Even magic isn't really a magic wand
Posted by aogTuesday, 03 May 2005 at 14:27 TrackBack Ping URL

I might as well drop another hit on Instapundit where he brings up the absence of scarcity in a nanotech world. This is, of course, techno-utopianism at its finest and not much more plausible than the Marxist kind, once one spends even a moderate amount of time thinking about it.

Let’s grant the technical feasibility of Drexler style nanotech (which, personally, I think is true). Given that, we can arbitrarily re-arrange the molecular structure of objects at will and by design. Therefore we can effecively have unlimited material goods without scarcity? That seems to be Instapundit’s thesis. However, there are several things wrong with this view.

First is one Instapundit himself mentions, that human time will continue to be scarce. Nanotech will create far more leisure time and boost productivity, but it seems unlikely that it will actually make people run faster and therefore put more than 24 hours in a day.

Another hurdle is that nanotech can’t change atoms, so if certain types of atoms are necessary for desirable material goods, those atoms may well be scarce. Most of our goods are made of common atoms like carbon, silicon, oxygen, hydrogen, etc. But there’s no good reason to presume that this will always be the case, especially not once we can manipulate things at the atomic layer. Perhaps transuranics will be required for the hot new products. We just don’t know.

But the biggest hurdle will be the one I rarely see mentioned by nanotech dilletantes1 and that is energy. Rearranging the atoms in your clothes to change them from yesterday’s fashion to today’s will take energy. Where is this energy to come from? The phrase frequently used is “sunlight” but sunlight on the ground is a rather weak and unreliable one, especially for something that’s likely to consume as much energy as nanotech. Energy generation and distribution will likely be the key limiting elements to a nanotech civilization2 so I don’t see the age of scarcity ending in the forseeable future despite the claims of the nanotechnoids.

1 One of the few that do is John Ringo. In his future utopia, which is permeated by nanotech, one’s “salary” consists of an allocation of the planetary energy production. This seems like the most likely outcome of pervasive nanotech.

2 This is of course not a new concept. It was the driving concept behind Dyson Spheres. Dyson realized that material science would continue to advance, making physical goods ever cheaper so that in the long run, the limiting factor would be energy. Most people think of Dyson spheres and other mega-structures as being for living space but in fact the original motivation was to capture the maximal amount of solar energy.