Personal Technology

Jorge's picture

For quite a while I have been thinking about what it will take for Liberty to advance. Sunni, in her talk at Freedom Summit reminded me that Freedom is a continuum, not an absolute. She also reminded me of something Gary Greenberg, who more than anyone brought me into the movement, told me over 25 years ago. "Most people did not arrive at their political views via reason, we can't expect reason to change their minds."

Despite Gary's words of wisdom, I have almost exclusively attempted to convince people via logic. This has actually worked a few times, but mostly it fails miserably. Twice I put a lot of effort into political action, first via the Libertarian Party in the US, more recently with the Movimiento Libertario here in Costa Rica. In the US it became clear to me, back in 83 or 84 that the LP was doomed to going nowhere. In Costa Rica, there was a different problem, documented here. In neither case did Liberty advance. The position on the continuum did not move in the correct direction.

I came to the unfortunate conclusion that most people do not want greater Freedom and that I did not have the skills to convince them otherwise. That the best I could do is live my own life as freely as possible and raise my children to be free. While I am sure I can do better, I am reasonably satisfied with my success in these areas.
However, it continued to bother me, and occasionally mildly depressed me, that I did not see the world becoming freer, that in fact the balance was shifting towards less freedom. It is good to live free, thereby providing a positive example to those around me, but this convinces very few people. More is needed. Especially since I do not accept the statement "those that need to be convinced to be free don't deserve freedom." Even if I did believe it, the problem is that those who do not want to be free do not want their neighbors to be free either. For me to be free, those around me must also be free.

Some time ago my friend Ricardo asked a very interesting question: "What technologies could shift the balance of power to the individual?".

Thinking about this question a few days ago I realized that it was the key to moving in the correct direction. What is needed is something that everyone has in their own hands which, simply by using it as intended, increases their personal freedom.

Personal Computers and the Internet are such technologies in the realm of information. Things that have been built on these have allowed unprecedented access to information by hundreds of millions of people. Something barely imagined even 15 years ago. What is needed is a technology that is as personal as the Personal Computer and gives people the same access to the material world that computers provide to the world of bits and bytes.

There is a technology on the horizon that has the potential to revolutionize the world. Not in any explicit ideological sense. People will not start quoting Rothbard. Rather they will simply be freer.

It is FabLabs. To quote from MIT's site: "FabLabs give users around the world the ability to locally conceptualize, design, develop, fabricate and test almost anything." The specs and software are available for free. Here are a couple of radio broadcasts from BBC's The World and NPR's Science Friday. The goal is to make molecular level production possible for an individual. Right now the tech is roughly at the mini-computer state and could be compared to the Dec PDP or the Data General Nova series of machines. The costs (about US$ 30K) are currently out of reach for most individuals, but not for universities, small companies, and other organizations. Just like computers, the costs will drop, and drop quickly.

Before I continue, I should note that this MIT project, like the Internet and many other useful inventions, has been largely funded by the US taxpayer. This does not make it any less valuable.

There are several interesting aspects of this technology, but one of the most provocative is how, and why it is evolving. In the Science Friday interview Neil Gershenfeld, the director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, mentioned that the next step is to make a FabLab which can make another FabLab. This is a logical progression and a very useful one, but the reason he gave in the interview is what really caught my attention. He wants the FabLabs to be self replicating because they have a lot of problems shipping the components through Customs. In other words, the evolutionary path of the technology is being driven by a need and desire to circumvent the state.

Given some of the reviews on Amazon for his book FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop his political thinking seems to be fuzzy left, so I doubt that his desire to undermine Customs offices throughout the world comes from deep seated ideological roots. And that is the beauty of it. Following the logic of the technology, it naturally leads one to bypassing state interference.
Gershenfeld sees this being used for innovation, not to produce commodity off-the-shelf products. While I agree that the innovation explosion that this will unleash will be phenomenal, the commodity production aspects will also have a profound impact.

Imagine that you live in a jurisdiction where firearms are restricted. Make your own from a design you download from the Internet. I am sure that one of the items which will be made is a device that recycles previously manufactured things. Pots, pans, kitchen utensils, garden tools, automobile parts, full autos and light trucks, furniture, microwave ovens, etc, etc. All can be made at home, and recycled when you are done with them. All can be had without paying VAT or sales tax. Don't want to make a firearm because of the law, why not design a high power, high caliber multi shot air gun?

The uses people will find for this are limited only by imagination. Just by using it they will be taking more control over their own lives, they will be undermining the state. When the technology finally does get the stage where molecular production is possible, people will be able to make their own drugs and their own vitamin supplements. State regulation of anything that can be manufactured by a FabLab will be meaningless.

This will not cause the state to disappear. But it will lessen its power. People will have greater personal freedom, which as Sunni points out, is what all freedom really is. We live in exciting times. Even if those with political power will keep grasping for more, this innovation, and possibly other personal technology, will give people freedom without them even realizing it.

This may lead to a society where the modern equivalent of Jefferson's yeoman farmers dominate the landscape. Lots of mostly self sufficient individuals and communities, who are very suspicious of government intervention. Not out of ideology, but because they do not see the use for government, or for the “service” government is promising to provide.

I am optimistic about the future.

Kirsten says:

Jorge, very interesting comments. Thank you. I've been thinking along the same lines lately.

You might want to check out the next PoddyTalk interview that will be up at the end of the month. I heard about FabLab from my friend Andrew (the interviewee) who sent me the NPR link. He's done a lot of work putting together his own workshop, and in one of the segments we discuss this sort of self-industrialization, what he's done, and why other people might want to do it.

Jorge says:

Thanks Kirsten, I'll be sure to listen when the interview is posted.

jomama says:

Interesting.

I find almost everyone wants more freedom...for themselves.

As you said, the ultimate FabLab along with something akin to the MEG motor (Bearden) should do it, making almost everyone automatically free, depending on no one else.