Soon You’ll Be Able to Make Anything. It’ll Change Politics Forever.
How digital fabrication is revolutionizing everything.
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.
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.