(Another great post © the Full Information Security Project!)
"3D printing" is a terrible name, but it markets well. Putting it that way helps emotionally stunted Scientists take a painfully-slow step toward something approximating innovation, by adapting prior technology they understand--"printing"--rather than forcing them to think independently about matter reorganization applications.
With regards 3D printing, how will things stay the same even as they change? Presume that, in a hundred years, people have the ability to "print" (build/create) a turkey sandwich out of "nothing" (spacetime), or to do the same with a house, a car, a month's supply of antibiotics, et cetera. Doesn't that sound like paradise? Doesn't that sound like Our Problems, Finally Solved®? Finally, independent individuals (sic) can print the things they need to live using remarkably cheap printing technology. And even better--once Terran scientists bypass certain hurdles, 3D "printers" will be able to print other 3D printers, including fully charged ones, meaning that one handheld "printer" (matter reorganizer, whatever it later gets properly called) could print the self-fitting components necessary to construct a printer that could print spaceships. Or, more practically, a stock of one hundred backup printers and one thousand backup batteries, to ensure an endless supply of clean food, water, medicine, cloned body transplants, hourly memory backups, air purifiers, et cetera. Eternal life/salvation in a box, as the case may be. Everything is covered, there are no more zero sum games, no more work, no more pressure, no more resource shortages, and absolutely none of the things that the symptom "economics" typically fosters.
In theory, this would allow someone to go live in a tiny cave (or an open field, whatever), by her/himself, and be actually independent. Everyone's needs would be met, excepting perhaps weird social ones that the more emotionally sturdy of us could, in theory, avoid if we wanted to avoid the pain of having to deal with They Who Must Not Be Named and their minions.
How will things stay the same even as they change, though? Well, let me tell you two stories. The first story is about a place you may have been once, and the second story is about a place I may have been once.
Terra and Jenome
Imagine a place even more wonderful and fantastical than one where everyone had their own 3D printer able to print both its own batteries and other battery-printing-capable 3D printers. Imagine a lush planet covered in abundant resources, whose warm core and magnetic field constantly processed and regenerated massive quantities of energy, with an expected lifetime of at least millions of years. Imagine that self-aware humans came to exist on this planet.
Now, imagine that you're an evil bastard who wants to prevent all these resources from being used. You hate Terra because you hated someone like her once, and you lost. How might you go about stopping this blatant infinity of happy possibilities from being enjoyed? Easy. You come up with two things, both variants on the same theme:
When Jenome hits a planet, one of the first thing it does is dazzle the locals with verifiable tricks, then uses those tricks to rationalize an "elite," thereby segregating any given chunk of life from itself. The goal is to make life suck; to bolster the argument, "Existence is pain." Isolation is achieved progressively, and the first step is to establish any kind of differentiated group. So there are almost always "Chosen" beings at this stage--instantly sacred, yet carrying a terrible burden along with their furtive, worried pride.
Notions of "property" (above and beyond property being what someone is using at that very moment, or using habitually) come into play at about the same time. The strategy here is to ensure that, like people-level resources, all types of resources are no longer available. Instead, they're artificially restricted, through a make-believe scheme of power differentials that decrees when, where, who, how, and why different sub-groups may or may not exploit the resources of the home that grew them.
The results, as far as Terra goes, are relatively obvious: however many thousands of years of caste and property divisions have rather successfully kept the planet in a state where it's considered rational to have both feasting and famine, empty houses and homeless, and inheritance paying more than innovation or labor. Great Terran philosophers have written extensively, over thousands of years, about how the hyperabundance of available resources is, in fact, a crushing constraint which proves the vile nature of the planet (and sometimes, by default, of existence itself), and requires therefore the brutal domination of a chosen few to better perpetuate the crushing constraint. If it's not something you've lived inside at least once, it seems too absurd to believe, whereas, while inside it, it often seems obviously true.
Now imagine a different place, where particle adjustment technology is commonplace, and has been commonplace for a while. So long that it's boring; it's taken for granted; it's less stunning than electricity, and no one except boring historians really knows or cares who "invented" any given part of it. Anyway, I'm there, right? And everyone in theory has access to this technology that can make anything ("anything" in the sense of consumer product, food, drugs, air, water, clothing, etc.).
Given these constraints, how do elites keep control of the society that results? Rather easily, actually. It wasn't all that different from here. Notions of intellectual property were used to limit the ways in which a person or group could use technology.
Example: just about everyone had a "fooder," which was a particle adjustment device (a "household" product, you might say now) that was set to make only food. So you would think that no one would ever starve or go hungry. Not so. Each fooder needed power, and it was illegal to have a fooder (or other particle adjustment device) that produced power (e.g., charged batteries, fuel cells, whatever). Why was it illegal? Well, because at various points throughout this planet's history, people were alleged to have used particle adjusters to construct weapons--generally, bomb components. Also, people who had bought low quality design stats, or incorrectly programmed their PAs, or had a corrupted device, could cause an explosion if they tried to produce power.
So the government (which in this case was more of an openly acknowledged union of for-profit firms, without any non-firm concepts of "nationality" or the like) did its public duty by regulating what one could make with one's PA. It was illegal to buy or sell a PA that had the capability of producing power, and it was illegal to modify a PA so that it could produce power (kind of like how you can buy an AR-15 on Terra, but not modify it to work fully-automatic, or you can buy a pistol but not a silencer, etc.).
Unless, of course, you had a license. Certain organizations, sanctioned by the ICL (Intercorporate League), were allowed to produce and/or generate power, therefore everyone had to pay them to access the power necessary to run a fooder. The results were tragically predictable: lots and lots of people starved, even if they were living in an apartment that held, like, four or five working fooders, just because they couldn't pay their power bills. And as a result of this wonderful ICL caution, maybe eighty explosion casualties were (statistically) prevented--and that's even assuming that 100% of the licensing agencies' statistics about unskilled PA-power production were correct.
The fooders themselves were a joke, too. They could produce food, but almost all recipes were licensed. You would buy a fooder, and it would come stock with somewhere around thirty or forty "basic" recipes (kind of like "public domain" works of art, but much reduced). This is a Terran approximation, but here's about what a standard fooder would produce, right out of the box:
Bowl of water, bowl of juice, bowl of milk, turkey sandwich with mayo, turkey sandwich with mustard, oatmeal, mixed green salad, gray meat patty, red meat patty, white meat patty, PBJ, bowl of corn, bowl of peas...
Basic stuff. Which was just fine, as long as you had the power. But of course, anyone who could afford the power bills wanted more. Say you wanted to turn on your fooder (which was about the size of a microwave), put in your plate, press the button, and have a turkey sandwich with bacon. You could buy a license for one such sandwich, pay the 25 cents extra (or whatever), press the button, and there would be your sandwich, just like the standard kind, without bacon. Or you could buy, say, five licenses for a dollar, enjoy one turkey sandwich with bacon, and then have four charges left.
What if you wanted to have a turkey sandwich with bacon as many times as you liked, without having to worry about the licensing costs each time (and just have to pay as much as it would cost anyway to produce a normal turkey sandwich from then on, since the matter reorganization quantities involved were so similar)? Well, that's where it got a little more complicated. In order to buy a lifetime license to use any particular protected recipe, costs got way higher, because, in theory, you could then become a neighborhood restaurateur, and sell people hundreds of turkey sandwiches with bacon from your personal fooder, thereby bypassing the need for them to buy their own "with bacon" licenses. So the costs were really big. If you wanted to permanently own the recipe "turkey sandwich with bacon," you could pay anywhere between $500-1,000 for the lifetime license. And that was only on basic recipes. Say you wanted to order a fancy plate with something like a nice duck with cherries, puff pastry with a fermented fruit glaze, etc., you'd pay twenty bucks. If you wanted the license for it, though, so that you could eat it every day for only the cost of the power, then that might set you back fifteen grand. The quality of one's fooder was a big component of one's social standing, because if you could casually order up something fancy without confirming a license charge, it looked as comparatively "cool" as, say, accepting your Bentley keys from an Earth valet.
Some jurisdictions got around the restaurateur problem by putting limiters on the fooders, limiting how many uses of one recipe it could make in a day, or how many calories it could output in a day, and so forth. And then, of course, because of the way licenses worked, it got to be like rent-controlled apartments in New York City--whenever some food aficionado died, there was a big rush to see what licenses were on that person's fooder, and to hide the death from the ICL for as long as possible, so that everyone could get as many special licensed meals out of that fooder before it got reverted back to the standard menu. Some people would spend their entire lives building up "libraries" of hundreds of non-standard recipes, and then when they'd have you over, it would be a pain in the ass trying to talk to them, because they'd be encouraging you to try some exotic thing, and telling you about how they'd looked it up and sampled it--kind of like people with vinyl collections.
What if you were really clever--a skilled programmer, say--and you wanted to program your own fooder to make recipes of your own choosing? Say, you knew how to program the particle organization sequence for "bacon" and you wanted to program your own PA script for a turkey sandwich with bacon so that you could generate that meal for the power cost alone, without having to license the company's version of the recipe? There was a lot of gamesmanship there. Power providers would modulate their power specifically to work with only licensed recipes, so "hackers" would have to play this little game of making their independent recipes match the way the licensed ones were. Which was, of course, even more illegal than just trying to subvert the power modulation regime.
(Actual "cooks" or "chefs" could buy licenses for raw ingredients from their fooders, then cook recipes by hand outside of their fooders, and there was this really funny and cute friction between "hands on chefs" and "programmer chefs" about which kinds of food/recipes were real, who was outdated, who was traditional and genuine, etc.)
Back to the Power
Anyway, back to the power. IP restrictions controlled a lot more than food. Everyone had the right to own a fooder, and fooders were so cheap and commonplace that you could find them in an alley, and they'd often work (and might even have one or two non-standard recipes stored on them). But it wasn't a big deal, because you needed power to actually get food out of it. As to other PAs, those required licenses. A licensed carpenter, say, could own a certain kind, and a licensed construction expert could own a bigger one. Because government was openly corporate rather than openly nationalist, obtaining a license usually meant holding a certain level of employment. To a Terran, that will sound like some kind of big business hell, but there were so many "rights" inherent in being a born shareholder ("citizen") that it wasn't much different from here. Anyway, jobs came with responsibilities and oversight, so no one was any more able to "go off the grid" with "stolen" technology than they were on Earth 2015.
So there we all were: on a planet covered by abundant resources, with the capability of making anything and everything, including perpetual cycles of stored power and replacement parts, all based on technology developed by the conscious inhabitants of that planet hundreds of years ago. And still, it was just like here. Some people went hungry, and some people threw out a lot of food (or reorganized it into something else). Some people were fabulously rich, and some people were staggeringly poor (or just dead). Some people lived a really long time by using large PAs programmed with organic coding that could generate new bodies (and that could backup memories by the second to safeguard against accidental death) for them, while other people died over a couple dollars' difference in the licensing fees for a new pill, artery, or organ.
It really wasn't that different. I'd like to be able to say something like, "The toys were more glittery," but actually, the whole thing was probably dirtier in appearance overall. Would you believe that, part of the legal rationale for protecting IP interests in fooder recipes based on traditional local meals (developed centuries ago by no one knows who) was similar to the Terran pharmaceutical argument, that those recipes had to be protected by license in order to profit-motivate innovative programmer-chefs to further develop the available cultural cuisine?
The point is, it's possible to mess up anything, no matter how seemingly easy or abundant. The idea that someone could hold the equivalent of ownership on the design information for a sandwich or a replacement heart is, at its essence, no different than the idea that someone can own land.