Thursday, March 19

Leaving Karl Marx Speechless: Internet of Things and the social revolution that can't be stopped

From How to Make Almost Anything, Boston Globe, January 30, 2005: 
Gershenfeld describes the shift from large-scale, expensive machine tools to personal fabrication as analogous to the evolution that began 40 years ago from room-sized mainframes to personal computers. Instead of personalizing the ability to do digital computing, we're now able to digitize and personalize the ability to manufacture our own tools and machines.
Dr Neil A. Gershenfeld is an American professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. He can be considered the prophet of personal digital fabrication (PDF), and it was his classes at MIT, started in 1998, on "How to Make Almost Anything" that led to him to create in collaboration with MIT's Bakhtiar Mikhak the incredible "Fab (fabrication) Labs." These are places with the tools and raw materials that teach people from any walk of life to harness digital technologies to make just about any kind of personal-use gizmo they can think up.   (This gives new meaning to the old 'shop' courses in American grade schools, where boys learned to make things like tables.)  

Yet no one, not Gershenfeld nor anyone else, could imagine how popular those labs would be. But there is footage of boys and girls of elementary school age in Ghana dragging their teachers back to a Fab Lab even though it was way past the children's bedtime.  They didn't want to stop inventing stuff and seeing their ideas take form through their own efforts right before their eyes.  

By 2006 Neil Gershenfeld was still trying to wrap his mind around the implications of the Fab Labs, which by then were scattered around the world.   In a videotaped talk to a TED conference that year the ideas poured from him, almost stumbling over each other, leading him to cut himself off sometimes and at others to speak almost in shorthand.  Before I realized TED had made a very coherent transcript available, I scribbled down parts of the talk during which he conveys the broad outlines of what he knew by then was an epoch-making revolution.  

The caveat is that I did have to interpret the meaning he imputed to the term "social engineering." From everything he said in the talk, I think he simply means formal (organizational) ways of teaching people to integrate the products of technology into their daily lives.       

With no further introduction:       

We are now in the mini-computer era of digital fabrication.  The only problem with that is it breaks everybody's boundaries.  In DC, I go to every agency that wants to talk, you know; in the Bay Area, I go to every organization you can think of -- they all want to talk about it but it breaks their organizational boundaries.  In fact it's illegal for them in many cases to equip ordinary people to create rather than consume technology.  
"And that problem is so severe that the ultimate invention from this community is social engineering.
There's been a sea change in aid from top-down mega projects to bottom-up grassroots microfinance investing. So everybody's got that's what works.  But we still look at technology as top-down mega projects -- computing, communication, energy  [sarcastically]  'If this room full of heroes is just clever enough you can solve the problems [of the rest of humanity].'  
The message coming from the Fab Labs is that the other 5 billion people on the planet aren't just technical sinks.  They're real opportunities to harness the inventive power of the world to locally design and produce solutions to local problems. I [once] thought that was a projection 20 years hence into the future but it's where we are today.  It breaks every organizational boundary we can think of.
The hardest thing at this point is the social engineering and the organizational engineering but it's here today."  
Precisely what is "it?"  Toward the very end he said with precision, "the technology for a market of one."

So at that moment in history, in 2006, PDF was no threat to manufacturing giants. 

However, as we know, the technology for 3D printing has greatly advanced since then and is continuing to advance at breakneck speed.  While the giants can still sleep easy for the next few minutes we are approaching an era that would leave Karl Marx speechless.  Workers of the world unite against -- what? Your own workshop in the basement?

It'll be a future generation that begins to encompass the implications.  But I'm thinking right now of a reality TV show called "Guyana Gold."  It was about two American men who in my opinion were complete rascals. They were part of the gold rush in Guyana, as thousands of adventurers and rascals from around the world converged on the jungles to strike it rich dredging for gold dust. 

From the episodes I watched, the local rascals had fun taking advantage of the foreign amateurs, but moving along the foreigners weren't happy unless they were dredging with humongous imported machines that first of all the amateurs didn't know how to maintain; second, didn't know how to repair; third,  pushed way beyond the manufacturers' stated capacity; and four, these machines, often stories' high, had 10 million parts.

One upshot was an open-air market full of parts from broken down machines that foreigners had abandoned or sold to finance their plane ticket home. This market took up something like two square miles.  But unlike the items in Home Depot none of the parts were labeled.  To shop there you seriously had to know what you were looking for. 

And yet the best moment I saw in the show was when an Indian who was an old hand at the gold digs got the broken part from a monster machine running again by using a length of cotton thread and aerosol spray from an insect repellent can.  I swear this isn't a fish tale.

The point is that the open air market in "Guyana Gold" is the forerunner of the factory of the future -- and the manufacturer's showroom and big box store, all rolled into one.

Instead of towns being built to house workers in a factory that makes a single product, they'll be built around what are essentially junk piles from which the townspeople make whatever manufactured product they need. When the product becomes obsolete it'll be returned to the junk pile, to be melted down, recast, and digitally designed and made into the latest version of the product.

So one can work up a little sympathy for government officials and corporate executives who listened to Neil Gershenfeld and asked, 'But where are the boundaries?'

It's a fair question when one considers the violent revolutions accompanying the dawn of the industrial age, and that everything was changed about societies that developed around traditional mass production.  One social order after another collapsed.  However, the question was asked of Gershenfeld in the earliest years of this century, before governments in regions around the world learned their water supplies were running out.  

Much of the water is poured into building, maintaining, and repairing giant infrastructures to house mass production and mass populations of workers.  The results of the labor then use up mind-boggling amounts of water, not to mention energy, as they are processed, transported across vast distances, distributed across vast distances, and disposed of and recycled -- often at great distances from the disposal site. 

All to obtain a pair of jeans or electronic chachka!     

You want to call that way of life "order?"  It was the best humanity could do, and now we can do better, that's all.   

Of course the social order we evolve from the PDF revolution, the "Internet of Things," won't be the same as the one today.  But to return to the open air market in "Guyana Gold," it's odd to think that a prototype of the future factory is sitting there in one of the least developed regions in the world.  

The factory towns of the Internet of Things will be strikingly reminiscent of the ancient world of villages.  In the old days everybody built their own hut, hand-made everything that went into it and recycled everything to build again.  Welcome to A.D. 2030.


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