has captured our attention and spurred us into action.
Star Trek’s Replicator: The Last Thing You’ll Ever Buy
Summary: Star Trek presents us with what is quite possibly the ultimate technology: the replicator. It rearranges subatomic particles into tangible goods. Because it brings most marginal costs to $0 and renders labor unnecessary, it blurs the line between tangible and intellectual property. And it could be the most transformative invention ever.
So many novel gadgets are touted as “The last X you’ll ever have to buy!” It’s probably never true, but there is a gadget from Star Trek that really would be the last thing anyone would ever buy. It’s called the replicator and, if it were real, it would have an unparalleled impact on economics and culture.
The replicator works by rearranging subatomic particles into molecules that are then arranged into physical objects. So to make water, the replicator would use subatomic particles to make hydrogen and oxygen, and then combine them in a 2-to-1 ratio until the desired quantity was reached. With this method, the replicator can make anything from spaceship parts to dinner.
Because the replicator can create almost anything with minimal input, it brings marginal costs, or the costs associated with producing one more unit of a good, to zero or near-zero. And this is huge! When marginal costs equal $0, actual costs will likely also become $0, making wage labor pointless as there’s nothing to spend money on.
With the need for labor rendered unnecessary, people are free to fly around in spaceships exploring the universe. In fact, the world described in Star Trek would probably not be possible without the replicator. More than any other piece of technology, the replicator is responsible for the sort of economic entropy that the moneyless socialist economy portrayed in Star Trek is based on. It’s a world where the concept of ownership has been fundamentally altered for both tangible and non-tangible property.
Star Trek assumes that access to tangible property is equivalent to ownership. For example, owning a set of dinner plates is pointless when you could just replicate a set whenever you’re ready to eat. But when it comes to non-tangible property like intellectual property, the blurring of ownership and access becomes more problematic. Once an original thing is created, it can be replicated and become ubiquitous without any acknowledgement given to its creator. And this is where the future portrayed in Star Trek becomes unlikely.
Digital technology gives us an early peek at how replicator technology might impact economies and cultures. Once digitized, music, books, movies and photos all become zero-marginal-cost goods. Making one more copy of an mp3 requires practically no labor or resources.
To protect ownership rights and to incentivize the future creation of zero-marginal-cost goods, regulatory bodies create artificial scarcity through complicated intellectual property regulations. And as more and more consumption shifts to zero-marginal-cost goods, more IP regulation will become necessary.
And it’s this vision of the future, not Star Trek’s socialist utopia, that’s important for businesses. If anything a company makes can be replicated by any consumer, how can companies continue to add value and justify their existence?
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