Twenty years ago my economics teacher told us 'Economics is the science of human choice under conditions of scarcity'. This definition always stuck in my mind because economists seem to invest all their energy in vain attempts to model the choice bit and assume the scarcity bit is a given. Material scarcity may seem a given (like the speeds of light or the fact that a peanut butter sandwich always drops on the floor with the wrong side down) because until now it has always been there. It used to be that hand axes were in short supply and now there's a permanent shortage of the latest generation of mobile phones. Making stuff takes effort and this effort has to be compensated by either a goat or digits in the memory of a bank computer.
But what if we were to take on the scarcity problem, instead of spending endless TV-news business sections discussing the behavioural consequences that are caused by it. Would that not be a much better use of our time? On the Internet nowadays scarcity for most people is not a problem, too much of everything is more of an issue. Selection and filtering of available information, news and media is the challenge, not its production, reproduction or dissemination.
The cost of information reproduction through the Internet may not be zero, they are low enough to be almost impossible to measure. A 250 euro laptop and a 10 euro-a-month Internet subscription gives access to more information, knowledge, media and communication than most of us can handle. And thanks to the vision of Richard Stallman we have all the software we need to make this Interweb thing run for free for ever. Just as important is the fact that together we can adapt this software to do new things that were unfathomable even a decade ago. This open way of working may make it hard for someone to become a billionaire but for our society as a whole it is clearly positive.
The Physical world seemed to be far away from such wealth and ideals. Stacking atoms on top of each other in specific orders and schlepping them around the planet takes effort and energy and thus costs money. A new type of 3D printer developed by a global team of engineers with a opensource mindset is a machine that makes three dimensional physical objects from liquid plastics (metals are coming soon) and data. Such devices have been around in experimental form for over a decade but they were always expensive and bulky. The difference with this Fabbers (or 3D printer or rapid prototyping machine) is that it can make all of its own parts and its designs are freely available for anyone to take, use, modify and re-distribute for anyone. It's free, self-replicating 'things' printer and for the price of a plane-ticket from the UK to Australia you can have one too. Then start making copies for friends and neighbours. Think of it as an Ubuntu Linux installation CD that makes a working computer out of dead hardware and this working computer can then make more install CDs (or distribute the install images online as a server).
On their wiki all information can be found to get one at home and start supplying your community with low/no-cost goods, including more printers and upgrades to those printers. It is the designers intention that this will become a true, global, opensource project were new development of functionalities will be driven by the wishes of its user community. Here's a video were the inventors explain it bit more themselves. For now 3D printers print mostly simple plastic objects. No silk underwear or banana's yet. So if you think Star Trek replicator you might be a tad disappointed. But making an experimental tool into something everybody can use every day is a task the opensource community has a good track record on. After solving informational scarcity we will now get busy on material scarcity. As an economist I'd start specializing in 'abundance economies'.