Napsterization of Matter – a thought exercise

I was reminded this week of my My 'Napsterization of Matter' thought exercise by the UK University of Bath's Replicator project news.

Napsterization of Matter

'Napsterization of Matter' is a thought exercise I’ve been toying with for some years now.  I'd like to share it with you...

Imagine the following possible future and then ask yourself the questions posed at the end of this article:

The Replicator

The year is 2034. Nanotech-based 'rendering machines', or ‘Replicators’, are available that can render any object.  The objects copied and rendered can have moving parts.  Assume there are no constraints on the objects copied or rendered such as size, complexity, or atomic structure.

The 'base' material that is transformed during the replication process into a rendered object can be made of anything, such as a steel chair, trash, a fallen tree, a old VCR, or water.  All the Replicator machine needs in order render any object is to have access to the source material to be transformed and the data file of the real-world object to be rendered containing all the information required to do so.

The Scanner

Scanners are also available that can analyze any object at the atomic level and store the object’s data as a real-world object file (an .RWO file) that can be read and rendered by the Replicator.

One day I’m at home in the US and admiring my newly acquired coffee cup.  The shape of the cup is unusual, and I want to share, physically, its aesthetic qualities with my friend, Bob, who lives in Malaysia.  I get my hand-held scanner, switch it on and proceed to scan the cup.  The scanner distinguishes the 2 separate objects within range of the scanner: the mug and the table the mug is upon.  The cup’s representational data is now stored as an .RWO file, with perfect fidelity.

The Distribution

I review the object on-screen and confirm it has been successfully scanned.  I then send the file to my friend who I know has a ‘Replicator’.

He mails be back a day later, thanking me for the unusual cup, but mentions he has modified the cup’s handle to be more comfortable on the hand.  I get my original cup, put it into the Replicator, upload Bob’s new version of the .RWO file and transform the old  cup to Bob’s new cup design.  I agree it is more comfortable.  So I upload the new file to my object-casting blog for others to download, view in their object-viewer and render at their pleasure.  The next day, the file is available on one of file-sharing network for others the download at will.

The Warning

A week later I receive a Cease-and-Desist order via email from The Aero Cup Corporation:

“Dear Mr Barnett,

It has come to out attention that you are illegally distributing our product over the internet, as well as breaking the product’s terms of use as the product has been modified without permission.  We know the file you are distributing is based on our design as the encrypted digital watermark ID that is integrated at the time of the product’s manufacturing is present (see details attached).  This unique watermark ID is physically embedded in every individual product we manufacture and therefore copied into any .RWO file that represents our product.  This allows us to keep track of our product or derivatives.

As we hope you understand, protecting our intellectual property allows us to continue to develop new, innovative products purchased legally by our customers.  We hope that you remove the file from you object-casting blog site

You should also be aware that the cup you acquired has no referring license agreement in our customer records.  Please expect the Aero Cup in you possession to self-destruct at 12.00 AM GMT,12 March 2034, as the embedded nano-wi-fi receiver will not have received its daily Green Status Signal from our system.  You should not attempt to drink from the Aero Cup from the time of receiving this mail…”

The Questions

The questions that occur to me about this imaginary world where anything can be copied, essentially for free, are the following:


  • What would happen to the price of goods?
  • Would money lose its meaning?
  • How would markets and economies be changed?
  • How would our notions of wealth and property ownership be changed?

Commerce, Brands and DRM

  • How could brands maintain their value when any product could be copied with perfect fidelity?
  • Would brands matter?
  • How would brands evolve?
  • What new industries would be created or destroyed?
  • What restrictions should there be on the copying, distribution and modification of physical products?

Government and Society

  • What dangers or opportunities for society would this technology present?
  • What role would, or should government have to play in terms of regulation, distribution and access to the relevant set of technologies?
  • What effect, positive or negative, would this technology have on the environment?
  • If everyone could have anything without limit, would that make us happy, healthy and peaceful?

Further reading

Comments (6)

  1. zzz says:

    quote: Humanity controlled by "future Bill Gates".

    Yeah I can see that coming!

  2. Alex Barnett says:

    that’s right ‘zzz’…from the link you provide, the quote you provide comes under the ‘Low Probability Consequences’ category….zzzzz.

  3. Xerxes says:

    how much can something change and still be the same? if there is demand & supply then the market economy will evolve to serve that demand. How much can a market economy be regulated before it ceases to be a market economy? is supply and demand the only basis of value?

  4. Richard Latham says:

    Enjoyed the thought exercise, thanks Alex. I think you will agree that it’s almost certain that a technology like this will be available to humanity within the next thousand years.

    For the sake of discussion, I am going to argue the following:

    ‘Humankind always organizes it’s use of revolutionary technologies, so it has the least effect on the way it’s society functions’

    It seems that Mankind likes ownership, so even though a technological advance like you describe would make ownership absurd, laws will be made to keep the idea of ownership going.

    As Mankind becomes omnipotent over it’s reality, it will deliberately contrive matters, so omnipotence does not interfere with the taboo of dismantling human culture.

  5. Asbo says:

    Whilst engaging in your ‘thought exercise’ and writing some answers to the questions I’ve come to realise that you haven’t really given this very much thought beyond some vague Star Trek wish fulfillment.

    By making the source material of your assembler anything at all you render this thought exercise redundant.

    No amount of nano technology will make it possible to make an item from water that is not going to be made of Hydrogen, Oxygen or a combination of the two. You can’t make a lead pipe or a clay cup or a book by breaking down water and re-assembling it. Transforming elements is a difficult and energy intense process which tends only to happen inside stars, nuclear reactore or particle colliders.

    You might as well ask what the world would be like if the magic in the Harry Potter novels all became real. It doesn’t really tell us very much about the world that we live in or what the future might hold.

    However, if we assume (as most people giving this matter serious thought actually do) that this technology on the nano scale can and will be put to some actual practical use then it makes sense to consider plausible rather than fantastical applications. Technomagically turning old VCRs into ripe bananas is not one of them.

    In this light, most of your questions are meaningless as they are either too specific or too generic and carry no context.

    What would happen to the price of goods?

    Which goods are you talking about? Cups? They are pretty cheap already. Some markets will not be directly affected by this technology for a long time yet to come. The likely applications in the nearterm for NT are in the electronic and medical realm. In this case, the NT assemblers and their outputs will be very expensive to begin with and get cheaper over time. Just like every other product apart from those whose price is artificially controlled by those with vested interests.

    Would money lose its meaning?

    This question is pretty silly as it assumes that money has a meaning to start with. However, the question doesn’t define what that meaning is.

    How would markets and economies be changed?

    Markets and economies are in constant flux anyway. They tend not to be stable or unchangeable. It seems unlikely that overnight all goods and products would be made freely available to all in some big bang although William Gibson examines the NT big bang in part in his novel ‘All tomorrows parties’. He assumes that the NT assmeblers will be restricted from assembling new versions of themselves. If NT is rolled out firstly as an industrial product and then eventually as a consumer product it will change markets and economies in a small number or predictable ways and a larger number of unpredicatble ways. Granted, this is a truism but the question is so inexact that the answer must also be. Energy will most likely remain a tradeable commodity even in your Star Trek scenario.

    How would our notions of wealth and property ownership be changed?

    What are ‘our’ notions? Five minutes in a political bookshop will show you that there are many and varied notions of wealth and property ownership in the world. It might be best to ask how YOUR notions of these matters might change but in order to do that one needs to have a clear understanding of them at the outset.

    How could brands maintain their value when any product could be copied with perfect fidelity?

    This question implies a slightly out of date idea of what a brand is. Brands are no longer solely about products. would a ‘contraband’ Nike trainer hand stitched in a sweat shop in Bangladesh and sold in a London street market damage the Nike brand any more than a trainer ‘replicated’ in a basement workshop in Idaho from an licenced original hand stitched in a sweat shop in China? Does the provenance of the product actually have any bearing on the brand or its message?

    Would brands matter?

    In what sense do they matter at present?

    How would brands evolve?

    In much the same way that they evolve now. At the interface between media projection and human perception. And at an enormous cost.

    What new industries would be created or destroyed?

    Sweat shop manufacturing might be hit hard eventually but only when the NT assembled trainer is the cheaper option.

    What restrictions should there be on the copying, distribution and modification of physical products?

    This is the first sensible question. What restrictions should there be on copying, distribution and modification of any products, physical or otherwise? Home taping,

    CD/DVD burning or file sharing has not destroyed the entertainment industry. Nor has software piracy caused the downfall of Microsoft. There will always be demand for new things and whilst that demand exists then designers of new things will be in work and as long as the price point is right, citizens will not object to buying the authorised product. Mainly for the same reasons that they buy the authorised products now rather than the only ever buying knock off which are invariably cheaper.

    What dangers or opportunities for society would this technology present?

    The likelihood is that any benefits from NT will mainly be available to wealthy technologically advanced societies. Basic medical assistance in the form of immunisations are still not available to every single citizen on the planet. This despite the fact that we are wealthy enough to create it all, aware enough to know the need is there and advanced enough to be able to distribute it. Ignoring your NT magic assembler for a moment. If a NT medical treatment that cleaned and repaired human blood vessels was safely available the chances are that only the very rich would have access to it.

    What role would, or should government have to play in terms of regulation, distribution and access to the relevant set of technologies?

    The same role that is has in every other technology. Governments will regulate and companies will distribute.

    What effect, positive or negative, would this technology have on the environment?

    If you could magically recycle old plastic bags into teak wardrobes then landfills would slowly empty and hardwood forests would be burned down for cattle grazing. Maybe.

    If everyone could have anything without limit, would that make us happy, healthy and peaceful?

    Better ask yourself that question first. Personally, it is people rather than things that make me happy.

  6. There’s a fine book called the Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson which imagines a world where nano technology has enabled many of the scenarios you mention…worth a read…

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