Saturday, December 19, 2009

Digital Fabbers, Resilient Communities and The Flow Of Stuff

Here's the next installment of my study of digital fabbers and their role in building communities that are resilient in the face of resource constraints and economic contraction. My interest in this subject is not merely academic. Rather, I am confronting this study as a man who realizes that the world has become a very messed-up place, and that the country I live in has become a particularly messed-up nation. I consider these issues in much the same way that a man's interest in aerodynamic principles might be sharpened by being in a seat on a turboprop flying through an ice storm.

When people are in trouble, it is only natural for their attention to be focused on evaluating potential solutions to their trouble. The world in general, and the United States in particular, face a number of very severe predicaments caused by the end of a cheap resource base for our industrial economy, the destruction of the environment due to that economy, and the resulting contraction and disintegration of that economy. Yet our leaders (and many of the common citizens) are proceeding cluelessly into the future, lost in wish-fulfillment fantasies. I see what's coming, and I want to make my passage through the coming trouble as easy as possible.

So I'm looking at John Robb's concept of “resilient communities” and the prominent role played by continually advancing technology (especially the digital fabber) in these communities, and I've been wondering, “can these concepts save me and my community from some serious trouble?”

In previous posts on this blog, we considered small, home-made digital fabbers (microprocessor-controlled automatic fabricators of machined parts) as a means of jump-starting small-scale manufacturing in the United States, a country which over the last several decades has outsourced the majority of its manufacturing to low-wage countries, and which is now heavily dependent on imports. The most laid-back promoters of digital fabbers point out their potential to empower local communities to make for themselves the goods on which they rely, without having to depend on regional or international trade networks. This is a benefit, as declining energy supplies and economic contraction will likely cripple large-scale or global trade networks.

The more enthusiastic promoters of digital fabbers tout them as a key step along the path to “superempowerment” of individuals and small groups. Digital fabbers enable small groups or individuals to make most or all of the things that are now provided by large corporations or governments. This democratization of manufacture is very similar to the democratization of the creation of artistic media (movies, songs, recordings, published writings) which occurred because of advances in microelectronics and digital communication.

According to some of the sources Robb quotes, the technologies with potential to drive the advance of resilient communities do not have fundamental constraints such as energy use that limit progress. This is because they achieve the expansion of their capabilities by miniaturizing functions, thus enabling more to be done in a smaller space with fewer resources. (Microelectronics are a prime example of this, with the size of discrete transistors, diodes, etc., shrinking all the time, so that the number of components that can fit on a chip increases exponentially as time passes – “Moore's Law” in action.)

Robb has speculated that this miniaturization might also be applicable to non-electronic systems – in particular, social systems organized on the community level might evolve to foster an exponential increase in wealth creation for the members of such communities. Such social system improvement would be enabled by, and dependent on, the continued availability of cheap, highly capable microelectronics and digital communication. (For instance, see “RESILIENT COMMUNITY: Fabrication Networks.”) These communities would be able to “enjoy the benefits of globalization without being vulnerable to its excesses.”

Can technology-driven “resilient communities” such as those envisioned by Robb deliver on such promises? I don't have a definitive answer. But I do have a few cautionary observations. First, I question the digital fabbers that would form the backbone of relocalized manufacture. We have already seen that they cannot yet make their own microelectronics. We have also seen that the making of silicon-based microelectronics is very energy intensive. Organic electronics don't require nearly as much energy to make, but they also don't perform nearly as well as silicon-based devices, and they require the use of exotic materials like nanotubes in order to boost their performance to levels approaching that of devices made of ultrapure silicon. The exotic additives to organic electronics also have high energy costs and require manufacturing facilities almost as elaborate as those used to make silicon devices. This means that even communities that had local small-scale fabricators would still depend on large-scale, centralized manufacturing facilities for some of the goods used by them.

But let's say that we were able to make digital fabbers that could make nearly anything, and could fit in the average suburban garage (right next to the washing machine and just behind that exercise machine you no longer use). We are immediately faced with a second question: where do we get the feedstocks used by the fabbers to make their goods? For instance, let's say I want to fabricate steel tubing for use in bicycle frames. I need a source of steel for the fabber to work on. Who will provide the steel? Or the plastic for fabbed plastic parts? Or the other feedstocks? What if some of these feedstocks require large amounts of concentrated energy for their production? If I want to make things out of aluminum castings, for instance, I must realize that producing raw aluminum as a feedstock requires large amounts of energy in mining bauxite ore, and in separating the aluminum in that ore from the other components. Then someone must deliver the finished aluminum to me. In a future of declining energy, how much raw material and what kinds of raw material will be available even for local manufacturers (let alone the big guys) to turn into finished products?

Next, how do local communities who possess their own means of production prevent the draining of wealth from themselves? It's fine to talk about relocalization as a means of keeping wealth within local communities. But we must realize that this is a reasonable goal only if the primary factor in the flow of wealth is the choice of the members of the community in spending that wealth. Now, however, we are seeing that the flow of wealth within communities and between communities and the larger world is no longer within the control of the members of those communities. Relocalization was a defensive response by communities to the sucking of wealth out of those communities by the super rich who were far removed from these communities. But the goals of relocalization have been overruled by the super-rich, who have enlisted the government as a tool to continue siphoning wealth from communities in order to concentrate that wealth within their own hands.

There are two obvious examples of this: the continued bailouts of the financial sector by the U.S. government, approved by politicians from both parties over the objections of their constituents; and the proposed “health care reform” legislation in Washington which would force all Americans to buy private health insurance. As the fortunes of the rich are threatened by the contraction of the global economy, they will increasingly use the government as a tool to extract wealth from the rest of us. This will mean the passage of laws designed to force ordinary members of ordinary communities to continue paying arbitrary “rents” of one form or another to the rich. As long as this happens, no community can achieve “resilience,” if resilience is defined by enjoyment and possession of material wealth in a technology-driven community.

I guess my main issue with John Robb's vision is that sooner or later, technology runs up against limits. Our limits are arriving fairly quickly. Soon we will not have access to large quantities of highly refined, specialized feedstocks for high-tech goods. A declining energy supply, combined with the exhaustion of available ores and other materials, will lead to scarcity of these things. I think that communities that are resilient (in the way I am now thinking of resilience) will be made of people who know how to reuse, how to hack things that already exist, and who are wise enough not to need or want shiny new stuff all the time. Such communities will be able to exist in the absence of globalism, which is a good thing, since I don't think anyone will be enjoying the benefits of globalism for much longer.

What might a different flavor of community resilience look like? In a future blog post, I might just give you a small picture of that. Meanwhile, though I don't think Mr. Robb even knows I exist, I hope he reads my little series of ruminations on his ideas. It would be interesting to hear his answers to some of my questions.

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