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Imagination, Innovation, and the Mobject
Jamais Cascio, 19 Feb 05

We don't point to every Bruce Sterling article or speech, it just feels that way. Nonetheless, his new piece (PDF) at Innovation magazine (the mouthpiece of the Industrial Designers Society of America) lays out why science fiction is relevant to design, explores why design is important for thinking about the future, and tries to coin a few new words on top of it all. These last are all variants of "blobject," and one of them -- "mobject" -- feels like a winner:

How does this work in practice? I envision some kind of universal fabricator. A big, bad, cheap fabricator that makes stuff out of utterly worthless raw materials. Straw and mud, perhaps. Or chopped grass, cellulose, recycled plastic and newspaper, even sand. A big, rugged, dirty, emergency thing like an upended cement mixer. But smart. There’s a lot of code in there. Free, unpatented code.

So, how does it work? You’re a mob. You’re panicked; you’re shell-shocked; you’re thirsty. You need buckets. The mobject-maker spits out these general issue buckets. Khaki-colored maybe, the color of mixed dirt. Ugliest buckets in the word, but they work. They carry water. Now you need latrines, so out come a few hundred of them. Sewer pipes. Shower stalls. Faucets. The appurtenances of urban life. Squeezed out in molds, on the spot. Basic, safe water infrastructure so you don’t die of dysentery like every other dispossessed mob in the world. You wouldn’t normally put up with this mobject way of life, but if your town has been smashed in an earthquake, then mobjects are kind of handy. One helicopter and one fabricator and a week later you’ve got a town. It’s not a pretty town, but at least you’re not dead.

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Of course Bruce is a science fiction writer and doesn't need to be constrained by reality.

The problem with the 3-d printing fabricators that he's talking about is that they fabricate things out of toxic plastic precursors. Then to make the fabricated objects strong you need extremely expensive carbon fibers or at least fiberglass. Even "low-tech" concrete -- the most easily fabricatable material that exists, needs steel rebar to attain significant strength.

Both fiberglass and even the portland cement that concrete is made from use huge amounts of power -- far more than you can get in a location where the electric distribution infrastructure has been devastated along with everything else. Cold fusion, anyone?

Posted by: Alton Naur on 19 Feb 05



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