Will Minecraft and Makerbot usher in the post-scarcity economy?

I swear that when I wrote this, I had not seen this PBS Idea Channel video, which argues that Minecraft and 3D printers will usher in a post-scarcity economy.

From the Jetsons to Cory Doctorow, science fiction writers of all stripes have imagined a world where any object could be instantly created. Modern economics on the other hand, is built on the principle of competition for scarce resources. And while it may not seem like a video game and printer could alter this economic reality, we beg to differ. Minecraft's creative mode is the perfect vehicle for understanding a Post-Scarcity world; a place where resources are permanently available and constantly regenerated. It shows that with unlimited resources, people end up creating amazing digital structures! Of course, a world of infinitely available resources seems pretty fantastical until you consider the Makerbot and the future of 3D printing. The Makerbot is an at home device that allow you to print real three dimensional objects, meaning a Minecraftian future where you can print anything you want at anytime might not be that far away.

Will Minecraft and Makerbot usher in the post-scarcity economy?


  1. I feel like the quality of goods makerbot produces are just the tip of the iceberg in regards to what will be possible with future 3d manufacturing.  The output could be looked at as a kids crayon drawing….perhaps future machines will be able to print complete circuits, electronics, tissues, etc

    1. I believe, in my time browsing around, I have come across mentions of upcoming 3d printing technology for each of those cases actually. : )

      1.  You’re right, but I just feel like the makerbot is an old piece born out of hackerspaces that doesnt really have the oomph of a commerical printer.  Now how cool would it be if all those different types of printers mentioned were in one unit?

    1.  Well…ultimately, you just need energy and sufficiently versatile technology. You could make plastics from air and water, with mature nanotechnology and a cheap enough source of energy. Plants already make food from nothing but air and water and dirt. One reason materials are scarce is because they’re being converted to high-entropy forms. One classic example is older cars with copper wiring. Crush them and melt them down – now you have a nasty steel-copper alloy that’s not good for much of anything and hard to split back into useful pure metals.

      It’s generally been cheaper to make things from limited, nonrenewable natural resources like ores and fossil fuels than to recycle manufactured goods, so people keep using up those resources and they keep getting more expensive. If new technologies like nanotech make recycling a lot cheaper, that will change the entire system in a big way.

      As for the energy, well, that’s the real sticking point. If we don’t get practical fusion energy within a few decades, I think we’re in for a whole lot of trouble.

      1. “Well…ultimately, you just need energy and sufficiently versatile technology. You could make plastics from air and water, with mature nanotechnology and a cheap enough source of energy.”

        You could even use Skittles, Rainbows and Unicorn farts. Ask me how I know that you have never actually made anything that didn’t come from a kit, hardware store, or on-line.

        1. Harsh, dude. Perhaps it is you that does not understand.

          Nitrogen-fixing plants make themselves primarily out of air and water, with trace elements provided by the soil. Nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen – the stuff proteins are made of.

          As sic said, with mature nanotechnology you can literally create structures out of thin air. It may sound like science fiction, but everything around you that is made of wood was powered by the sun and created from air and water.

          1. So, what you mean is, the answer to the question “Will Minecraft and Makerbot usher in the post-scarcity economy?” is a qualified “yes”, with the proviso being “oh, we’ll also need some 22nd-century nanotechnology too.”

          2. Jon, did you watch the video?

            It doesn’t actually say that Minecraft + Makerbot = singularity. It compares Creative mode to what life might be like afterwards.

          3. My point was that it is so pie-in-the-sky it might as well be talking about flying cars and teleportation.

            “Nitrogen-fixing plants make themselves primarily out of air and water, with trace elements provided by the soil. Nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen”

            Ask me how I know you know know nothing about nitrogen fixation in plants. Here is a hint, as an undergrad I worked in a Botany lab at a Big Ten school.

      2. I was going to try and write a retort to you here, but Seraphim_72 has done a better job than I could hope to. Also whilst I was at it, my cat walked on the keyboard. To be honest he pretty much summed my feelings up exactly:

        > nmnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

    2. You could think of your body as a kind of 3D printer. An apple is made up of matter. When you eat that apple your body digests it and breaks up the apple, and then follows a program to reform that material into your bones, heart, skin, brain, etc.

      Someday, and maybe sooner than you might think, we will be able to build a 3D recycler that will be able to “digest” anything. The raw materials are all around you. Every single thing is made up of stuff. Grab a clod of dirt and feed it to an advanced 3D recycler and it will digest it and sort the matter into pure stable elements and compounds. These elements and compounds can then be fed to a 3D printer and be rearranged to build anything you could imagine. Just like Minecraft.

      Such digesting and rearranging will require energy. The only real post-scarcity energy is solar energy. Back in 40’s Bataille tried to think through what a solar economy will look like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Accursed_Share

  2. Does it say anything that I find the Creative mode on Minecraft much less interesting than Survival? Scarcity means I have to explore to survive and that what I build is more valuable to me because it takes time to build. I just don’t play Creative. Are we adapted to enjoy scarcity?

    1. You’re not alone — I don’t care for creative mode myself. Though I do usually play the “Peaceful” difficulty setting because I got sick of creepers going all Timothy McVeigh on my structures.

    2. I’m having a blast in Creative right now. It’s like Survival on peaceful, only the scale of what you do is much larger.

      I built an underwater glass dome a few hundred blocks in diameter with four biomes in it including a mountain range and a river.  I’ve got a giant mechanical Creeper Temple that lights on fire when you offer a sacrifice to it… there’s a hidden enchanting room inside. There’s a gothic castle in a remote tundra. I’ve built a glass-enclosed subway in Hell. The spawn point is a floating Grecian crescent near the very top of the map, with a waterfall all the way to the ground.

      Ultimately you need to find several potions and enchanted weapons scattered around the map to get past all the Indiana-Jones-style traps in the 72 x 72 desert pyramid.

      Think big! And get MCEdit.

      1. The thing I don’t get about creative mode: the various ways one can create digital “stuff” can fall onto an axis between “constrained and challenging” and “limitless”.  Survival is towards the “constrained and challenging” scale.  If you want to remove the challenge, you might as well fire up Blender.  “Creative” takes away any of the resource-gathering, survival skill and leaves you with some pretty simplistic tools to build some pretty simplistic models. It’s just not far enough towards “limitless” to be powerful enough to be compelling IMHO.

        1. Survival is hardly a challenge, even from a resource-gathering standpoint, don’t you find? But to each his own.

          When the rest of us are transforming asteroids into giant structures in space and travelling to the nearest stars, there will still be a place on Earth for you to scratch in the ground trying to find enough to eat, no worry.

  3. Kicker is, what, exactly, provides the energy with which the materials are sourced, and which powers the Makerbot to shape them? Fuck, yeah, we need a paradigm shift or two, but it’s gonna have to be at a significantly lower level of infrastructure than making stuff into new shapes…

  4. The key to a Post-Scarcity Economy will be fast atomic manipulation. When a machine can take in a bunch of carbon (or anything, really) and break it down into a slurry of atoms that get rejiggered and get turned into, say, a nice lobster bisque, then we’ll definitely have hit the mark. And by that time, we’ll be able to get TONS of raw mats from asteroid mining, or sucking up helium from gas giants. Then the only scarcity will be creativity. It’ll be weird.

    Also, Dwarf Fort! Woo!

    1.  Just think how difficult solving murders will become…

      “Please come in, Officers, and enjoy dinner with me while we wait for my husband to return. Oh? The plates, are beautiful, aren’t they? A gift, from Henry.”

  5. People seem to forget that the Maker Bot can’t make anything that is truly useful or durable.

  6. Is scarcity a problem? Haven’t stores like Wal-Mart made products so cheap already that we are drowning in trash and consumer waste?  I mean there is energy scarcity, but I dont think a maker bot can print coal or oil..

  7. At what point do we move *all* of our activity online, to the point that things that seem novel in Minecraft are actually goods and services we use?  How long will we enjoy the 3d printer phase before we figure out how to live our whole lives virtually?

  8. I think it’s pretty arguable that we are already in a post-scarcity world. There is no scarcity  for food, clothing, everyday items and materials. Not simply for North America/First world, but the world as a whole.

    What we have not yet achieved is a post-distribution-bottlenecks world. The people who work see less of the resulting profit than those who manage their work. Food and other goods get seized by warlords long before reaching those in need.

    We can feed and clothe the entire world and have lots left over for private pursuits. We (as a species/culture) simply don’t care strongly enough to do it.

    1. There is a strong element of truth to this. We also have a lot of artificial scarcity (copyright and patents). It is my hope that 3D printing will usher in a truly democratic economy, something that has never really existed before.

      We technically already have the capacity to meet everyone’s needs, but “human nature” prevents us from meeting them. 3D printing will go a long way towards making it easier to meet everyone’s needs.

      But it will also make it easier for a madman to destroy everything. Imagine being able to print any kind of weapon you want, as much as you want. Imagine having 10 billion + people all of whom have access to a 3D printer and all of whom could easily print out a weapon of mass destruction.

      In one respect wars for resources should decline. Why have a war for oil when we can print solar panels endlessly? Political scientists have demonstrated that in a recession people vote primarily on economic issues, but in times of plenty people vote on social issues. So we won’t need wars for oil, but imagine what we will be warring about. Ideological dominance will be scarce, as will social status.

      Real estate will also be scarse. Who will control Palestine will still be scarce (and remember, everyone will now basically have an endless supply of weapons). Who will control who has the right to exist where? Will immigration matter? Probably.

      3D printing will increase the potential for radical democracy and radical totalitarianism and sectarian violence.

      Plus there will probably be jobs that still need to be done. Sure many many jobs that we do today will eventually be done by robots, but there will be new jobs that we’ll find necessary but won’t want to do. If we can all live like Paris Hilton if we wanted to, how are we going to force people to do jobs they don’t want to do? Who will have the power to force them? Who will be powerless and end up in these undesirable jobs?

      3D printing and nanotech will be truly disruptive technologies, wresting power away from the super rich. Do you think the 1% will just part with their power willingly? If they do, it will be a historical first. I think we are entering a time that is similar to the breakdown of the feudal system and the rise of capitalism. The aristocracy’s power was starting to be threatened by a rising merchant class. Did the aristocracy welcome this newfound equality? Hell no, they invented chartered monopolies to maintain their power. I have no idea what the 1% will invent to maintain their power in the wake of 3D printing but I don’t underestimate their greed. In fact, SOPA/PIPA is probably the opening shots in a new war for the future. The future will be awesome if we don’t screw it up. http://www.publicknowledge.org/it-will-be-awesome-if-they-dont-screw-it-up

      Sorry, tl;dr I know, but I think about this stuff a ton.

      1.  Not tl. Did r.

        As i sort of mentioned earlier, if you aren’t familiar with Damon Knight’s,  A for Anything, I highly recommend it.

        From the en.wiki:
        “An anonymous inventor sends copies of the “Gismo” through the mail to hundreds of people. Civil society immediately collapses;”

        The ‘Gismo’ is replicator, essentially. Fun read.

        Oh, and Diamond Age is pretty relevant here too.

      2. I enjoyed your comment. But I feel like everybody who has raised concerns in this thread must not have ever seen Star Trek, which has the most elaborately-conceived and, IMO, realistic fictional future utopian society. Essentially all of your questions are answered in the Star Trek universe.

        I’ll just cover a few things, briefly. I won’t claim that there are no problems with Star Trek’s world – and they’re purposefully vague about some things because they know that reality would be a bit messier. But the basic ideas are theoretically workable.

        First off, the world is united. Resources and everything else are shared. Countries and regions retain their culture as much as they want, but there is no reason for war or aggression – remember this is post-scarcity, so why should real estate be scarce, why should anyone be limited regarding where they want to live – there are hard limits to how many people a single place can sustain, but there are no longer limits on how much can be built to accommodate people and deserts can be terraformed etc. There’s no need to move someplace else for purely economic reasons, so every part of the globe thrives.

        Second, it is a pure meritocracy. There are no limits on what job you can do, but people naturally have different capabilities and affinities. Most drudge work is automated, so there are very few jobs that are completely unsatisfying. Remember that in today’s world, there are people whom are completely satisfied by janitorial jobs and the like. You or I wouldn’t be, but lots of people are. When you can do exactly what you want to do and what you’re best at – and are free to try new things and improve yourself – everybody is able to have a fulfilling career. It gets messy when you try to think about how you avoid people freeloading, but, in a scarcity-free world does freeloading even matter? In Star Trek, everybody is driven by accomplishment and prestige. Freeloaders will have a strong social impetus to do something with themselves.

        Now, I understand that you were thinking about the immediate consequences – things that will happen in the next century or so as we make this shift. I agree that this is inevitable, but it shouldn’t take very long for things to smooth out. Any aristocracies clinging to power will be forcibly removed if necessary. Afterwards politics will, realistically, still be nasty because people will still be grasping for power, but most of society’s current problems will be gone.

        1. My vote for the most interesting character in Star Trek was Harry Mudd, because he was the one human being, the one last goofy Objectivist, who couldn’t get it. He couldn’t accept a world where everything was free-within-reason. Reasonable is boring! He’s the guy who would make the replicator churn out a solid gold Swarovski crystal-covered toilet just because he can. So, of course, he has to flee to space to wreak havoc on the rest of the universe–and they let him.

  9. “[A] world of infinitely available resources seems pretty fantastical until you consider the Makerbot… an at home device that allow you to print real three dimensional objects, …where you can print anything you want at anytime….”


    Until the world runs out of plastic.

    1.  If we can move to another primary energy source and stop burning millions of barrels of oil a day I doubt plastic availability will be a problem.

      1. But we’ll still be dependent on the supply of oil to make all the plastic. (And we’ll still have to drill holes or inject toxic chemicals into the Earth to get it.)

        I suppose there are other sources for polymers, like corn plastic, but then you jack up the cost of foodstuffs and starve the poor.

        But that’ll be okay, because they’ll be able to make high-sunk-cost flimsy crap out of plastic over a couple of hours with a $500 machine and associated $500 computer — an improvement on something they currently effectively do with a 30 minute WalMart trip.

        1. Most plastics, including the stuff that makerbot uses, are almost infinitely recyclable and 50 million barrels of oil (or one days US consumption of oil) will make one hell of a lot of plastic. But the truth is that the technology is in its infancy right now, and while there is a lot of potential here, lots of things with great potential have fizzled before. Which doesn’t mean we should continue burning all those beautiful long chain organic molecules, which have a virtually endless potential as a raw material.

  10. For the post-scarcity economy to work, we’d need three things:1: free energy.2: transmutation (that doesn’t make things radioactive unlike fusion & fission)3: a makerbot that can assemble objects atom by atom.I think the first 2 could be here in Mikes lifetime. There are patents on transmutation but not free energy, because as far as patent offices & governments are concerned it’s both impossible & would be a security threat.Minecraft needs a government demonstrate post-scarcity perfectly.

  11. gold is still scarce and will probably remain so for many generations. It can only be created in the supernovas of enormous stars. I think that’s neat

  12. I made this video a while ago which explores some of these issues: http://youtu.be/HCXlJ36x-q0

    No “real” economists ever took Gandhi’s ideas about economics very seriously, but he was actually way ahead of his time. His spinning program is basically a post-scarcity non-violent economic system. At one point Gandhi held a contest in one of the newspapers he edited where he offered a reward to anyone who could improve on the design of the spinning wheel. What is the MakerBot if not an improvement of the spinning wheel? It’s a spinning wheel that can make anything you can imagine. Now imagine an economy where we don’t have to work jobs we hate because we can fulfill all of our basic needs with a single advanced 3D printer.

    I was very close to writing my dissertation on Gandhi and Bataille and post-scarcity economics. I loved the idea of pairing the two of them together. You would be hard pressed to come up with an odder couple.

  13. No matter the improvements to the makerbot, I find it difficult to imagine that you’ll be abke to produce with it cheaoer than lrge-volume plastics production has been for years already, and that even excludes the raw material 
    .. what I can imagine, though, is an end to the “this replacement part is ridiculously expensive because you can’t get it anywhere else” — because I can just make one myself. But if you need a hundred throwaway plastic cutlery and plates for a party or something (assuming you are the kind of person to use throwaway stuff like that), it will always be cheaper to just buy the mass produced stuff that is already available.
    This means no post-scarcity, but it means an end to artificial scarcity, effectively an end to (or a big reduction of) sellers markets for whatever your makerbot will be able to make in the future.

  14. There are a couple of problems with this.  Space and time are still limited resource even with cheap production.  You may be able to produce anything you want in the future very cheaply, but where do you put it and how long will it take to produce?  Second, just because physical resources become cheaper doesn’t mean all want will be satisfied.  Can the 3D printer give me a haircut or defend me in court?  If we don’t have to spend money on manufactured goods, we will likely shift it to more services (or something else).  The reduction in food costs in the modern era has not made us a post-scarcity economy.  We just spend our money elsewhere.

  15. The significance of home fabber technology like the Makerbot rests not in the things it can make but rather in the way it accelerates an already existing general trend in industrial production–a progressive shrinking and smartening of our tools of production–and the impact that has on the nature of the global economy and our civilization’s resource utilization. Home fabbers represent the ‘last mile’ in the long-term trend of progressive demassification of industrial production, it’s localization, and the evolution of global trade away from an exchange of goods for money toward an exchange of increasingly elemental commodities whose relative value is increasingly difficult for the market to obfuscate and rationally quantifiable independent of currency. 

    Bottom-line, the Industrial Age notion of economy of goods in volume relative to the cost of  tooling and its cost of money (capital investment) is breaking down. Since the year 2000 more of our stuff has been produced in job shops–light contract production facilities with high flexibility–than traditional factories. The era of big industry is over. Increasingly, companies do not own the production capacity for the goods that bear their brands. It is contracted, regional, flexible, less specialized. Increasingly, products exist as assemblages of commodity components designed not for specific products but to cross-industry standards. Their designs and architectures represent vertical food chains of interdependency in industrial ecologies of deep vast global horizontal competition. This is the root of Moore’s Law. 

    In industrial ecologies capital investment in tooling is not product-specific but distributed across spectrums of commodity components whose market share depends on open integration and incorporation in as many products as possible. Many possible products exist within an industrial ecology for which tooling costs have, more-or-less, already been paid and thus costs of development as well as minimum production volumes shrink. This is really what has enabled the wave of Kickstarter entrepreneurship. Kickstarter represents a new economic paradigm where minimum production volumes have shrunk to where production can be end-user-demand driven rather than speculation-driven as it has been across the Industrial Age. If the 1% were remotely conscious, this would keep them up at night. 

    Post-scarcity is not about technology that magically makes things from nothing for free. It’s about the transformation of global economics from a system driven by capital and a profit motive that trades mostly in goods for money to a system that trades in increasingly elemental commodities whose actual value is increasingly hard to obfuscate under quantitative analysis. An evolution to a resource based economy based on an increasingly open conscious awareness of what the resource commons really is. It’s about establishing networks of open reciprocal production rooted in the pursuit of mutual abundance, recovering advancing industrial technology’s productivity  dividend that has been funneled into other people’s profit and return it to society as an integral guaranteed income measured in access to goods on demand. 

    Post-Industrial and Singularity futurists anticipate a future where the digital tools of automated trading and market analysis have become so refined they know the state of the world better than we do and, if given the opportunity through networking their knowledge, would mathematically factor-out profit and trade the market as we know it today for something more akin to Buckminster Fuller’s World Game. 

    They also often anticipate as part of such systems means of digitally tracked social credit that mediate the exceptional individual access to resources and goods based on the social significance of a person and what activities they pursue. In other words, the more you give to society the more the system gives to you, automatically, based on the quantification of your social importance and the assumption that you are more likely to use it for society’s benefit. Wealth based not on archaic rights of ownership derived from religion-derived rights and authority or meted-out by the bureaucratic ruling class of a nanny-state but rather a concrete dynamic measure of practical social worth integrated to the global systems of resource management. Hence reference to things like Cory Doctorow’s concepts of the Bitchin’ Society and the digital social currency of ‘wuffie’. In his novel Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom he offers an excellent visualization of many  current Post-Industrial futurist ideas. The Bitchin’ Society is a cultural ‘cline’ that has assumed global cultural dominance by establishing open reciprocal production networks independent of the decrepit and failing Industrial Age economic system with the efforts of ‘adhocracies’ of technically/industrially/creatively inclined individuals. It is a story not about technology but about the way the culture emerging from this post-scarcity trans-humanist situation gets things done–or sometimes doesn’t–and differs from ours in values, ethics, and relationships. Another good SF example is the short story (more futurist parable than story) by Marshal Brain called Manna, where we are shown both utopian and dystopian end-results of the evolution of digitally mediated economics in the transition to an automated Post-Industrial future.

  16. A post-scarcity economy? You mean, like the way we are capable of infinitely and perfectly replicating movies, songs, books and anything else that exists in a purely digital form?

    Oh wait, artificial scarcity.

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