Everything wants to be free

Attention Conservation Notice: this is a long rant about stuff / virtual stuff and probably shows my limited understanding of economics and inability to extrapolate future-trends…

There’s a line in Accelerando where Manfred’s talking to his Euro-poli friend about eliminating scarcity in modern Capitalism. The Poli replies that you don’t want to make things abundant within the Economy – thereby making their price approaching free – but rather take them out of the Economy altogether. After all, he says “we don’t pay for air”.

The most obvious example of this to me is the Open-Source Software movement. The only cost for this is access. There’s certainly no $’s involved. And if it belongs with an economy, it’s an Economy of Reputation and Attention – wherein early adopters are rewarded with beta-version of new s/w – at the cost of debugging/testing/documenting/suggesting new features and therein contributing to the value of s/w itself.

This is of course facilitated, nay only possible via the ‘net. And is a far more efficient means of production. The only thing maintaining non-open s/w is Microsoft’s FUD campaign, and its (diminishing) Reputation as ‘superior’. This can only fail though, as Open s/w will only continue to out innovate – providing superior products. Compare usage of Firefox vs IE. Or the low adoption of Microsoft’s latest OS Windows Vista – vs the rise of Ubuntu.

One question of the 21C is: what else can we ‘free’ from the (20C notion of) the economy?

I feel the next thing to go will be ‘stuff’ – the physical objects we use in the world. Atleast, it will if the promise of solid freeform fabrication (which I will now variously refer to as fabricators, fabs and fabbing) holds true.

This will deliver a revolution far freater than that delivered by the humble PC/internet combination. If ‘business’ (ie 20C notions/forms of capitalism) think they have an IP problem now – wait until the means-of-production is in every home, hooked up to the PC/internet – downloading and instantiating any gizmo/gadget/tool/object a user desires.

The consequences of this are explored (as it eventually becomes apparent) in Cory Doctorow’s short-story After The Siege.

Fabbing technology is still quite primitive – probably equivalent to the Homebrew PC scene of the 1970’s. But I doubt it will take 30 years for them to reach maturity; I’d hazard a guess at more like ~10 years. Especially via leveraging the Wealth of Networks to evolve more rapidly.

And though Western governments will hate – and probably legislate against, or atleast attempt to control their use – there’s no doubt that leapfrogging nations will have no such inhibitions.

This was explored brilliantly in Bruce Sterling’s recent short story, Kiosk, of a Fab. in Eastern Europe.

The loss of competitive advantage to ‘lesser’ nations will see Western governments cave on any barriers they’d put to Fab adoption. And once the technology matures enough to produce modern ‘gizmo’s, there’s no doubt technological progress will once again sky-rocket – as designers world-wide are able to improve up each others work.

Just as desktop publishing has made knowledge of once esoteric fonts commonplace, so will the age of fabbing see teenagers playing with the toys of the old Industrial age, such as CAD/CAM systems, the same way they’ve taken to equally complex tools such as Dreamweaver and Photoshop.

As Information is now ‘free’, so to will ‘stuff’ soon be. The physical made subject to the economy of Reputation and Attention.

Fabs will make the Post Industrial revolution proper. Bespoke designs for everything – every product skinnable, customizable.

Of course the social impact of this technology will be even more profound than the IT revolution – as the blue-collar manufacturing industry will soon disappear. But this will be the result of a trade-off – as the average person will be able to create/instantiate anything they want – giving them a wealth and freedom previous generations have never known.

The interim, mature form of the fab – that which will see mass-adoption will probably resemble the computer printer. But, where we currently feed (so expensive) toner ink into our printers, into our fabs we will feed cartridges containing raw elements – instantiating gizmos will require amounts of silicon, gold – as well as plastic of course. How funny it will be to trip down to the store to stock up on such things.

Trips to the store will end though, once we’ve printed ourselves a nice solar-powered, fab feed-stock recycler – something that deconstructs old stuff into its elemental parts, ready to refill the fabbing engine.

And this not only saves $’s, but the environment as well. With complete recycling, zero wastage means less consumption. And quite possibly the mining of garbage dumps to deconstruct into their constituent parts, instead of felling rain forests, digging mines and killing whales. Or, atleast a great reduction in the need to do so.

The ideal state of the fab though is the Bush Robot – or equivalent form of molecular engineering – wherein the work is assembled one atom at a time. This conversely means that anything, any thing can disassembled.

The idea of having a nano-assembler in the home would be freaky to some people – but no more than telling someone in the 1950’s they’d have lasers in their house in the future. Or be cooking with microwaves.

Fully functional fabs will wreck havoc on not just the industrial world, but the fashion world too. Imagine how the lifecycle will hyper-accelerate when the street -> catwalk -> store cycle is reduced to minutes. Flash fashion trends become possible.

Cafepress and Threadless are just early indicators here. As user-submitted designs get selected and instantiated the ‘slow-way’.

Returning firmly to the present – the best current examples of Open-Source Hardware can be seen at Make. No doubt these guys will be leading the charge for the fab revolution.

Thusly, I end this rant. Hopefully, I’ll gather together an overview of the current state-of-the-art of fab tech. In the meantime, if you’re interested, browse through Bruce Sterling’s blog – where’s he’s been posting all sorts of fab-related goodness.

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