What would happen if 3-D printers could 3-D print themselves?

The French philosopher and economist Jacques Attali[1] predicted in the 1970s that the music industry would collapse. He was proved right within twenty years. If something is freely or cheaply replicable, then economic theory will predict that its value will trend towards zero. Even before the digitisation of music, we were able to record our friends’ vinyl LPs on cassette, and the ability of musicians to earn a living from recorded music was doomed. So it turned out to be. And musicians today earn less and less from selling recorded music. As a writer, I am acutely aware that it is getting harder to make a living, even in a world where people are reading more.

Attali is now making the same predictions about manufactured goods. 3-D printing is still a relatively new technology, but it opens the door to being able to scan any object into a 3-D printable file and to email it. Any manufactured product is now infinitely reproducible, so its value will fall to zero. It isn’t inconceivable that we will soon be able to upload the 3-D printable files for a car or refrigerator that we can print at home and assemble Ikea-style. We could then tweet the link so everybody can have one.

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

We could argue that the same argument applies to inventing a new music genre. We like to think that people will continue to do this for the love of it. But I remember a time (not 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 grotty bed-sit, so all those creatives have disappeared. I hope they went to another, better place, but I see a lot of anecdotal evidence that they were all forced to take menial office jobs instead.

If all forms of creative output (artistic or manufactured) will eventually become valueless in economic terms, then the economic constrains upon consumption will evaporate (like it already has with music), but then so will all the manufacturing jobs that create that stuff and so will all the artists and inventors.

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 to 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 their unskilled workers from the market forces of labour in countries far away that have too many people doing jobs of declining worth. Real wages of American workers have declined even as their productivity has increased[2] . This divergence 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 is also falling to zero – so this strategy only defers the inevitable.

The logical conclusion of this is that people whose labour has no value will have no economic constraints on the consumption of products that cost nothing to produce. Increased productivity should reduce the need to work, but that is not the experience of workers everywhere who are working harder just to stand still. Playing devil’s advocate, we could argue that goods cost nothing to produce except for the cost of raw materials – but commodity prices are universally declining too.

We need to ask what this means for the future of mankind. But before we can do this, 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. 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 (changing money supply, tax rates or interest rates) 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.

The only way to escape this death spiral where ultimately the planet will 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 emotional value of a human life. A good place to start is to consider how much consumption optimises it. Since the advertising industry has been pummelling us with propaganda about how consumption enhances our emotional wellbeing, it seems likely that we need a lot less consumption than most of us currently think. Then we can start to consider how much consumption this planet can support. And it then 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 a monetary value before it can even think about it.

[1] Sam York. “The pop star and the prophet” bbc.com , 17 September 2015
[2] “Why the Gap Between Worker Pay and Productivity Is So Problematic” The Atlantic