Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Replicator Economy and Its Discontents

Still waiting for more sceptics to weigh in on this issue. I have fond memories of someone I used to know walking out of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, aghast at the prospect that the kind of morphing SFX in that film would become so widely available and easy to use that the entire basis of the criminal justice system would eventually be undermined--Just imagine, "I was morphed Your Honor!!!", screams yet another framed defendant, as he or she is led from the dock. Determined to maintain the rage, the fellow fired off an angry letter to TIME magazine, which although unpublished, is probably still glued to the wall of the TIME staffroom, where it would continue to provoke hilarity among the journalists.

Notwithstanding PhotoShop, I think what makes the predictions about 3-D printing more credible is that the technology is not prohibitively expensive and has been producing results. That assault rifle example is a bit of a game changer, so we seem to be talking here about something more than the sui generis reportage of futurists. The mechanisms of production and distribution are changing rapidly, and the emerging questions have to do with what effect this will have on markets, which are based on scarcity. For example, will it provide a good incentive for criminal syndicates, a category in which some would include Big Pharma, to prosecute a fierce campaign against any democratisation of such technologies? Furthermore, rather than take it for granted that hard currency will completely disappear on technologically determinist premises, we need to attend to the paradoxes it will continue to raise as a symbol, a social relation, and an object (not least in relation to the "imagined communities" that demarcate national boundaries, as signified by currencies). In terms of theory, I imagine this will involve increasing conflict between social theorists such as Emily Gilbert and the more philosophically hardwired (and arguably determinist)  cultural studies perspective of authors such as Rotman (for the latter, see Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero--i.e a capitalism which, in Rotman's words, was distinguished 'not by the buying and selling of goods, labour and services, but of money itself' ).

I didn't mind Rennie's piece on the so-called replicator economy, because although it veers dangerously close to technological determinism by arguing that "The precise limitations of replicator technology will determine where scarcity and foundations for value will remain", he also concedes "Perhaps the most important limitation on the replicator economy may be competition from good old mass production".