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The Kind of Future Fabbing Suggests
Alex Steffen, 19 Mar 05

One of my stranger moments took place this week on the stage at South by Southwest, handing Bruce copies of 3D printed objects as part of our keynote speech. I have rarely had such a sense of the future being now and here, or the possible being bigger than our aspirations. After all, we were sitting there tossing fabber-printed stuff into the audience, and it just really wasn't any big deal.

We explored the implications of fab labs, of mobile fabrication factories, for helping people in the developing world solve local problems. Bruce held forth on mobjects before in Wonder, Fiction and Design:

And then there are mobjects. Objects created by a mob. Noncommercial, free (or at least cheap), distributed, authorless objects. Could they exist? Where’s the killer app for something, some object, made by an underpaid, intelligent mob? Who’s the consumer? Who needs this most? It is mobs that need mobjects. Mobs of refugees. Mobs of the dispossessed. This is a perfect technology for disaster relief or refugee camps. People arrive there with nothing. They’ve had to abandon everything they owned. They need everything, and they need it fast. Disposable, temporary, cheap. They have no money. They have no resources. They’re not picky. They need mobjects. 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 generalissue 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.

That's great stuff. But it seems to me that we've all been playing down the real implications here.

I don't buy the end of scarcity. I do believe in the end of slop. The reality of our "heat, treat and beat" industrial base lags absurdly behind the frontier of the possible, and much of the developing world is using hobbled-together agglomerations of technologies that lag a generation or two or three behind ours. All of it is massively, and unnecessarily, wasteful given even our current abilities, and our current abilities are exceeded almost the moment we understand them.

Living, as we do, "downwind from the 20th Century" surrounded by its poisons and cooking in its smoke, it's easy to despair of redesigning our past quickly enough to escape catastrophe. While the last few decades have seen real advances in technology, the overall story of the last century is one of technological progress generally simply making possible more destruction, waste on a larger scale.

It is this history which gives power to the sort of predictions made by thinkers like the authors of The Limits to Growth. This seminal work -- recently re-issued in an updated version -- uses the results of a virtual model of the world's systems, called World3, to show that our civilization is on a collision course with nature. Few would argue with that.

But, the study's authors say, only cutting back our standard of living will stave off the dire consequences of that collision. "Even with the most effective technologies and the greatest economic resilience that we believe is possible," they say, without drastic reductions in consumption, "the model tends to generate scenarios of collapse." They therefore argue that people must "slow down," want less, and "moderate... their material lifestyles."

On exactly how this slowing down is supposed to happen, the Limits authors are vague, reminding some observers of G.K. Chesterton's quip that many social reformers "first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon." As there's no evidence at all that most people have any interest in abandoning prosperity as a goal, slowing down seems a poor choice of strategies.

And what if, to be blunt, their model's screwy? While the authors go to some lengths to argue that the limits are limits on the growth of the use of resources, not on economic growth as such -- that the limits to growth don't necessarily keep us from getting richer -- they make some pretty massive assumptions when looking at how much richer we can get within those limits. Their entire World3 model hinges, in particular, on two assumptions: that in the best case scenario, technology, in general, can get at most four percent a year more efficient in its use of energy and resources; and that it takes 20 years for any improvement to become widely adopted. These assumptions, they suggest, are based on the historical record.

But when it comes to technological progress, history has been suspended until further notice. What we can accomplish today is a very poor indicator of what we'll be able to in five years, much less fifteen, because technological innovation is accelerating. What's more, the rate at which it's accelerating is itself increasing, and with it, our ability to come up with new solutions is expanding at a dizzying rate.

This growing burst of technological creativity is perhaps the most important single trend on the planet. Because while many of the Tech Bloom's new breakthroughs have their roots in computer software, the implications go far beyond software and straight to the heart of innovation in general. The Tech Bloom is bearing fruit everywhere computers touch the tools we use, which is to say, everywhere.

Moore's Law both drives the Tech Bloom and offers its central metaphor.

Moore's Law relates to computers: specifically, to the complexity and power of microchips. Simply put, Moore's Law states that the processing power of computers doubles roughly every two years. This incredible pace of innovation has proven true every year since 1959, and shows no sign of slackening for at least another 20 years. What does this mean in practice? As Charlie Stross says, "[T]oday's million-buck supercomputer will be a desktop workstation in ten years time, a PC component in twelve years, and free with a cereal packet in twenty years."

Why does this matter? Sure, faster computers for less money are impressive on their own terms, but what do faster computers have to do with shrinking our footprints?

Everything. Moore's Law gets its buzz as a metaphor from its larger implications for our lives. Nearly everything we use that has been designed was designed on a computer, and nearly everything we use has been designed. And there is a direct relationship between having faster, more powerful computers and designing in more innovative ways.

Computer-aided design shapes every manufactured object we touch. I'm writing this in a cafe. The laptop on which I'm typing, the clothes I'm wearing, the chair in which I'm sitting, the light bulbs shining overhead, the paint on the walls, the espresso machine hissing in the background -- all were almost certainly just bits on a computer at some point in their lives. Somewhere in some hip loft or corporate cubicle farm, a young designer or engineer sweated out the details of their creation, bathed in the blue glow of a computer screen.

Anyone who's every played with a digital camera and a photo editing program has an idea what this implies. Just twenty years ago, taking a picture meant using a mechanical camera to expose film to light, baths of toxic chemicals and a darkroom to develop that film and make prints; editing those photos involved tools for cropping and the laborious use of airbrushes and still more chemicals. Now, with a camera the size of a pack of cigarettes, a cheap computer and printer, and some free software, anyone can shoot, doctor and print photos in a matter of minutes. Whole websites have even sprung up where folks compete to create the most amusingly photoshopped digital pics. Images have moved from matter to digits, and digits are much easier to make do our bidding.

The same thing is true in computer-aided design. When design is digitized, design innovation gets easier. As MIT professor William Mitchell puts it, "Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution -- and at an accelerating pace over the last few decades -- designers have exploited new technologies to make things smaller and lighter." And smaller, lighter objects usually mean objects with smaller footprints.

Mitchell gives the example of music machines. A player piano was essentially immobile, and both it and the expensive piano rolls it read took up a lot of space (and required a lot of wood, metal and energy to build). A gramophone was still not exactly portable, but was still a fraction of the size of a player piano: it was more resource-efficient and the cylinders it read were cheaper. The direction of the trend is obvious, of course: from gramophone, to boombox, to walkman, to IPod, so that now I walk around with a plastic and metal box smaller than a deck of cards with a repertoire of over 2,000 songs. Even given the fact that the microchip industry is far from green, that IPod's ecological footprint is a fraction of that of a player piano; what's more, because most of the music on it arrived in the form of files shipped over the Internet, the ecological cost of keeping it stocked with new tunes is dropping as well. As a Forum for the Future study found, "Downloading 56 minutes of music is more than two and a half times less resource intensive than going to a shop to buy a CD," even if you then burn the tunes onto a CD-Rom after you download them.

But we haven't seen anything yet. Another by-product of faster, cheaper computation is the ability to work at finer and finer scales. Doing fine machine-work by hand is a painstaking job, worthy of master craftsmen. But computers and robotic factories don't really care whether the material they're working is a meter or a micron thick. As a result, it's getting easier and easier to create materials of astonishing purity, manufacture parts of incredible precision, and assemble products to the very finest tolerances. Since greater precision often equals better performance, this means that engines can be made more powerful and less wasteful, consumer products, from furniture to household appliances, can be made with less stuff.

The ultimate expression of this drive towards the very fine is nanotechnology. There are lots of definitions of nanotechnology, but the one I like the best is simply this: industrial activity executed at scales smaller than the eye can see. To the extent we think about nanotech at all, we're used to thinking of science-fictional possibilities: self-organizing swarms of self-replicating nanobots, moving through the world reorganizing matter at will, perhaps getting loose and turning the planet into "gray goo." These images have about as much to do with the nature of nanotech as it's actually hitting the shop floor as artificial skin grafts on burn patients have to do with the bioengineered replicants in the movie Blade Runner.

Nanotech as it's actually emerging is prosaic, practical and profound. Waste is usually, as often remarked, the right stuff in the wrong place. Above all else, nanotech in the real world is about eliminating waste. As Vincent DiRodi writes, “Current macromanufacturing methods are crude and imprecise. … We take millions of atoms, bond, grind and manipulate them into objects. The results of these processes are millions of other atoms labeled as waste. Nanotechnology would allow us to use only what is needed and place it precisely where it belongs.” With serious adoption of nanotechnology, we will be begin moving from a "heat, beat and treat" industrial era whose motto has been jokingly described as "if brute force doesn't work, you're not using enough of it," to an age where factory workers talk about "nudging molecules into place," and "enticing" carbon atoms to "bond cleanly." The mindsets are as similar as those of a piledriver and a watchmaker.

Ultrafine manufacturing means, DiRodi says, that we're getting closer and closer to building machines designed to near-zero tolerances (making possible nearly frictionless engine designs), producing raw materials with near-complete purity, even creating new materials (with nanotech "buckyballs" and carbon "nanotubes" -- which can be made almost 100 times stronger than steel, but six times lighter, and which also can be made to conduct electricity more efficiently than copper wires) which can be put together into stronger, lighter, and more flexible parts. Since it is theoretically possible to essentially almost eliminate waste, manufacturing could be made almost non-toxic and resources could be extracted from stockpiles which were previously uneconomical. With nanotech extraction, for example, we might soon begin re-mining some landfills and mine tailing piles.

Faster, cheaper computers, linked together in distributed networks and operated in a culture of collaboration are changing the rules about innovation. There are no doubt limits to how good our designs can get, how quickly, but they seem decades off. Until then, the main barrier to progress is simply how whole-heartedly we're willing to embrace the Tech Bloom, and how much freedom we're willing to give designers to use it. It's a mad explosion of tools, tools which then combine, reform and spawn still more tools and it shows no real sign of slowing down.

But tools alone are not enough to bring us sustainable prosperity. Technological acceleration does not necessarily mean environmental progress. The hummer is the product of advanced design, but if every person on the planet drove a hummer, we'd be numbering our civilization's days in years, not decades. In order for the tech bloom to help us even the odds we're facing in the Great Wager, we need to be redesigning our society not just with increased speed, but with more purpose. We need a template off which to work, one that, if realized, would restore our balance with nature. The future may be now, but we still have to choose how we will shape it.

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Comments

'We need a template off which to work, one that, if realized, would restore our balance with nature'

For my money, nothing comes close to touching the future envisaged by William McDonough and Michel Braungart in Cradle to Cradle. That's what I'm looking towards!


Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 20 Mar 05

On your comments on the World3 model, I've actually played with the very simulation itself. What is striking about it is that as much as you change the parameters (like changing 4% technological growth to 80% if you want), the limits stay fundamentally the same, stalled by maybe 100 years from the version you see in The Limits to Growth. It's not so much the parameters they use as the relations between the variables; not the coefficients of the massive differential equation but fundamental structure of the equation.

So while the World3 model certainly could be screwy, I think it's less a question of assumptions about rates of growth and more a question of fundamental assumptions about interactions between global phenomena.


Posted by: Darius K. on 20 Mar 05

Another virtue of the World3 model is that it's open and transparent, with all of its equations and assumptions documented, supported by data, amenable to scrutiny and criticism. That in contrast to the "mental models" we otherwise rely on: vague stories, unexamined assumptions, murky formulations, "liking" one story more than another.

"Limits to Growth" is often mis-read. It has said, for 30 years now, that there is no reason for us to be doomed: that a sustainable world, providing the fundamentals of a decent life to 6 billion or more people, is within our power to create. But it also argues that we need to oriented our political economy toward something other than material growth. By "growth," the authors meant that we can't indefinitely increase the amount of material and energy flowing through the human economy. That's different than "development," which could be ever-increasing value, elegance, efficiency and technological sophistication of what flows within the human economy .

To accomplish the latter, we'll need the kind of technologies championed here by Alex. But if those technologies arise within a system oriented toward physical growth, then they won't be enough to create a sustainable world. They'll be used to further growth, not development.

Limits to growth are not limits to development. Growth itself is a limit to development. Inspiring technologies, by themselves, don't change that, because they don't change the underlying rules and goals of the system. Some technologies, such as the Internet, hold the promise of helping us reshape the rules, and that seems to be one of the underlying hopeful messages of Worldchanging. But the mere existence of new technologies is not nearly as world-changing as deciding how best to use them. Goals trump techniques every time. Alex's last paragraph sums this up well.


Posted by: David Foley on 20 Mar 05

Another virtue of the World3 model is that it's open and transparent, with all of its equations and assumptions documented, supported by data, amenable to scrutiny and criticism. That in contrast to the "mental models" we otherwise rely on: vague stories, unexamined assumptions, murky formulations, "liking" one story more than another.

"Limits to Growth" is often mis-read. It has said, for 30 years now, that there is no reason for us to be doomed: that a sustainable world, providing the fundamentals of a decent life to 6 billion or more people, is within our power to create. But it also argues that we need to orient our political economy toward something other than material growth. By "growth," the authors meant that we can't indefinitely increase the amount of material and energy flowing through the human economy. That's different than "development," which could be ever-increasing value, elegance, efficiency and technological sophistication of what flows within the human economy .

To accomplish the latter, we'll need the kind of technologies championed here by Alex. But if those technologies arise within a system oriented toward physical growth, then they won't be enough to create a sustainable world. They'll be used to further growth, not development.

Limits to growth are not limits to development. Growth itself is a limit to development. Inspiring technologies, by themselves, don't change that, because they don't change the underlying rules and goals of the system. Some technologies, such as the Internet, hold the promise of helping us reshape the rules, and that seems to be one of the underlying hopeful messages of Worldchanging. But the mere existence of new technologies is not nearly as world-changing as deciding how best to use them. Goals trump techniques every time. Alex's last paragraph sums this up well.


Posted by: David Foley on 20 Mar 05

Sorry - tried to fix a typo and posted twice.


Posted by: David Foley on 20 Mar 05

nice to know i'm not alone in my concern that technological efficiencies will not, by themselves, solve all our problems. the buzz around this technology and what it might do is a bit wishful at this point imo. one has only to look at the growth of the self-storage industry to realize the human species must have some genetic link to packrats. and having read the March 16 entry about the SXSW keynotes, i was dismayed to see "mass consumption" included right next to "green designer" in the definition of a "plutocrat".

as an industrial designer who himself bathes in the blue glow of a CAD station and who has been actively pursuing new business models incorporating these technologies, i am, at present and according to that definition (and to my dismay), a "plutocrat": someone dreaming of green products and even preaching their benefits, but who is none-the-less limited by economic circumstance to mostly just helping industry produce mass consumables for packrats. maybe i should put Plutocrat on my business card... right under Industrial Designer and Hypocrite.


Posted by: csven on 20 Mar 05

sorry. that should be "Protocrat". slap at will.


Posted by: csven on 20 Mar 05

The fact that many well meaning people fail to see about consumerism and the dumps we leave behind is in the end all any dump is is a temporary storage site for stuff we currently cant or dont want to recycle. Sooner or later the tech will come that makes recycling entire garbage dumps profitable and useful. As long as its not destroyed its never wasted just waiting.

As for self serve assemblers serving sentivities of the sustainable sort( sorry couldnt resist) as long as we can make assemblers that can use a material that it can then break back down we have the perfect recycling system in a box. I dont know how many plastic cups we go through at my house because they break it would be wonderful to be able to just toss the bits in the bin and order up a new cup design. Or plates we go through those fairly fast too.. chairs... I love plastic chairs but they tend to break after a year or 3.. just grab the old chair and toss it in the grinder... need a new bean bag chair just toss the old one in and watch the beans fly!

Mind you something that could fab chairs would tend to have to be refrige sized at the least. where would we put the buggers if they go all the way to home use?


Posted by: wintermane on 20 Mar 05

Wintermane, that's a fascinating hypothesis, undermined by the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.


Posted by: David Foley on 20 Mar 05

I didnt say it wouldnt take an energy source to do I just said its doable. There is a difference.


Posted by: wintermane on 20 Mar 05

This is something that could be combined with demotech.org's "free to use" designs. Of course, many of demotech's designs don't need a machine.

There's also "solaroof.org" stuff, and maybe other sources of designs?

Hey, how about asking WC's readers about such things?


Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 21 Mar 05

"free" design is not necessarily "good" design. or "safe" design. in some ways this move toward "fabbing" is similar to desktop publishing in the 80's. but in other ways it's not too different from plastic surgery imo - with its countless horror stories of procedures performed by unqualified hacks.

it's not a question of whether some novice designer puts a "free" design online which causes physical injury to a user... it's when. my bet is on the father who first fabs some toys that become choke hazards for his child.


Posted by: csven on 21 Mar 05

Wintermane, my last comment, addressed to you, wasn't respectful. I apologize. But I think the energy source is a key issue. The fabbing machine Bruce envisioned - in his example, it could make sewer pipe, latrines, shower stalls, perhaps towns, out of mud or sand. This is just a guess, but for sewer pipe, I'm thinking at least 2 horsepower of force, possibly more, which is at least 1500 watts of power. In a disaster zone, that's not trivial - heck, it's not trivial for most households on this planet.

It's painful to come across as a "wet blanket". I'm fundamentally optimistic and a real enthusiast for elegant new technologies - but I try not to imbue them with magical qualities. Technologies need to obey physics, and are embedded in larger political, economic and cultural systems. They're necessary, but not panaceas.


Posted by: David Foley on 21 Mar 05

Heh dont worry im a conservative roaming the green acres of the internet I dont take anything said persoanly as its a given that yas all realy care deeply.

As for the energy source id say a goodly mobile solar tent about 1 acre in size set up to house the fabber and materials it needs would do the job dont you?


Posted by: wintermane on 21 Mar 05

A player piano was essentially immobile, and both it and the expensive piano rolls it read took up a lot of space ... The direction of the trend is ... to IPod, so that now I walk around with a plastic and metal box smaller than a deck of cards with a repertoire of over 2,000 songs.

The player piano is larger than the iPod, but is the player piano + total system more resource-intensive than the iPod + total system?

The larger system includes the factory. And the raw materials extraction and processing. And the recording studio equipment used for each of those 2,000 songs. And ...


Posted by: pierre on 21 Mar 05

Alex, thanks for this well-reasoned and thought-provoking article. I've posted a reaction to it on our blog .

Here I'll just add that although CRN vigorously supports the eventual use of nano-manufacturing for both ecological and humanitarian reasons, we're also concerned that not everyone with access will be altruistic. Some might try to use nanofactories to gain power -- economic, political, or military -- and it's also not hard to imagine "mobs" that might have truly malicious purposes.

That's why at CRN we always couple talk of benefits with calls for legitimate technical restrictions on use of advanced nanotechnology.


Posted by: Mike Treder, CRN on 22 Mar 05



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