We are living on the cusp of huge social change, as old-school governance models creak and die because they were designed for the world as it existed 120 years ago.
There are fundamentally three kinds of consumers: those who spend to fulfill needs, those who spend as a status marker, and those who “embrace trends.”
Let’s look at the details.
What do we buy?
What we buy falls into four categories
Commodities: (anything in your corner drug store) more exciting than “a stick,” but not by much.
Manufactured Goods: (computers) people make it, and all but the poorest can afford one of variable quality
Luxury Goods: (high-end cars, private planes) Some people can afford it, others can take on debt to pretend they can afford it, it’s economically irrational for most to *try* to afford it.
Unobtainium/Science Fantasy: Sure, kid, you can have your own private spaceship. If you’re daydreaming, or among the twenty wealthiest people on earth. The blog on which you’re reading now used to be Science Fantasy (c.f. Ender’s Game), but is now Commodity.
The niche a given item inhabits changes over time, but the categories themselves don’t change much.
A well-known example: the cellular phone. Believe it or not, a simple thing like Caller I.D. used to be unobtainium. I knew the guy who more or less came up with it in analog. He earned a ton of money making it… for the Saudis. Because you had to be that kind of rich to afford it. So let’s extrapolate that out to cell phones.
Cell Phones have gone from Unobtainium (Dick Tracy comics and government-only projects), to Luxury Goods (c.f. “Gordon Gekko brickphone scene”), to Manufactured Goods (the explosion of cellphones in the 1990s), to today… when a base cellphone is a Commodity. It’s now a basic consumer good, and by basic, I mean Basic. There’s nothing fashionable about a cellphone any more. Poor people have them. Nobody thinks twice about poor people having them. Good thing they do, too — they’re so ubiquitous that “payphones” have effectively ceased to exist.
Now mobile computing is moving down the same track. It’s a luxury good that has moved into the Manufactured Good niche — not everybody has an iPhone or tablet computer, but those who want one can generally afford one.
There are fears. What happens to employment when a factory cranking out manufactured goods can be run by a half-dozen people, and robots are doing all the rest?
This is a 20th-century fear based on linear projection into the future. Looking forward into the lives of our children, it’s also a context error which will look truly absurd in hindsight.
*Most of the everyday goods that people need in order to live are Commodities, and overpriced ones at that.* The only reason they cost eight bucks, as opposed to 40 cents, is because of distribution and marketing costs.
Some things are never going to be Commodities. Computers and Cars are a good example. That’s because they’re not items — “car” is not an item like “box fan” is an item. Look at a car from the 70s and a car from the early 21st century. We call them both “cars.” But there are huge differences in capability, performance, and durability between them. The 70s car is effectively unsaleable today — even if one were manufactured on the cheap, nobody would buy it, because its reliability compared to any modern car design would be so low that it would be cost-ineffective to anyone except those hobbyists for whom “automotive labor” is a syonym for “fun.” (Sounds crazy, but hey, I write essays for fun, and I know people who think that’s outright perverted). Computers are much the same affair. There is a class of Category Good which will never be a commodity because it depends on Current Generation Capabilities. In forty years, driverless cars may be mandatory as a fundamental safety feature. After all, most rush-hour fender-benders are caused not by drunkenness, bad weather, or even texting, but simply by daydreaming — driving a car in bad traffic is so damned boring that people tune out and *forget to do it*. Capability-Defined Category Goods will never be commodities.
Thus, not everything becomes a Commodity. “Base-level-cars” are getting there, but their approach is asymptotic and will remain that way, especially once we figure out how to allow your average car to zip down the freeway at 150+ safely.
Luxury Goods aren’t going away for similar reasons, though one major type of Luxury Good, based on “this is not mass-manufactured,” is going to go away, because to a certain extent, “mass manufacture” is going to go away, in favor of “mass design.” (Conspicuous and Status-Display Consumption, otoh, will always be with us).
The Unobtainium category isn’t going away, because as we identify a capability, we desire to exercise it, and many of those desires are unfeasible either technically, economically, or politically.
Technically: Fusion is hard, folks.
Economically: Richard Branson can afford a flying car. I can’t. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you can’t, either.
Politically: We can have limitless clean energy tomorrow — if our political masters would allow contemporary nuclear plant designs, which are safe and literally *can’t* melt down.
“Factories” are currently Unobtainium for the average guy, but stripped down, economically-inefficient factories called “3d printers” are now a Luxury Good, and set to become a Manufactured Good pretty soon. Personal Factories knock the entire logic of the late 19th century’s technocracy right on its ass. Learning curves to use these personal factories are pretty shallow, and going to get more so. Past a certain stage, when that learning curve gets sufficiently shallow, “unsophisticated commodities” will no longer have to be purchased – they can be manufactured on demand. And if the raw materials for same can be conveniently recycled once they’re no longer needed (either in-situ or by-service), then an entire class of relatively unsophisticated goods are going to drop from “mass production” to “produce-on-demand”:
1. Low-fatigue parts (random appliance parts, hooks hangers, etcetera).
2. Toys, trinkets, costume jewelry, and minor decorative items (organizers, small frames)
3. Cases, small containers, easy-assemble bags, packs, and low-end footwear
4. Children’s (plastic) cups, bowls, and low-end eating-ware.
5. Building blocks for low-fatigue custom structures (doghouses, sheds, etc).
Once a few patents expire, higher-end materials, and sintering technology becomes as affordable as layered deposition, we add quite a bit to the mix which currently requires one to go to an outsourced print-shop:
5. Home ceramics
6. Low-strength-requirement applications in metal
7. Utility/No-Seam Hardweather gear, and eventually clothing production
That’s an awful lot of stuff. Add “direct metal laser sintering,” without all the voids which weaken sintered items, and I can 3d-model and print any basic garden tools I happen to need, too, as well as pretty much all of the archaeological replicas I personally would need for my experimental archaeology. Now, I hear the objections, and they are Legion. But economically, here’s the important one: “3d printed objects will never be cheaper than mass-produced goods.”
That is the real argument. And that argument is wrong, because it’s context-neutral, and human beings….aren’t.
Cost of 3d Printing: Appliance Aquisition and Storage, Materials and Storage, Energy, Effort (=time plus labor to create)
Cost of Purchased Good: Mass Production, Marketing, Mass-Distribution and Storage, Labor Markup, Delivery and/or Time and Fuel to Go to Store and Purchase
It doesn’t take long to see Cost3dPrinting <= CostPurchasedGood once all the other inputs are down. Retail is already catching it in the shorts, because let’s face it, most of us don’t particularly enjoy standing in lines or going to the store just to pick up random junk. It doesn’t have to be literally more efficient than mass production for it to take off. It merely needs to be more economically rational for me as the end-user, especially if it can be done in the background while I’m having fun. Time isn’t money. You can always get more money — but when your time’s up, it’s up. Don’t know a single person who died wishing they’d spent more time at the store buying pillows.
Of course, most households are still going to spend their money on all the stuff that the government schlubs leave out of the CPI so that the Feds don’t wind up with a revolt in the streets — food, shelter, transportation, and of course the included-but-perenially-undercounted healthcare. In the meantime, the 3d printer and its associated technologies are going to go from “something geeky” to “household appliance.” Only in this case, it’s going to be “that appliance which makes random crap you need.” At that point, I may literally price my income in terms of manufacturing feedstock, rather than dollars.
Then, add the next step: once they’re converting vegetable proteins to animal proteins, you’ll be able to:
8. Easily print and cook your cheeseburgers.
Yes, for you nerds out there, at this point, you’ve essentially gotten to the step where your oven is 3d-printing you a pizza and then cooking it for you. Early models will be clunky, but early models always are. Meanwhile, that garage full of tools? Museum items. Sure, there’ll always be a need for somebody to have a joiner, a drill press, and a table saw… but it won’t be everybody. Also, your garage is going to look a lot different, too. An awful lot of our home architecture is based on some very, VERY old and inefficient “legacy” architectural ideas, that don’t necessarily apply any more. Sooner or later, your typical stickframe house is going to seem crude, overbuilt, and much, much too heavy compared to what’s currently Unobtainium for the average guy and gal.
So what won’t change? Well, that will be those things which are so sophisticated that we cannot engage in “reductio ad algorithm” to knock it down to Commodity scale. And those will be the “Contemporary Performance Goods” like computers, cars, and “new stuff you don’t know you need yet” which must meet continually-evolving performance minimums to be considered worth using. That’s not a pejorative, either. A lot of stuff that you currently need to have a bunch of money to afford will cost a LOT less and employ a lot fewer people to make it. That terrifies the central-planning crowd, and they handle it by forcing the currency to constantly devalue (remember, inflation isn’t a natural phenomenon — it’s something a bunch of dudes in a no-longer-smoke-filled-room decide on every year). But those floodgates are going to open up. Just as the average person is vastly more sophisticated and better-educated now than they were when Industrial Technocracy swung into being, the average person will be economically much more powerful, too, and eventually the differences in economic efficiency will force these changes.
It’s just a matter of time. And while it’s a brave new world, it’s also a much, much better one. Bring it on.