Phil speculates on the future of wealth, and says that with sufficiently advanced technology (like nano-assemblers and perfect virtual reality) the concept of wealth will cease to exist.
Two (hypothetical) future developments promise to flatten the delta virtually out of existence. One of these is the universal assembler (third item), which uses nanotechnology to allow anybody to make — literally — anything they want, including their own univeral assembler. In addition to closing the gap between the rich and the average, this device will eliminate any remaining gap between the average and the poor. Poverty won't exist any more.He and Glenn Reynolds also say that (democratic!) political influence is getting harder to buy, considering that Americans watch less TV and are influenced and enthused more by websites than by political ads. That's all true... but there will always be the power of physical force, and there will always be people with more physical power than others. Even if nano-assemblers give us all armies of wicked wizard robots, someone's assembler is going to be faster than yours -- or sitting on a more powerful black-hole-engine -- and they're going to be able to kill you and smash your virtual Porsches. And then there will always be the people who are more convincing than you are, and able to gather armies and followers and whatnot.
The other development is full-immersion virtual reality, which will enable anyone to experience anything. Think of that scene in the first Matrix where they arm themselves by selecting weapons from an inexhaustable warehouse containing every firearm ever conceived. Now map that capability over to things like cars and vacations and (yes) romantic partners.
Who's richer, a guy with one real Porsche or a guy with a virtual collection of every Porsche model ever built? Assuming the VR is flawless and the experience of driving the virtual cars is identical to the real thing, I'm going to say the second guy. If this capability is ever realized, the day people generally agree with my answer is the day the concept of "wealth" ceases to exist.
Even aside from raw physical power, forms of wealth may change but the concepts of wealth and possession are built into human nature and won't ever disappear. Look at the kinds of distinctions we make between objects of varying levels of wealth right now: my hypothetical house is more expensive than yours because I have copper plumbing and live in a school district with 5% higher test scores! To a person 100 years ago, those value differences would be meaningless relative to the vast wealth differential between his time and ours. The man from the past would see both you and I as fantastically rich -- and that's how Phil is looking towards the future -- whereas we may see clear and important differences between our hypothetical houses. In the future, wealth distinctions will probably become more subtle (my Space Bugatti has seventeen cupholders and was assembled from the core of a neutron star, you plebian!), but they're never going to go away.