All Rights Unreserved?

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?

8 thoughts on “All Rights Unreserved?

  1. Lisa X

    In a world where everything is completely level and where nothing is difficult to obtain, does desire remain?

    Considering our inability to meet even our most basic needs like water and food along with the growing number of people who will need those basics, it sounds to me like a cruel joke for rich people (like us) to lament the possibility of having even more than we have now.

    Reply
  2. jgrobelny

    to answer your last question, no. but if you have a chance i’d check out agenda inc. they have a little credo and one point is especially interesting:

    #8: We believe luxury is a rarity. We believe innovation – the pursuit of rarity – needs to be a redoubled goal for all luxury brands.

    Is what we do as artists of all stripes rare because it is hard to find/replicate, or is it rare because it’s actually that good?

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  3. stevetaylor

    Lisa X’s comment is well said; along those lines is a famous phrase by William Gibson: “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

    I’d also point out Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel The Diamond Age, about a society where anyone, rich or poor, can print just about anything they need or want (like diamonds, for instance). I’ve thought about this for a long time – but never made the connection to the *intellectual* Diamond Age we are already living in, and the upheaval that comes with it. Thanks Frank!

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  4. mclaren

    If (and it’s a big “if”) we get working commercial affordable personal fabricators, the world as we know it goes away. Capitalism disappears. Grass will grow on Wall Street. Factories will mostly vanish, except for really big fabricators that print buildings and ships and airplanes.

    Jamais Cascio has a good article on personal fabs at Worldchanging.com, Fab Labs, and Neal Gershenson has a TED talk about fab labs here. Here’s an interview with the guy at MIT who invented the machine in 2004 that could be used to someday print entire buildings.

    Bruce Sterling wrote a story about personal fabricators — “Kiosk” — and Cory Doctorow has written a number of science fiction stories about personal fabricators: most notably, “Printcrime” and “After the Siege.”

    Biological fabricators will be able to print organs, bones, sinews and skin on a large scale, and viruses and artificial bacteria on a smaller scale. If creating artificial cells sounds absurd, the Venter Institute has already done it. Current DNA synthesizers can already fabricate viruses on the nanoscale. It’s only a matter of time before the bulky machines required to do this today get downsized to a dirt-cheap desktop-printer-sized unit sold in Wal*mart tomorrow.

    You guys on the East Coast as always 10 years behind the times technologically, but that’s ok. At least you catch on eventually.

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  5. davidwolfson

    Certain things will remain rare; you’re not going to be printing that ingot of gold any time soon, because you’ll need gold to make it out of. And if I remember The Diamond Age correctly, the poorer members of society often had imperfect access to the benefits of the nano-printing machines, because they couldn’t afford to stock up on the rare trace elements.

    Likewise, tickets to live performances are going to remain hot items, because you can only fit so many people in a hall at once. Authenticity may become the new standard of wealth; despite the fact that any image can be reproduced at will, the originals of artworks are still immensely valuable.

    That’s not so much help to composers, of course…

    David Wolfson

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  6. davidcoll

    well theres two things it seems: first are things like gold bars and diamonds. Reproducing this, to me, has very little to do with anything other than economcs. But the rare cognac, the ‘irreplaceable singularity,’ this begins to remind me of those who spoke of the unlimited possibilities of tape music, back in the day. I think it’s clear that there were some limitations technology-wise and that the talk was over-enthusiastic at best…

    There will always be things that just cost a lot and therefore they’re special to some. But my belief is that, despite the advent of any of these technologies, the one thing that won’t ever become under-appreciated is the artist irrationally creating something based on his/her strong convictions. I guess you can just call it pathos, but I think it’s a more specific idea, and something that can never be reproduced by a machine, because it doesn’t make any sense. Hell, most of the time in music, this isn’t even experienced unless you’re there, live. So I don’t think this machine really applies to what I’m talking about, however off-topic I’ve gone ;-)

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  7. Alex Shapiro

    Excellent post, Frank. It’s clear that our species is rapidly entering a new era in which much of what throughout the history of our existence on earth had been unique, is no longer. And yet by definition, until we clone humans in their entirety (if we can do it with a sheep it can’t be far off), people– even those who came from the same zygote like my mother and my aunt– remain unique individuals.

    So, either the new quest becomes for that which is rare and not duplicable,
    or,
    we completely alter our definition of what “worth” is,
    or…

    … we remind ourselves that one thing that will always be precious and never duplicable is:

    LOVE.

    And that’s the core, trace element for everything else that really matters.

    Reply
  8. mclaren

    …About the 21st century is that the poorest people in the third world are currently enjoying their greatest gains in prosperity in thousands of years. Billions of people in rural China and India and Africa and South American are being lifted out of grinding poverty by the growth of the internet and the spread of cellphones. See this article on how explosively expanding cellphone use is being used to do fight chronic diseases and help poor people start small businesses and aid farmers in battling locust plagues in the world’s poorest countries.

    To directly answer Frank’s question about whether there’s any desire for music in an economy of infinite availability, the evidence shows that universally available downloadable free music does in fact greatly increase music aficionados’ desire to pay for more music. This study shows that people who download pirated music are actually 10 times more likely to buy music than regular music-lovers.

    The reason for this isn’t hard to fathom. Downloading exposes people to immense numbers of composers they’d never have heard of otherwise. I often have the experience of hearing some new contemporary postclassical composer on YouTube for free, then going and buying her CD or buying an mp3 download of her music.

    Reply

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