About a month ago, a friend mentioned a new machine being developed that can “copy” and “print” human organs as a possible more effective substitute for transplants. At first his description sounded like science fiction, but it turned out to be completely real. Back in February, an article describing the new apparatus was even published in a mainstream media outlet (“Making a bit of me: A machine that prints organs is coming to market,” The Economist, February 18, 2010). This article is not accessible online without a subscription to The Economist (if you happen to have one, go in), but you can still catch the basic drift of it if you read this cogent summary. Basically, in December of last year, a technology firm named Invetech delivered the first production model of a 3D-bio printer, which uses a sugar-based hydrogel, to Organovo, the firm which developed a proprietary bio-printing method called NovoGen. The company hopes that within the next five years the printers will be able to produce blood vessels for use in bypass operations and eventually even spew out new fully-formed and functional kidneys, livers, and hearts. Still following this?
It took me quite a while to get past the “wow” moment—and it really is a wow moment: this might be the single most significant achievement in our lifetimes and hopefully something that will eventually be used to save many lives. But there are also ramifications related to this technology that go far beyond medical science. Ultimately if something as sensitive and complicated as a human organ can be copied by a machine, so can a bar of 24-karat gold, a $5000 bottle of rare cognac, any kind of food or clothing, and any formerly irreplicable singularity. In short, nothing will be rare and nothing will be unique.
For people who make music, books, and other kinds of intellectual property, the possibility of instant reiteration has been both a blessing and a curse. It is easier than ever to disseminate your creations to anyone anywhere, but it remains a challenge for such dissemination to be sustainably remunerative. We all know that it has been over a decade and the RIAA has yet to succeed in stopping the illegal downloading of commercially released recordings, and recently Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown has attempted to effect a similar cessation in the file-sharing of printed sheet music containing his songs. But do you think for a moment that if things like crude oil, beer, and fast food sandwiches could be instantly replicated—thereby completely undermining their level of scarcity, the supply and demand that establishes their financial value—that the large multi-national corporations which most benefit from the sales of said items would be as ineffective in stopping such replication?
Admittedly it will be quite a while before 3D photocopiers change the rest of the world’s economy the way that the internet has been changing the economics of the music industry and now the book business. Those machines currently sell for over $200,000. But how long before the price of such machines drops to the point that they’re as ubiquitous as personal computers?
I have extremely mixed feelings about how easy it has become to duplicate other people’s words, music, and images (both still and video). But I can imagine the joys of living in a world where all things were as easy to reproduce at will. I could order whatever I want on any menu no matter how much money I had left to spend. I could finally try that $5000 cognac. Then again, would such things be of interest? In a world where everything is completely level and where nothing is difficult to obtain, does desire remain?