Life is taking an interesting and unexpected turn of late. It all started with reading the “Optimists Tour of the Future” and meeting the author, Mark, leading me to visions of the engineered utopian or dystopian future we are accelerating exponentially towards. Then I visited a Fab Lab, under construction, and have seen first-hand how near that future is becoming. And how dangerously easy it would be for me to jump on that bandwagon and race off into the reddening sunset.
A Fab Lab is basically a workshop for geeks and entrepreneurs alike to get to grips with automated, small scale manufacture of gadgets and gizmos, using a variety of burgeoning technologies such as desktop laser-cutters and 3D printers. The important part is that use of the facility is free, within limits. There are hundreds of the blighters appearing all over the world, including potentially one being put in place by a couple of friends here in Berkhamsted. The one I checked out was in the Enginuity museum-like-place in Ironbridge, which we visited on Tall’s birthday last week while on a break with the in-laws. The man behind it, Phil, was very enthusiastic and willing to tell me all about it after I asked for a back-stage pass to nose around.
Boom. Whizz. Bang. Brain goes off with inspiration and ideas blasting out of every neuron, as I saw Pixar-quality free 3D design software, printed scanned busts of the staff, laser etched key fobs of photos. I heard stories of 3D printed houses in China , business cards with videos activated when you look at the card, and everything created by ordinary people on a shoe-string, not requiring the deep pockets of government or corporations. Collaboration by the likes of you and me.
On the drive home the following day, fuelled by caffeine, the possibilities thrummed through my mind. I allowed myself to get drawn further into the intoxicating science fiction come real. With the M54 rolling past, I designed two new 3D printers, with high resolution and colour (my designs are unworkable, I’m sure – and already done for a mere £200K). How about an online playing field for ordinary people to evolve computer brains with artificial intelligence, building on each other’s ideas and programs? Why stop there: with the Fab Labs ordinary people can design, share and build any sort of technology, linking together different components to create larger objects.
Mind racing. Combined with plentiful supplies of local, community owned renewable electricity and fuel generation, there would be no reliance on central facilities for power. (That might help sort climate change. Oh, yeah, climate change).
There would need to be some cataloguing mechanism so the latest breakthroughs are easy to find, not hidden by competitors or left on the workbench due to poor advertising. I parked that, brain not letting me rest on any one thought before moving me on to the next.
Which was about money. With the idea of sharing technologies and breakthroughs widely, then how would the army of inventors support themselves back in the real world? How about some reputation system, so useful contributions are recognised? Food.
We’d need to eat. When’s lunch?
It was only when I let myself slow down that I started to think through the consequences. Where would the materials come from? Maybe centralised manufacture, while putting the power in the hands of a few, does use resources more efficiently. Unless the resources required are readily available almost everywhere, such as carbon, air and water. It feels as though this new world will make it more difficult for people or groups to monopolise power and influence, and level the global playing field regarding living standards. But what about the environment? Who would look after that? There isn’t much nature left in science fiction, other than in distant space.
So, both the potential and the excitement and enthusiasm I felt mean that this could be the start of a story about the future that might galvanise society into a move towards renewable energy. The question is: How to tell it and move towards it responsibly?
PS – this short movie shows what is possible with the free 3D software and with a collaborative, open project. If you have 15 mins to watch it, it also has a moral message about the dangers of pursuing a goal without thought as to the consequences.