The coming disintermediation

By Eric Crampton 09/12/2013


The great Eli Dourado shows the way:

What’s even more exciting is the next generation of disintermediating technologies. Bitcoin could displace some financial institutions—to varying degrees, banks, the Federal Reserve, Western Union, and credit card companies.Mesh networks could solve the last-mile problem of Internet service delivery, which tends to be monopolized or at least concentrated. 3D printers could disintermediate supply chains. 3D chemical printers could disintermediate drug companies and the FDA.
Delivery drones like Amazon Prime Air‘s arguably disrupt package delivery services, though not entirely because FedEx and UPS will still run drone-utilizing distribution networks. More importantly, delivery drones disintermediate the real estate market for small businesses. It will no longer be important, if you run a local business, to have a storefront in a prime location. Your customers can order online and items can be delivered to them in half an hour straight from the factory or artisanal workshop. It could be the Etsyfication of the economy.
If information, electricity, money, and production all get disintermediated, what is left? If these trends continue, the future will be one in which human interaction is unmediated, and to a surprising degree, unregulable. It will be difficult to stop a willing buyer and seller from transacting. Information about the proposed transaction might not be censorable. Payment via Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies can’t be stopped. Production and delivery of the item may be difficult or impossible to detect and intercept.
Intermediaries are often used by governments as points of control. As we shed intermediaries, it may become possible to live one’s entire life without any particular authority even knowing that one exists. I doubt that we’ll ever get that far in the process, because using non-abusive intermediaries often makes economic sense. But for the next few decades, at least, I expect the trend to continue and the world to get a lot more interesting.

I’ve wondered when we’d start getting chemical printers; I love that they’re in progress.

The printers are far from certain as yet, but it’s worth thinking through a few of the implications. The various commenters at SciBlogs who reckoned it entirely right and good that the FDA stomp all over 23andMe may be more than a bit worried about the pharmaceutical implications of chemical printers. They’re right that 23andMe didn’t pay obeisances to the FDA; I don’t think they ever should have had to. But it’s irrelevant where people will be able to route around the regulatory blockages. Something like 23andMe will start running out of Singapore or China if the US kills it. If chemical printers are banned in the ban-things regimes, they’ll get developed elsewhere. And they’ll either be printed here or people will sneak them in.

And then, oh and then.

Whether or not you think ChemPrinters are a great thing (I think they’re a great thing), if you think they’re likely to emerge, here are a few implications:

  • Drug patents won’t much work anymore. Sure, Pharma will try for DRM restrictions on chemical printers to ban their production of patented chemicals, but it will be no more effective than DRM restrictions on other media in the longer term. 
  • If you try to force things back through the regulated channels by having doctors report on patients who are given prescriptions that never get filled, you risk hastening the disintermediation of medicine. What do I mean? Online self-diagnosis via improved versions of Doctor Google. 
  • If you want that new pharmacological compounds be developed, you need to move to a prize system rather than patents. Set a prize for “compound that effectively (as defined) treats X (as defined) with no more than Y costs in side effects (as defined)”, pay the developer directly on proof of effectiveness. This is probably worth doing anyway as it would at least help some new antibiotics and new vaccines to get developed.
    • Update, thanks to Ryan: Note that in this world, we will need new antibiotics faster than in the current world. And things are looking very bad indeed on that front in the current world. Where chemical printers are ubiquitous and easy, there will be plenty of clowns who decide to jump straight to the compounds that kill the resistant bugs. And then we’ll get quicker resistance development. I don’t see any easy way to prevent such uses. While I think it’s great that people will be able to route around those who make it hard to get E, the same tech will also make it easy to get around the gatekeepers who help to prevent antibiotic resistance.
  • If you want compounds to have gone through at least some safety checks, you need to cut down the costs of going through any approval process. Otherwise, people will just start printing whatever compounds they think might help. That whole deal where dying people have to fight to be allowed to try experimental drugs before they’re approved? Well, they’ll print their way around that nonsense whether you like it or not.
  • Hey, Peter Dunne. Guess what. I’m gonna print me some pseudoephedrine. I don’t want methamphetamine. I want cold medicine that works. First we get the ChemPrinters. Then we get the inks. Then we get the cold relief….
There’s still better than even odds that the ban-things countries will be able to make it very hard to have your own ChemPrinter. If they can ban pseudoephedrine because it’s a potential precursor to meth, they can ban ChemPrinter ink cartridges. And think of the DHS’s reaction when somebody puts up a recipe for printing plastic explosives. 
But I’m hopeful. At worst, we get ink cartridges that can be filled at home, more complicated ChemPrinters, and users buying elements of the periodic table. One chance in four within the next two decades? Even odds within the next three?