Imagine that we one day invent an ansible, capable of near-instantaneous FTL communication, but we can not transport physical matter any faster than light.

Imagine also that we have gotten to the point where space travel is possible, but still massively expensive and obviously slow. We want to colonize other worlds despite this expense, but ultimately we must have some hope of these worlds leading to and expanding our economy to help justify such expenses; even if that economy takes a generation or more to build up after colonization starts.

However, a standard economy is nearly impossible: FTL travel is impossible. How is interstellar trade possible? With the high expense of space travel shipping goods from A to B is absurdly expensive relative to the cost of the goods, and the lag time between shipping and arrival, measured in years if not centuries, means that anything other than raw materials would be outdated by the time the arrived.

However, information has been bought and sold for generations, information is power and thus is fungible asset! Therefore I'm wondering if an economy could be developed which exploited FTL communication to make paying for resources possible across worlds. Can a world 'buy' a shipment from another world by producing value purely through FTL communications, which they, then, exchange with the other world. Can a colony eventually refund it's investors that helped fund it's deployment through some sort of value generated on their home planet and 'transported' to earth through ansible communication.

For the sake of this question lets assume enough colonies have been generated that scientists has gotten lots of feedback about interesting astronomical entities from lots of colonies, and thus we no longer consider the information that a newly formed colony can send back about it's home world/system to be able to provide any significant insights or advancement to our understanding of science or the universe.

edit: one extra small detail. Assume that colonies, at least for awhile, are significantly smaller than Earth, and as such tend to have less cultural or scientific development than Earth, simply by virtue of Earth having well over 100 times the number of people to generate these things.

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    $\begingroup$ It seems like a stock market could reasonably exist between worlds in this setup... stock in a successful company in Alpha Centauri could be traded and valued across the galaxy. $\endgroup$
    – Avernium
    Aug 28 '15 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Avernium hmm, I'm not sure if it would or wouldn't exist. If you move all the levels of abstraction ultimately the stock market comes down to a bunch of people offering resources to a new company so it will grow fast and be able to return those resources. if you can't make physical resources show up at that companies doorstep are you a useful investor? If some means of 'transferring value' via information exchange is possible then stock market will be exist. Without that you can play stock market on earth with earth money to make money on earth, does it help you on alpha centauri? $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Aug 28 '15 at 18:19
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    $\begingroup$ OK, say we have FTL comms. But what bandwidth is possible? What is the cost (Watts or $) per gigabit? These are important parameters. $\endgroup$
    – rumguff
    Aug 28 '15 at 19:47
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with you, what I was saying is that even with all the potential gains of exploring Mars, we still aren't starting up colonies on it. And it's right in our back yard. $\endgroup$ Aug 28 '15 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ How about entertainment? Maybe I could stream a movie from Space Netflix! $\endgroup$ Sep 30 '16 at 16:43

As you said, information is the only thing that can be 'traded' with any reasonable return on investment. So there are several ways this could work. One even now 3D printing is becoming a big thing. So now you can send 3D printing plans for different items to be printed at different locations.

There will always be new scientific discoveries, and sharing these across the cosmos can help everyone. Being able to be in communication with any human outpost or ship would also help prevent minor despots from taking and keeping control (though it won't be fool proof just make it harder).

Though to be honest, it will be hard to regulate the information exchange beyond the first one of any interaction. Like the internet, much of the information will be free so it will be a strange new kind of 'economy'. More of which communities get respect for adding to human knowledge vs. untold riches.

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    $\begingroup$ On the other hand, exchange of information is about as much opposite of a "zero-sum" transaction as you can get. Perhaps all the worlds specialize in certain technologies and everyone's tech advances rapidly and everyone gets rich. The problem with high specialization is that if one world drops out of the exchange, it might cause a technology crash on the others. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Aug 28 '15 at 18:05

Fundamentally, an economic transaction (without actually transferring solid materials – gold, silver or other commodities of perceived value) is done by transfer of wealth backed by the promise of solid materials held by a regulating governing body (or in the case of the US, by fiat currency).

In the described scenario neither planet can transfer physical wealth. But the bigger problem is that by the time a new colony is established, all of the technology and science used to send and set up the colony has been outdated by hundreds of years. So the colony would have a disadvantage of not being able to bring enough resources (physical and intellectual) to bear on any given area of interest to the home plant (at least for a very long time) to make transfer of information a likely source of income.

But, assuming that the colony does manage to produce something of value to the home planet, what would the colony spend it’s new found wealth on? The home planet would have to basically send all of it’s current technology to the colony just to bring them up to speed in order to give them a basis to produce the information commodity for sale back to the home planet, so there would be nothing to buy with this new found wealth.

The better value scenario is for the colony to essentially be the equivalent of an untouchable bank vault for information and servers that are (in essence) extra judicial repositories. All home planet governmental organizations would be unable to coerce the colony to comply with requests for ownership information due to their inability to sanction the colony in some fashion.

Essentially you would have a “Swiss information” bank account on the colonies computers that would be outside the governmental reach of the home plant authorities, such a thing would be very valuable to criminal organizations and other wishing to hide stuff from the governments of the home planet.

In theory this “security value” could be translated to wealth that would be used to transfer information (of use to the colony) faster than it would otherwise be available. For example, there is always a delay in publication (and commercialization) of research. If for example the topic was some form of biomedical research of interest to the colony (treatment for a disease that for some unknown reason is much more prevalent on the colony), it would be advantageous for the colony to gain access to that information much sooner than it would normally be released on the home planet.

This would form a basis of a functioning economy between the 2 planets and would not be limited to a binary planetary arrangement since you never put your eggs in a single basket or you’re held hostage by the holder of the basket, and each planet would have different challenges therefore different bits of information would have different values to the different colonies.


There is one commodity which can be transferred as pure information: computation. Colony worlds can participate in an intra-galactic economy by selling computation time on their local computer networks. Raw computation may not be terribly useful, but specialized computation could be extremely useful. Some colonies might specialize in bioinformatics, while others specialize in manufacturing modelling. Colonies could thus exchange valuable information as a tradable resource.

For instance, a biologically diverse world might specialize in genetic manipulation, and especially how to tailor-make genetic codes for particular environments. Other worlds might employ their networks to design special plant species that thrive in their local environment, or to help them change their ecological balance in response to an accident, war, external dynamics, etc.

A gas giant world might be experts in fluid dynamics and can consult in the design and manufacture of all kinds of aircraft and seacraft.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! I thought of this part almost immediately after answering the question, I was sort of frustrated no one tackled the idea of it or service based economy (I outsourced all my telemarketers to alpha centuari!). Though I sort of disagree with the claim of raw computation being less useful. Amazon now makes the majority of it's income by selling raw computation. Who knows, maybe "the Cloud" would be an even bigger deal in the future. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Feb 26 '16 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ Computation itself is a commodity. Once you have technology that makes an ansible possible, raw computation is downright trivial. You probably know how to make something close to computronium. Only specialized computation is interesting at that point. I use AWS at work, and I guarantee that this model will not work indefinitely. And it is certainly not a "majority" of their income. Cloud services will soon be commoditized to the profit levels water and electricity. $\endgroup$ Feb 26 '16 at 21:54


Due to the complexity of space travel, little colonies would venture far into the deep space. The closest stars and planets are already at more than 4 light-years away. On the list provided here, we can see that planets outside our solar system are even probably more than 11 LY away.

Of course smaller colonies could be based on moons, Solar System planets, asteroids, etc. That could be closer.

But let us consider some possible colonies:

  • the moon (~ 1 light-second),
  • Ceres in asteroids belt (~ 24 light-minute in average),
  • Pluto (~ 5.6 light-hours),
  • Proxima Centauri (~ 4.4 light-years)

Communication in economy

A fast communication is crucial in current international market. Bought are bought, loan are taken, interests are paid, and generally, money is transfered via computer lines. This is very important because invester for given goods or services may be at the other side of the planet, and the prices are set in real time. So investors have to be able to react at market fluctuation and transfer the money really fast. How fast? Good question. I don't have a definitive answer, and as time passes, it is likely that computer will replace the brokers to some extend. But let's say that humans still check that the computer decision is correct. Humans need a minimum of 2 seconds to realise that an event is going to happen and react on it (I got that number when learning to drive ;-)).

We need the human factor to be a bottleneck to some extend. So if money transfer and current price can be obtained in a matter of a second, most of the current economy will function as it does now.

A note to computers/AI to deal with markets: that would change of course some of the following discussion, but it opens even more question, so we'll skip it for now.

Giving two examples, we could have the following operations that only rely on communication.

  • A good is bought by an investor, and then sold again to a distributor. The investor never needed to actually get in contact with the said goods. A shipment of banana can be bought and sold several time on its way from Africa to the USA.
  • Some local investors want to buy some products but don't have the funds. They ask for a loan to a bank or a financial actor. They never need to meet.

FTL communication

Within a colony, or on Earth, FTL communication would not revolutionise the economy, as the limiting factor are the humans. So that does not change much from the current situation.

Between Earth and colonies. FTL communication would basically extend the range or the Earth market. Operations can be done as fast on the moon as on Earth, so no big changes there.

For the others, there is the question of how F is in FTL. I don't want to enter into the technicality of the bandwidth, protocol used, etc. Let's say you achive to communicate a relevant information 1.2 faster than the time the light need to effectuate the distance.

So you already need 20 minutes to send any information to Ceres. This sets the financial markets some 40 years back to (our current) the past. High-speed speculations and many financial tools used by the markets won't be available from the Earth. But you can still have an active part in trade, you just need more predictable goods.

To Pluto, you need more than 4 hours to send any order. You're too slow to actually influence the trade/currency market. Local investors profit from your slow reaction to make more profit. It is probably a good idea to have a dependent office on Pluto, who's in charge or daily operations, with slower fund transfer and strategy set from Earth.

To Proxima Centauri, 3 years aren't enough to send any information, so to get the current value of the market and place an order, you still need 7 years. The company producing the goods may be brankrupt by then. You need to place an office there, but even then, the communication is really to slow, not to have that detached office operating fully independently.

What I mentioned from Earth, could also be seen between the colonies themselves.


It expands the local market to include neighbouring regions, but real economic communication does not get much improved with more remote colonies.


"Can a colony eventually refund it's investors that helped fund it's deployment through some sort of value generated on their home planet and 'transported' to earth through ansible communication."

Very unlikely. The inability to exchange tangible resources means that the colony cannot export its surplus production. Given that the colony is likely to be resource rich but information and culture poor, the investment outlook is not good. Unless you come up with a plotline to superpower the colony information economy (like they can produce some super-comptronium and be the data centre for the earth) they will be a net surplus natural resource producer and an importer of services and information.

The surplus goods in the colony will lead to deflation in those sectors, their currency will depreciate against the homeworld and the price of imported information and services will rocket.

Ultimately any currency has to convey to the holder the right to consume, and consumption is synonymous with the dissipation of free energy (by eating food, driving vehicles, using google search etc). It is not obvious why long term terrestrial investors would invest in the colony since any claims on the colony cannot be used for consumption on earth.

A purely service/culture based exchange would likely end up driving bubbles and speculation before a final deflationary collapse. In reality economies need to be grounded in the real economy of physical consumption.


You hint about information, and you forgot a very important sub-class of information which is strongly marketable… software and media.

As long as you have means of sending and receiving files, you can have a software and media economy.


Who says you have to trade physical goods?

We already have a pretty expansive marketplace of digital goods and a number of digital currencies to exchange. We would be able to trade software, entertainment, blueprints, knowledge, art, etc...

If ansibles were cheap enough, you could have an interstellar internet to the point where you wouldn't really be able to tell which planet any given person belongs to (at a certain point, ansibles would be the bottleneck because each one would have a bandwidth limit- but if they're cheap enough, they could be used a little bit for intra-planetary comms as well). I have friends in Australia I will probably never meet in person, but that's not really a problem and it won't be in some future with ansibles.


This isn't exactly an answer to your question, but will help to clarify some things about the current theories about FTL transportation and communication. There are always 2 points of view: the POV of the person or thing (information) accelerating (moving away), and the POV of the person or thing "at rest".

Let's say you hop into a spaceship at the space station and start accelerating away from the station. Relativity states that space and time will appear to distort as you travel, making it appear as though the distance between you and your destination is less than it was before you started traveling. Also, time around you will progress very quickly. The combined effect of these 2 distortions makes it hypothetically possible to travel FTL, but only from your perspective.

Lets look from the other POV. You watch your friend hop into a spaceship and take off. The spaceship accelerates, but that acceleration decreases over time as the speed approaches but never reaches the speed of light. You are dead before your friend reaches the destination 3000 lightyears away, but he's still 25 years old when he gets there (see the twin paradox).

Information and light are essentially the same thing, therefore by definition it cannot travel FTL from any external POV. This could be avoided using wormholes, but then both matter and information could travel FTL so the premise of "trade is impossible" is obsolete.

Also, following this new (correct) definition of FTL travel, your shipment of Klavaatu could arrive to their destination halfway across the galaxy without any signs of aging, even though it took 50,000 years to get there. So trade wouldn't necessarily be impossible, but it just wouldn't be the same as it is today.

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    $\begingroup$ While your answer does provide useful background info, it doesn't address the question directly, as they are asking about a fictional setting in which the standard rules are bypassed by the technology in question. $\endgroup$
    – Jonathan
    Aug 29 '15 at 21:52

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