Re: The Singularity and Nanotechnology

Dr. Rich Artym (
Sat, 28 Sep 1996 12:02:31 +0100

In message <>, Michael Wiik writes:

> Maybe we can test this out. To me, the web is approaching the point now
> where you propose nanotechnology will be. The means of production isn't
> perhaps free but it's pretty low considering you get worldwide distribution.

Although there is danger in reasoning from analogy, at first glance your
analogy with the Web looks interesting. Unfortunately, it seems to fall
apart under a little more examination, as follows.

First of all, the web allows goods to be created at zero cost in the web
information space (you can make your HTML twice as long without additional
cost, usually), so that would appear to be a point of congruence in the
analogy with MNT. Unfortunately, the new goods created do not provide
for subsistence of their creator, who will still have to pay his or her
ISP and still have to earn a living to pay for food and shelter, so the
analogy doesn't hold there. After all, MNT is predicted even in the
tamer predictions to create food on demand (just recycled biosphere) and
to manipulate the geology just as effectively, so shelter too is free.
(The Earth has a negligible population density, but it's just too costly
and hard on people at present for a planetary mini-diaspora to occur.)

Secondly, and more importantly, you can create web goods at zero cost,
but you cannot create their means of production, ie. the tools that
create web spaces and networks and computers *cannot* be created by the
web weaver. Consequently, there is no congruence with MNT here at all.

The latter is the big issue. When a single person without any special
resources can create what today is a mammoth work of civil engineering
(my favourite example of the seawater pipeline to the nearest ocean)
then all bets are off as to the structure of economic institutions.

It's this business of creating the *means of production* at the point of
need (eg. only the leading edge of the pipeline may contain a "factory")
that I keep on trying to point out as being so crucial, because that is
the key difference with today's manufacturing as far as economics is
concerned. Merely producing cheaper goods (even *zero-cost* goods) is
really just an evolutionary change, because today's factories would still
be required and people would still have to pay for the privilege of
owning their product. That equation undergoes a discontinuity when
the means of production themselves can also be nanoconstructed out of
the surrounding biosphere and geology.

> Perhaps it's an economy of abundance, but the marketing types are still
> thinking in terms of an economics of scarcity.

Yes, that's a good point. I can't figure out why they don't make the
mental switch though, when it's so clear that major changes are in the
making. I suspect that it's going to take a lot of knocking our heads
against brick walls before it's accepted as "obvious".

> Does it make sense to compare a near-future information-based economy to
> a later-future nanotech economy?

Within limits, possibly. The analogy doesn't carry over well into the
most important expected area of impact of MNT though.


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