Leaving aside the struggles of bands of primitives to survive on the ruins of Earth, all of humanity has at least some access to the wonders of nanotechnology. This access is highly variable and the economic benefits it produces can be divided into three broad categories—the old economy, the transitional economy, and the new economy.
The Old Economy
The old economy is essentially the same sort of industrial consumer capitalism that has been in place since the late 19th century, a system centered on manufacturers who create material goods and sell them to consumers. Modern manufacturers now make their goods in cornucopia machines instead of factories, but the essential pattern is the same one that has existed for over two hundred years. Due to the high level of inefficiency and unfairness in this economic system, poverty is relatively common. The poorest individuals often face hunger, homelessness, lack of medical care, and similarly dire problems.
Ordinary members of this society never have direct access to cornucopia machines. Instead, they purchase their goods from corporations, governments, or wealthy individuals who control them. Some old economy societies have planned economies, where the corporations or the state determine what options the citizens may choose or occasionally what goods they must have. Others claim to have a free market, where citizens have more options, but the residents must still pay to obtain goods that are essentially free for the corporations or government to produce.
Old economy societies are unique in that money is the society’s only acceptable means of exchange. While reputation networks exist, they are informal and serve as an unsanctioned means of exchanging favors.
The Transitional Economy
For the inhabitants of a transitional economy, creating food, non-smart clothing, furniture, and most other simple, non-formatible objects is a trivial matter. However, the public nanofabrication machines can only create objects that either contain no electronics at all or contain only simple circuits that report on the object’s condition and location. Manufacturing any of these items requires little more than the machine and a supply of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, silicon, iron, aluminum, and tiny amounts of various trace materials. All of these materials are sufficiently abundant that acquiring them is easy and inexpensive.
Using the elements that are freely available to all tax-paying citizens, nanofabbers can produce a vast array of goods like exquisite suits of silk clothing, tables with the appearance of finely polished ebony and mahogany, beautiful colored glass goblets, or painted porcelain tea cups. They can also create a gourmet dinner and a set of fine plates and cutlery on which to eat the meal. To pay for the small amounts of energy and resources needed to create these goods, all inhabitants pay a small tax.
Once the usage tax has been paid, food, clothing, furniture, and similar goods are all free. Raw materials, old, worn-out or unwanted goods, and various waste products are recycled into new goods. Residents of transitional economies need never experience hunger or any of the many other sorts of deprivation that much of humanity faced before the mid-21st century. Additionally, basic medical care is free in almost all transitional economy societies, to help insure that the populace is healthy, content, and productive.
Transitional economies tend to be relatively safe places, since inhabitants cannot manufacture weapons more dangerous than knives, clubs, or similar primitive armaments. Everything from firearms to plasma weapons requires restricted cornucopia machines and exotic materials to manufacture. The proliferation of these items is strictly controlled.
The New Economy
In new economy societies, individuals can freely manufacture and use almost anything they want, assuming they can acquire the correct templates and raw materials. As a result, the residents’ need for food, clothing, medical care, information access, and other basic needs are all easily met. However, there are still items of value that individuals work very hard to obtain. Though these are commonly described as “post scarcity” societies, some types of scarcity remain very real.
In most new economy habitats, common goods are freely available to all residents—or at least to all residents who meet certain criteria. These criteria usually take one of two forms: citizenship or public works. In wealthy and prestigious habitats, free access to all common goods is offered to residents who have official citizenship. Citizenship can be earned in a variety of ways, but the most common involves either being considered a strategic asset due to some singular expertise, performing an exceedingly valuable service to the habitat, or working for the habitat for some period of time. Once an individual is a citizen, the energy, living space, and raw materials they use in the course of their daily lives are all freely available.
In many collectivized habitats, residents are expected to pull their weight by contributing to ongoing public works in the habitat, typically requiring between four and eight hours every week. Depending on the nature of the colony, this work may be selected by the government, the collective syndicates that oversee the management of resources, or by a high rep individual who controls access to large amounts of energy and raw materials. Unless someone has especially valuable skills, this labor is often dull but safe work that can be done more easily by humans than AIs, such as checking the habitat for flaws and performing maintenance tasks.
Assuming an individual has acquired citizenship or put in their share of work for the collective wellbeing of the station, they will have access to a supply of energy and raw materials that allows them to use their cornucopia machines to manufacture what they need. Visitors are generally also allowed access, though anyone staying long is expected to contribute to the habitat if they don’t want to see their reputation slashed.