“Look at any photograph or work of art. If you could duplicate exactly the first tiny dot of color, and then the next and the next, you would end with a perfect copy of the whole, indistinguishable from the original in every way, including the so-called ‘moral value’ of the art itself. Nothing can transcend its smallest elements.”
— CEO Nwabudike Morgan, “The Ethics of Greed”
The Nanoreplicator is the last mineral multiplier building. But, unlike all the other factories, this one is also considered an eco-friendly facility. Building one raises the clean mineral limit just like building a Centauri Preserve or Tree Farm. And in addition to that, none of the bonus minerals generated by this facility count against the ecodamage cap at all.
The twelfth-tier Matter Editation technology that is required to build this facility comes at the end of a whole chain of technologies that model humanity’s improving control over bulk matter at the nanoscale. In fact, looking back it’s clear that one of Reynolds’s main futurist themes was the increasing sophistication of nanotechnology. And now, at the end of the chain, it is possible to build a device that appears to be functionally equivalent to the replicator of Star Trek fame.
I think it’s definitely worth taking a moment here to reflect on the sophistication Reynolds showed while setting up the more speculative parts of the technology tree. He easily could have tried to come up with a couple dozen distinct futuristic technologies and then stitched them together somehow into a progression. Or, alternatively, he could have come up with a few main ideas and then just incremented a number. So, say, there could be Computers 1, Computers 2, and so on up until the top of the tree.
Instead, Reynolds chose to work with what I’d call technology themes. He selected a handful of major potential social and technological advances that he wanted to explore (e.g. genetics, psionics, and AI). Then he broke them down into distinct advances that are both plausibly related and that gave him the opportunity to grant different gameplay bonuses depending on how he wanted to adjust the game’s balance, pacing, and lore.
Reynolds chooses to accompany this culmination of the nanotechnology chain with a philosophical argument from CEO Morgan. In it, Morgan makes a strong materialist claim against what we’d consider the moral value of identity as a function of time. He’s talking about a piece of artwork in this particular example, but there’s no reason to presume that he would not consider the argument to hold for anything else. A copy of anything made to sufficient resolution should be valued identically to the original, in this view.
This seems like it would just be idle philosophizing. But the Nanoreplicator actually makes it possible to precisely duplicate any physical object. And unlike the Star Trek replicator, we are presented with no reason why it could not assemble living material as well as anything else. The plot thickens when that thought is coupled that with the fact that the dependent technology requires Digital Sentience, which necessarily brings with it the ability to clone and copy minds.
We are left with the conclusion that CEO Morgan has no grounds to resist the conclusion that a nanoreplicated version of himself would be morally indistinguishable from the original Morgan. This is fascinating given that, up until now, Morgan has been a devout individualist.
From the Network Backbone video, we can likely conclude that Morgan is a firm believer in intellectual property rights. So the existing Morgan could presumably maintain a monopoly on existence if he so chose. But if he believes that there is no relevant difference to be found among any given set of exact copies of himself, and given that he has previously stated that he wants to live forever, why wouldn’t he build a bunch of backups?
This line of questioning should give some sense of just how far the game has moved into the speculative future by the twelfth-tier of the technology tree. By now, even the very idea of personal identity is a very tenuous concept.
Which is why grounding the factions in philosophical differences instead of rehashing Civilization-inspired nationalism was such an inspired touch on Reynolds’s part. Here at the end of history, the accidents of birth and history have faded away. The enduring legacy of the past, the part that still lives and breathes even in this distant, almost incomprehensible future, is instead found in ideology.