simply can't afford creativity anymore. But it is really a reflection of the ongoing destruction of democracy, with its constitutive mechanisms of fiscal justice.

There is more money than we could use collectively, it's really a matter of redistribution, of governance; it is clear that even modest attempts to enforce fiscal justice on corporations have tremendous effects on the wealth of nations and people. And it is not so idealistic -- this issue is becoming mainstream -- The Price We Pay | How Big Corporate Tax Havens and Offshore Finance Destroy our Democracies

Perig Gouanvic said...

Now, in a wholly different vein, the issue of replicability brings interesting problems and solutions.

Consider music. The music industry has changed. A friend of mine is a musician. He basically gives away his CDs, knowing that it can't possibly be a proper source of income. He has to work on top of that, obviously. But the most predictable source of income from his art is the performance. This can't be replicated: people come to a place, enjoy being together and being 'in the flesh' in his company. In fact, things have turned upside down... (or perhaps have come back to normal?), the movement is in the inverse direction: the replicas are used to bring people together, they are part of a centripetal movement, while in the past the industry succeeded because of the magnitude of its centrifugal force, reaching consumers or replicas far and wide. Publicity, mass hysteria, star system, etc. (There is also another form of income, which is precapitalist : solliciting voluntary donations; in these cases (and this is a big trend too), the 'customers' and the 'seller' become a single self-preserving entity; it is really the primitive notion of solidarity that is at the root of the phenomenon).

So this loss of economic value has triggered a movement towards a more primitive, almost precapitalist state, where people enjoy being together, forming clans.

This is what is also observed in the book industry -- please visit the link to Martin's article to see the article, in the comments --, where the good old local bookstore has grown, not declined, in the last decade while the giants (Amazon, etc.) were fighting a bloody war. Again, there's this apparent return to things that can't get a price tag -- all things related to togetherness.

Finally, and this is a personal observation, there is the meta-issue of ourselves creating this content for no financial reason (well, perhaps remotely, because capital is a virus, or a specter). There is a lot of competition from other authors ('content creators') to simply *exist* -- that is, content is so easily replicated, recomposed, rearranged, re-owned, that potential readers are submersed in this ocean of contents, have no compass, and tend to evolve in schools of fishes to find some kind of direction.

Not surprisingly, the masses will create monopolies and hypes (helped by popularity machines like Google and Wikipedia), and we of the intellectal proletariat (who have nothing but a free blog with no diffusion mechanism, no special access to the wider public) will remain marginal.

My solution to this problem is to stop thinking in terms of capital/caput/head, it is to stop entertaining this dream that we, as persons-creators, could attain any kind of prominence (I'm still talking of making a living as a creator), like the publication monopolies and superstars and local stars do. Rather, it is the collectives, the groups that may form in response to a given creative need or intellectual pursuit, that may organize their own division of labour to properly tackle the need or issue, that can achieve prominence, episodically (and redistribute the capital gained); the single author is indeed slowly disappearing, but something can spring from this, that is sustainable financially, which is, again, based on solidarity -- creating the best content collectively, that will be reshared and 'advertised' collectively, 'organically' as Gramsci would say, avoiding the capitalist competition of authors.

docmartincohen said...

Actually, although I'm always pleased to be cited (!) I don't reallly agree with Matthew's argument here. Okay, electronic books are effecively free. Indeed, thousands of them are now written and distributed on the net for free. Our website distributes pages free, too, of coruse! People want readers... as Thomas says, there are other ways of being 'paid' than in cash.

But in terms of products like books, a lot fo work oges into a book that is not free. The electonic version maybe confuses the issue. There is editing, marketing and the value of being given 'space' in a publisher's marketing programme. So the book is never costless at all. Take Aplle phones, they are cheap to manufacture, but the costs are there in the US in research, in design, in copyright protection in lots of subtle ways.

Nor do I think that 'unskilled' work is becoming 'free'. In rich countries, like the UK and France, unskilled work might be say, cleaning. The rates for cleaning maybe slip compared to the to salaries - but they are still keeping up with low-skilled work or indeed things like bricklaying, carpentry etc etc.

So I don't see a post-industrial world, nor a new kind of social structure emerging as per Perig. Myself, I see social divisions being entrenched and widened. Perig's friend has to give away music, in the way that many of us authors give away our books, but at the same time other musicians and authors are making a great deal of money doing essentially the same thing. We have - here I think I do agree with Matthew (and Perig's comparison of our posts is justified too) a greater emphasis on intangibles - ideas? connections? social values? than on traditional elements of manufacturing and industry. So what if 3-D printers could print themselves? I think the question is misdirected, misleading.

Unknown said...

It's an interesting quesion, reminding me of Russell's question whether the barber should cut his own hair or not - the distinguishing between a set and its elements led to mathematical logic. I once asked a question in a class: how would God say "My God!"; various answers were offered but not the simpliest one: "My Me!"

Matthew Blakeway said...

The problem with many of the solutions that you propose is that they are belief-dependent. If religions or human rights legislation fix these problems, then we need to have freedom of belief. But what if ISIS or Nazism or Boko Haram demands freedom for their belief? Then you need to have beliefs about beliefs, or metabeliefs. And do we need freedom of metabelief? This is at the heart of the problem of the UK trying to create laws to combat "extremism". How does the UK government know that it isn't extreme?

Matthew Blakeway said...

The trouble with the state intervening to protect creativity is that their protection also stultifies. This is because the state's view of what culture is worthwhile is generally about a century out of date. An example of this is the Soviet concept of "Socialist Realism". But before we sneer at "other" ways of doing this, we should ask of our own government whether ballet and classical music need state subsidy when it's audience is a tiny minority of intellectual elites?

When the state protects scientific endeavour, it doesn't get much better, whether they are persecuting Galileo or cutting funding for stem-cell or climate science research.

Humanity tends to thrive for a century or a few on a Big Idea. examples of such things are Democracy, Islam, the Renaissance or Capitalism. Ultimately, those ideas tend to wear thin once humans learn to corrupt the rules. Capitalism is on the wane because executives have worked out how to take more than their fair share. Democracy is failing because PR spin-doctors have worked out how to manipulate voters. And Islam is failing as an ideology, despite sweeping all before it in the 7th to 12th Century.

Philosophy has a role in the genesis of the next Big Idea. The government is just a puppet of the last one. I believe that humanity is heading for a huge failure because all the previous Big Ideas are fizzling. This means that we are overdue a reinvention. I don't know how that will happen, but I think that the first question we need to ask is "what is the basic point of a human life?" And we need to reduce that question to the simplest possible level. Otherwise, we just pollute our answer with the previous Big Ideas that are precisely what we are trying to escape.

Matthew Blakeway said...

I agree with most of this, but you are talking about creators actually rebelling against a capitalist system. Maybe they have always done this. but Government/Capital/Power will be reactionary. They want Google and Amazon to control the system because they own their shares and collect their taxes.

Matthew Blakeway said...

"Social divisions being entrenched and widening" is surely much the same thing. I am arguing that that division is divided around an axis of replicable vs scarce. We always assumed that skills are scarce and therefore highly valued. But we now live in a world where many skills are low value. Ask a school teacher or a nurse!

History teaches us that increasing the distance between rich and poor eventually leads to revolution (e.g. in France and Russia - both of which were preceded by conspicuous wealth of the aristocracy). We will have a revolution against capitalists and it's a brave person who would predict the social order that will follow.

docmartincohen said...

Thanks for this, Matthew. Actually, I seem to recall that revolutions actually accur when the middle classes or skilled workers become more comfortable, and not when poverty becomes more unbearable, at all. School teachers are better paid thn they 've ever been in the UK - they may be deskilled in a sense, yes, but that's the National Curriculum redefining teaching as 'delivering' what the government thinks shoudl be taught rather than teaching having become automated. I specialised in ICT teaching and it was very much the core thme for me how teachers were deskilled by the political imperatives to introduce computers...

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Yes. You identify a problem that must be overcome if we are ever to see a new metaphysics.

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