Monday, July 9, 2007

A dismissed nightmare?

One of my complaints about futurism is that it is mostly done by wealthy older people (often males, but not necessarily) coming from developed societies with very different problems than most of the rest of humankind. I mean, yes, they come from where the wealth and the high technology come from, but they also belong to a tiny but noisy minority. I am among that minority too, even if to a lesser degree. Yes, they are very smart, but that does not means that they have more empathy than your average Joe. Their problems are not the same problems that face people who has not their basic needs covered. They cannot be sure if they are going to starve or not, neither if they are going to die from a nasty disease. To be sincere, those aren't my problems too, even if sometimes I cannot eat properly for a couple of days due to lack of money, but I have a network of friends and a family that supports me.

In any case, the different perspectives of the world that arise from different situations lead to different priorities. And most of the people thinking about the future of the world are from a minority with different priorities. I feel (This is in no way an objective observation) that they tend to be over-optimistic when addressing some of the problems that people in underdeveloped countries face. What is solved for them becomes automatically "easy" for the rest of the six billion of our fellow Homo sapiens sapiens. I was sparked by this to write papers and discuss about the future, as I think that for building a coherent picture of the future we must acknowledge the diversity of human beings that are building it. I think that being born and raised here gives me a slightly different perspective and could be useful to study the unintended consequences of technological developments.

Of course, not everybody is the same and a lot of people from the developed world has done a lot for us in the South, along us, getting their hands dirty. People like Norman Borlaug, who once said: "some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things". Unfortunately, people like him are scarce everywhere.

So far I have tried to add what I see as a perspective form the South to my research, trying to make our problems widely known and thinking local what-ifs for new technologies. I do not know if I have been successful, but I have tried. I plan to use my forecoming trip to do exactly that, to shout to the world "Hey, we've got this problems!". On that subject I wrote a paper last year about the possible negative effects of perfect recycling. Yes, you read well. The problem would be not the perfect recycling and nanotechnology, but the exclusive use of that technology by the developed world, that from that point would not need any more raw materials for its industry because it would be able to fetch them from its huge junkyards, leaving us without our main income source.

Countries with a moderately developed industrial infrastructure could cope with that making huge efforts, but the ones who totally lack that infrastructure certainly would return straight to a pre-industrial society. No more fertilizers. No more drugs for curing diseases. No more fancy electronics. Those things would be impossible to manufacture anymore, and without anything useful to exchange we would be at the mercy of the developed world. Not a pleasant situation to live as you know. And without those things we would have to rape and destroy the environment with primitive agricultural techniques in order to live and many of us will die. No matter what the organic movement says, organic are not environment friendly when you have to feed several billion people from wasted land. I thought a lot about this and I arrived to the conclusion that a group of policies should be implemented in order to ensure that a minimum of technology is shared with us to prevent us from ravage whatever woods and resources still are existing by that time. However, I was not sure if the scenario I depicted was plausible, maybe this perfect recycling will always be SF, or nanoassemblers will never become true. Or suddenly the world is going to turn a better place and technology is going to be shared (yeah, right).

Preparing to attend the Scifoo I stumbled on a project by one of the attendees:
They say is about “wealth without money”, a macro universal assembler (OK, another name for a huge 3D printer, but still rocks!) that will be able to autoreplicate and construct a great diversity of things, with models you can create or download from the Internet. The models will tell the assembler how to create from bicycle helmets to chairs. Of course, some designs will be proprietary if the idea takes off, but eventually those proprietary designs will be back-engineered and copied. What will happen to global economy? I wish I knew, but fear mongers are talking about the destruction of it I do not think so, FOSS clearly show that people is still able to create good, professional and reliable products when no money is involved. For the sake of the creative process. Sure, a lot of people will say that they are not playing this game, and they have the right to refuse, but if with the RepRap we improve the living standards for billions, we would raise the numbers of potential creators, since well-fed healthy and happy people with the right tools is more prone to think on other things that survival (I am speaking from personal experience, my grades rose around 30% once I got my first second hand PC, when I was 20).

What I love about the RepRap is that is totally OS, you can improve it, you can create you own machine (well, you will once it is finished), your own designs, suited for your needs and problems. Maybe this will be a major milestone for an agalmic society and an example of the wild changes that are waiting for us in the case nanoassemblers become possible. But what I like the most about RepRap is that it takes off the clouds above my head. Maybe the nanoassemblers of the future will be OS and released by wealthy humane people that understands that helping to develop intellectual abilities is the best venture capitalism feat that they could ever do. You are skeptic about that? OK. Let’s calculate what’s the value in dollars of the Indian market and how much it saves to American companies thanks to outsourcing. now, tell me, how much of it would have been that way if Green revolution would have not existed?.

Sure, Green Revolution is not a Panacea. Even Borlaug acknowledges that. It is a patch that will work while the population is not too high and it also has undesirable side effects, but it’s better than the alternative. We need alternatives, we need to create new methods to stay alive, to live comfortably, to avoid catastrophe, and we would be far more successful if we had a few million people more working on urgent issues, rather than starving to death. Thanks to RepRap and its OS replication the environmental nightmare I foresaw might never come true.

But I still wonder...

PS: Now that I know that I have at least two Indian readers, I would like to ask them some questions, if they don’t mind.
1) Do you think that most of the policy making and planning on a global level and the scenarios about the future are biased and based on a US-EU point of view? Would it be a good thing if those studies included people from more diverse grounds?
2) What do you think about the RepRap? Do you think it would make a huge change or not?
Thank you very much for your comments!

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1 comment:

Al said...

I think this will change the industry in many ways, from the mass producing products to the maintenance of machines. It will be a dream for us engineers to have a self diagnostic and repair machine, but also a nightmare to the people that works now in that, the workers I mean.

About recycle, The developed world think a lot of it, because they grow and live in "Use an throw it" culture, things that were made, 10 years ago to last for 10 to 20 years are now built to last for 5 years at most. How ever, in the third world country there are still people that use second hand products, 20 year old some times (as cars, trucks, or even a laundry machine)

If it is more reliable for the first world to recycle 100%, what will happend to the people of the third that use these second hand machines. There are to possible scenarios, and one is about this kind of machine you talk of, a machine that gives these people the chance of get their own new products, the othe scenario is that the elite society, that has money to access the first world products and technology, this minority, on which I also have the luck to be part, will be the one that still gives to their country citizens, the second hand products.

The other is that the lack of new prodcuts and the lack of resources, make us the third world people, as cuba in present day.