Tom Craver recently wrote on our blog, "I suspect if you want to use MM to break out of the current situation, a solar powered wish box is pretty much required. "
That got me thinking: what is "the current situation?" Tom was answering a post about the rich-poor gap. But depending on how you look at it, there is room for several kinds of improvement. And not everyone will agree on what should be improved, and what is "part of the human condition" and should be left alone.
Pain: It used to be thought that pain was valuable, and so anesthetics shouldn't be used. Today, failing to use anesthetics in dentistry and surgery would be unthinkable. Is it desirable to minimize (not eliminate) pain?
Tragedy: Where do you draw the line between tragedy and healthy change? There's an old saying, along the lines of: I'm quirky, you're neurotic, he's crazy. By analogy: My death is unacceptable; your death is tragic; their deaths are simply part of the cycle of life. Would we stagnate in the event of a successful effort to minimize untimely death, as well as other massive losses and dislocations? Or would we simply be freer to dare more?
Unhappiness: Trying to increase people's happiness by changing external factors doesn't seem to work. Changing internal factors (neurochemistry) is a question for medical ethics. Is "not depressed" the optimum level of health? Or would we do better to choose a more positive standard?
Relative poverty: Is it inherently bad to have some people much richer than others? Or does it only become bad when lack of resources causes some other kind of badness? Given that disparities in resources are likely to continue, is there a way to mitigate the pervasive (perhaps universal) cargo cult in which expensive possessions are thought to be inherently beneficial, and their lack inherently bad?
Lost potential: It's difficult, and perhaps impossible, to define (and thus assign limits to) human potential. But it seems clear that a severely malnourished child, a well-fed couch potato, and a prisoner will all have trouble reaching their full potential.
So what could rapid, local, inexpensive, clean, high-tech manufacturing do about these problems--assuming we decide that they are problems?
First, it could provide the basic necessities of life--food, water, clothing, shelter--universally and inexpensively. There will be no way to pretend that any starving person was not deliberately starved by someone. Assuming that deliberate starvation is not allowed to persist in the world, this will mitigate malnutrition, starvation, water-borne disease, and exposure, thus reducing pain, tragedy, and lost potential.
Second, really cheap computer hardware (including sensors) could make a big difference. Communication could help to minimize abuses of all sorts. Education could help to maximize people's potential. Environmental monitoring, in combination with more efficient technology, could make it easier to support billions of people sustainably on our planet.
Medical research and treatment could benefit substantially from rapid prototyping, inexpensive manufacturing, and better computers and sensors. It will become far easier to gather data about diseases and treatments, and to distribute new treatments as they are developed. This will further reduce pain, tragedy, and lost potential, and may also lead to optimum levels of happiness as we learn more about the brain and mind.
There's one thing on the status-quo list that I have not addressed. I simply don't know what to say about it. Americans have no right to say "Be happy with what you have" to the vast majority of the world's population that has less than we do. Ironically, there are lots of people in America who have more than enough to alleviate all material problems, but who ascribe their unhappiness to not having enough.
The best answer I can think of, in this late-night philosophical ramble, is to work on the concrete problems first. If we can achieve a world where lack of wealth is no longer a cause of scarcity and tragedy, then perhaps the perception of money can start to shift. Imagine money as a tool of enrichment rather than competition--something that people bother to accumulate only when they have a good place to invest it, whether that be art, science, or exploration.