A fab lab in Iceland. | Frosti Gíslason/Saethor Vido
The divide between those who want to open up and connect with the rest of the world—the globalists—and those who want to retrench behind barriers—let’s call them the localists—is deepening. There was Remain vs. Leave in the Brexit debate, then there was Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump. Today, the divide is visible in the battle raging between those who want to make trade agreements and those who want to start trade wars.
Both sides are fighting over what’s becoming a false dichotomy. Out of sight of these pitched partisan battles, a future is being invented in which we will no longer have to choose between global connectivity and local self-sufficiency. It is a future where anybody can make (almost) anything locally, while using knowledge that is shared globally. This future has important implications for politics today.
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Digital fabrication—the process by which data are turned into things, and vice versa—is challenging fundamental assumptions about the nature of work, money and government. All over the world, people are already using a range of computer-controlled tools to make everything from food, furniture and crafts to computers, houses and cars. They’re sharing knowledge remotely, while moving toward community self-sufficiency locally. As these capabilities become widely available in the coming years, institutions and organizations will be caught flat-footed if they don’t start preparing now.
To understand the potential transformative impact of digitizing fabrication, a little historical context is helpful. Over the past 50 years, we’ve lived through two digital revolutions—one in communication and the other in computation. Together they have brought us personal computers, mobile phones and the internet, radically transforming our economy and lives. Digital fabrication is now a third revolution, building on the first two by bringing the virtual world of bits out into the physical world of atoms. The first two digital revolutions progressed at exponential rates, with computers going from filling buildings, to rooms, to desks, to laps, to pockets in the span of 50 years. Digital fabrication is now advancing in the same exponential way.
When you hear “digital fabrication” you might think of 3-D printers. Three-dimensional printers are indeed the most visible manifestation of this new phenomenon, but they are just one part of the current toolbox. There are also machines that cut precisely with lasers; larger rotating cutting tools to carve things like furniture; automated knives to plot out graphics; molds for casting parts, electronics tools to produce, assemble and program circuits; and scanning tools to digitize objects so that they can be transmitted and replicated. Together, these tools add up to a complete fabrication facility—a fab lab.
Fab labs function like town libraries for technology, supporting a mix of for-profit and nonprofit activities. Like a library, they’re used for education and entertainment, but like a factory they’re also used to produce products and create community infrastructure. The number of fab labs has been doubling for more than a decade, and there are now more than 1,000 worldwide, in locations ranging from the northern tip of Norway to the southern tip of Africa, from rural Alaska to urban Japan. Their impact inspired the city of Barcelona to make a 40-year pledge to produce everything it consumes, kicking off a Fab City commitment that’s been joined by more than a dozen cities and now whole countries.
Just as with early computing, the rapid rate of progression of digital fabrication is already apparent. The equipment in a fab lab today adds up to about $100,000 and weighs two tons, a civic-scale investment. But soon, fab lab machines will be able to make more fab lab machines, dropping their cost down to thousands of dollars—a number that early adopters will be able to afford for personal use. And while fab labs currently rely on a global supply chain for the materials that they use, laboratory research is currently developing “digital” materials that can be assembled (and disassembled) from a small collection of microscopic building blocks, reducing all of the inputs of a fab lab to a simple set of feed-stocks of these parts. This will drop the cost and complexity of the capabilities in a fab lab down to the equivalent of today’s ubiquitous tablets and smartphones. And even further out, research is merging the machines and materials to make possible the science fiction staples of programmable matter and universal replicators. These advances are analogous to how the internet progressed from connecting computers to connecting everyday objects.
This research road map will again take decades to complete, but the historical lesson is that its implications will arrive much sooner, disrupting global supply chains and their associated regulatory structures. Consider a simple example: acquiring a toaster. Today, the would-be customer requires a paying job in order to earn the money to purchase a toaster from a store, which arrives in a truck, driven on a highway, after being picked up from a train on a rail line, which comes in on a ship in a port, after being produced in a factory on the far side of the world. Each one of those steps carries with it policies, regulations, taxes, employment and administration.
What happens, then, if the toaster is made in a fab lab instead? That’s not a hard project. One tool can make a form to cast the body, another can embed the heating elements, and a third can produce the electronics to control it. The toaster design could be developed from scratch, customized to reflect personal preferences, or downloaded from a design repository. The work could be done by the person wanting the toaster, reducing the cost down to that of the raw materials, or the work could be done for them, as a gift, or for payment, or barter. But in all those cases the economic and educational impact remains local. And the construction of the toaster in a fab lab bypasses the need for all of those other logistical steps, from the trains and the ships to the trucks and the assembly lines.
As this example illustrates, fundamental economic assumptions are challenged when fabrication becomes personal. In contrast to launching businesses that create jobs that pay workers who can then consume, those workers can instead be empowered to personally produce products. This act bridges education, industry and entertainment in ways that will have far-reaching political implications. In addition to the direct economic benefits, the ability to make things also taps into a deep-seated human desire. Missed in many of the proposals for a universal base income (to cushion job loss in the face of accelerating technologies) is that people need purpose and meaning in their daily lives. This can come with making what one consumes at a personal and community level. In regions challenged by political, economic and social strife—from the Middle East to South Africa to Northern Ireland—fab labs have been an oasis where people gather to create. Fab labs in Belfast and Derry are bringing together people from opposite sides of the “peace” walls to collaborate on meeting local needs. Incite Focus runs fab labs in Detroit that are providing improved life outcomes for at-risk youth. In these and other cases, the value isn’t just the objects produced but the collaboration fostered.
The toaster example also shows that many centralized functions that governments now perform will either no longer be needed or will need to be reinvented for digital fabrication, such as trade regulation. But there are many distributed functions that governments don’t currently perform that will become necessary, such as providing the equivalent of workplace protections for safety and access in less formal settings like fab labs. And, because there are no central points of control for this technology, this will need to be accomplished by providing incentives to opt into a regulatory framework, rather than by expecting rules to be followed when they can’t be enforced.
Government will have an essential role to play in enabling access. The first two digital revolutions created deep digital divides, and the third digital revolution has the potential to exacerbate them. In anticipation, there is an emerging movement to ensure universal access to digital fabrication, and the literacies to use it. This is a rare issue that crosses the red-blue, rural-urban, coastal-middle divides. Congressmen Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) have introduced a bill chartering a National Fab Lab Network (H.R. 4948) as a public-private partnership in the national interest, and it’s being introduced in the Senate by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Looking beyond existing national labs with remote billion-dollar facilities behind gates and guards, the bill aims to create a new kind of national network of connected local labs. The goal is universal access to digital fabrication, provided through a public-private partnership, with a mix of commercial, philanthropic and impact-focused investment.
It took decades for leaders in governments to even realize that the first two digital revolutions were happening, and they have been playing catch-up ever since—struggling to deal with the unintended consequences of life increasingly mediated through digital devices. Today, governments and communities have a unique opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive with a remarkable new technology, digital fabrication. They can help resolve the divisive debate between globalism and localism by sidestepping it, by letting bits travel while atoms stay put. Instead of diverging realities, digital fabrication allows us to literally design realities.
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