Chad Perrin: SOB

20 September 2008

Desktop Fabricators

Filed under: Geek,Liberty — apotheon @ 11:36

The Fab@Home project is an attempt to get open source and hobbyist hardware hackers involved in the development of what could prove to be one of the most disruptive technologies the modern world has ever seen. Specifically, it’s an open specs project for developing desktop 3D printers, or (as the Fab@Home project labels them) “fabbers”. The specs for it are there for all the world to see at the main Website (a wiki, natch), and the Fab@Home firmware is being developed under the BSD license.

What? Windows Only?

Oddly, the firmware (written in C++) is currently only compatible with 32-bit Microsoft Windows platforms. This strikes me as a nearly criminal oversight. Considering the licensing, among other matters, it should be compatible with BSD Unix systems as well — or at least with some form of open source (probably Unix-like) OS. Considering this fact has prompted me to renew my motivation to refamiliarize myself with C in the near future, and from there try to achieve some kind of competence in C++. We need to get this stuff working with BSD Unix, dammit.

Of course, “near future” is a relative term.

Disruptive Tech

I call this thing a disruptive technology because it can have some really significant effects on simple product manufacturing industries. For the most extreme examples of the kind of change in the ground rules I’ve seen that is a step on the road to universal assemblers even as small as a desktop 3D printer like this, check out Cory Doctorow’s novella After the Siege, included in his collection of short stories, Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present. Damn, that sentence ran on for a bit.

In fact, depending on how quickly lobbyists get in on the action, how thoroughly Congress can regulate home fabrication technologies, and how innovative and/or oppressive enforcement gets, low cost desktop 3D printers and similar fabricators like these might actually lead to what some would call a minor economic singularity event, disrupting not only a specific industry or related set of industries, but having far-reaching implications across a wide range of industries that might shake up the entire structure of dominant Western economies.

Consider, for instance, the manner in which people have tended to conflate concepts of property ownership and “intellectual property” control in recent years. People have been so socially programmed by the propaganda of strong copyright advocates over the years that they really don’t seem to be capable of recognizing any significant difference in principle between “intellectual property” and actual property. Ubiquitous desktop 3D printers, nearly as common as desktop computers at home, could very easily disabuse a lot of people of such notions of equivalency. Ironically, it would be the introduction of easy device-copying technology analogous to digital data copying technology — the bugbear of strong copyright advocates such as the RIAA — that would serve as the spotlight on the absurdity of treating “intellectual property” like property.

Once it becomes increasingly obvious that the product of the intellect as it applies to things like chairs and coffee mugs is a CAD specification that can be used to “print” an object with your desktop fabricator, the notion that the lyrics of a song are the same in proprietary terms as a chair or coffee mug (and thus subject to property laws under the concept of “intellectual property”) becomes inescapably absurd. While this may not have any immediate legal or economic repercussions, it would certainly undermine a lot of assumptions about “intellectual property”, and perhaps pave the way for a much more rapid collapse of the already weakening copyright regime.

Regime Change

The economic consequences of a technology like this could range anywhere from almost unnoticeable over any short period of time to immediately dramatic and widely felt. The way things progress, and the short-term effects of a technology as potentially disruptive as this, depends on how people react to it — of course. Legislation may in fact stand in the way of widespread adoption, and a simple lack of ability across much of the population to grasp the value of something like this may slow development and adoption to an excruciatingly slow crawl. It’s even possible nobody who hasn’t already “gotten” it will notice the implications for something like this in the matter of so-called “intellectual property”.

At the other extreme, this could just gut huge segments of traditional manufacturing industries, accelerate the collapse of copyright, and generally undermine a lot of the corporate centralization of economic power in Western markets, to say nothing of drastically reducing dependence on cheap manufacturing labor in Asian and Indian subcontinent markets. It could do serious harm to major corporate retail chains like Wal-Mart, undermine the arguments of industry advocacy organizations such as the RIAA in the minds of the general public, and greatly reduce dependency in “disadvantaged” people on government handouts.

It could also give rise to whole new markets and business models. Imagine, for instance, object printing templates that result in simple household objects with company names and logos on them as advertising. Think of the possibilities for bringing “shareware” distribution models from software into the realm of physical products — you can download plans and print out a low-quality object to try out, then decide to go buy the real thing once you’ve decided it’s worth your money.

All the carrying on in some circles about “new media” vs. “old media”, and how the democratization of publishing via the Internet is shaking up the industries of traditional print publishers, could turn out to be nothing compared with the shaking up of industries for traditional manufacture of cheap, simple, throw-away objects. Significant swaths of Western corporate dominated industries could be wiped away, directly or indirectly, by a disruptive technology like this — and replaced by wholly new business models predicated upon the possibilities that arise in place of those traditional business models.

. . . and time, energy, and brainpower can all be freed up to pursue the next major advance.

Or Not

Maybe these technologies will arrive with a whimper instead of a bang (or worse, get suppressed entirely for home use). It depends on us — narrowly, “us” the technically inclined who can help usher in new technologies like this, make them usable by basically anyone, cheap, high quality, and widely distributed; broadly, “us” the potential user base, who must have the imagination to see the possibilities, the willingness to adjust to a new way of doing things and accept the benefits thereof, and the will to demand that people in positions of power with a strong stake in maintaining the manufacturing scarcity of the status quo get the hell out of the way of progress.

Hopefully we — both sets of “us” — don’t let them stand in the way.

Sometimes, change hurts, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for us.

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License