Guy Rundle’s new book is a rollicking tour of community-driven makerspaces, obscure university labs and robotic testing facilities with glimpses into the world of boffins beavering away on 3D printing. It is also a wide-ranging exploration of some very large economic, philosophical and ethical issues.
At the root is a contrast between two different but interlinked areas of technological innovation – the grassroots driven technology of 3D printing and the military-industrial driven technology of robotics.
In placing these two technologies in the same frame, Rundle poses a deep question – are we makers by nature who can utilise 3D printing to meet material needs at a close to zero-cost level, or are we consumers seeking to have as many routine tasks as possible taken over by machines?
There’s a detour into some of the new nanoscale materials too, including graphene, and the possibilities on offer for game-changers like 24-hour reliable solar energy storage in a form that can literally be printed out, put in an envelope and posted.
The reader is invited to imagine a world where new materials in combination with 3D printing can be used to lift the developing world out of energy poverty, and forever break the stranglehold fossil fuels and the nuclear industry have over the political energy imagination.
Weaving in threads from science, history, political science, ecology, science fiction, human rights and economics in turn, Rundle explores and explains the fundamentally disruptive nature of open-source 3D printing technology, which could use recycled metal and plastics to self-replicate and print its own power source in the form of solar panels (all of which can be packed in a suitcase).
This is contrasted with the “black box” technologies inherently locked up and impenetrable to users.
The maker movement – and makerplaces – empowered with 3D printing technology and infused with the “hacker ethos” of liberating information and applying it to more broadly to fundamental questions of energy, water purification and the manufacture of material goods on demand, is a “determination to crack open the black boxes, one after another, and see how our world is made, and in turn, how we are made”, Rundle argues.
What adds a wonderful levity to the subject is Rundle’s gift for descriptions and ability to craft an entertaining anecdote. The topics might be enormous, contentious and very much related to the possible future of humanity, but the writing style has more in common with a terrific dinner party conversation than words delivered from on high in a lecture theatre.
The people, places and machines themselves are all colourfully described, while Rundle’s own commentary admits to occasional moments of complete bafflement, bedazzlement and every now and then a vast degree of disquiet.
However, it’s not just the military or medical sectors Rundle finds are busy in the robotics space. In the heart of a community-run hacktivist makerspace called Artisans Asylum in Boston, Rundle meets Stompy.
“Stompy’s a work-in-progress, a vast old-school robot of the golden age of sci-fi: a six-metre-wide, four-metre-tall, six-legged robot, like an enormous spider with a huge marsupial pouch. It’s the Asylum’s totem, being built collectively, a golem with more than just an air of Burning Man about it. Stompy, when complete, will mingle sublime power and tenderness. It’s a way of signifying what Asylum and the maker movement stand for: a confrontation with America’s recent technocratic past – the Cold War era in which the idea of technical know-how was alienated to vast military-academic-industrial enterprises, focused on perfecting the means of human extinction. Stompy evokes the robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still, who is sent to tell humanity that if they don’t cut out the lethal shit, they will be exterminated for the greater good. The Robot has a hippie air to her/him, a fusion of two traditions by which Americans relate to innovation: as mass enterprise and domination on the one hand, and as liberation from abstract power on the other.”
The book is studded with fabulous sidetracks and nuggets of rumination and reflection, such as Rundle’s assertion that the idea that freedom and identity can be found online has been “to a degree, one of the greatest examples of mass delusion – of wilful mass delusion – in history”.
“As the conditions that had been won during the postwar decades of full employment were relentlessly eroded, the world of material work disappeared for some and changed for many; freedom somehow became the ability to go online and connect or buy stuff across vast distances. That this was a genuine freedom is not in doubt – but it was also a giant con, with people willing to funnel ever greater amounts of their income into the maintenance of up-to-the-moment connection. Perhaps the greatest example of this as mystique rather than reason has been the history of the iPhone – the object whose basic features remain unchanged across half-a-dozen models, but whose each new release prompts a media frenzy and a willingness of millions to part with a week’s wages – or a month’s discretionary wages – for a handheld black box pretty much identical to the last model.
“For the majority of people, the ‘black box’ model of life is fine – indeed the whole idea of endless ‘apps’ serves in part to give the impression that one is somehow making and managing one’s own life. But for a small but increasing number, there’s a desire to negotiate a different relationship with the world. That has led some to claim that the maker movement is the beginning of a new way of life for millions, and that the combination of 3D printing and other new technologies will break down the relationship between producer and consumer in a matter of years, if not months.”
Throughout he makes the point that the existing system of production has continually turned away from genuine technological innovation in favour of exploiting whatever pool of cheap labour can be made available.
At the same time, in the developed world the idea of making things with our own hands was transitioned from being a core facet of human existence to either a disempowered form of employment involving mundane work in factories producing ever greater quantities of things, or a nice hobby for those who could afford it. What was called common garden-variety home maintenance in the 1950s evolved into the “DIY trend”.
And as Rundle continually reminds readers, under current global economic systems of production and allocation of goods, billions of people worldwide do not currently have the means to make or buy much of anything. The new technologies, while they remain open-source and driven by the community-minded hacktivists and socially-conscious innovators he meets on his travels, seem to hold potential for resolving this, unless, as he cautions, the technologies follow the pattern of other innovations and become gated, owned and enclosed in the “black box”.
In the conclusion, he outlines various potential futures that could arise from the combination of technology, materials and renewable energy innovations. This includes the possibility of a world where humans can meet their needs in a self-directed, communal and localised way, living in balance with the ecology and themselves.
This is, he argues, a highly disruptive prospect for the status quo.