On August 29, 1997…

Warning: Self-Replicating Device

 It’s often said that the milling machine was the first tool that could be used to make copies of itself. I think that distinction goes to the hammer, but the point is not lost: a device of great complexity that can be used to make and modify itself is approaching a life-like complexity that makes the tool exponentially greater as a phenomenon.

Well, since 2005 or so, the RepRap project has been going on, making a machine that could make itself that makes open-source hardware possible. The creators claim that the device, when fully functional, will cost $400 to build. Or, of course, you could have your friend fab you up a copy. Presumably, it’s your duty to fab one for someone else at that point.

What’s interesting to me about this (and the creators) is that this does for hardware what’s happened with software since its inception: replication means that you can make complex things for cheap. So cheap that they asymptotically approach free. The RepRap can’t make a sandwich, as Jeff pointed out, and that’s actually kind of important: what a lot of the world needs is food, not tools and toys. But when food is to be had, the other things in life — transportation, communication, construction, and of course play — become very important. We’ve satisfied that craving over the last few centuries by buying stuff. Now we may be able to make it. And that may mean the re-emergence of a material folk culture. One not defined by Swooshes and Apples, but by a billion proud signatures and trade marks.

(Thanks to Tomorrow’s Trends for the “Caution: Self-Replicating Devices” sign at the post head.)

0 thoughts on “On August 29, 1997…”

  1. …I guess I should explain that more.

    Ubuntu Linux is far and away the greatest example of DIY culture I think the tech world has yet created. I’m sick in bed today so I decided to fiddle around with the latest 7.04 release on an old Thinkpad, and wow — they’ve come a long way in a short time.

    And what’s really nifty about it is the communty around the software — google just about any thing you’d like to do with Ubuntu, or any problem you’re having, and there are other people willing to help. Not that I’ve seen any problems at all in this release — from installation to desktop setup, everything so far has Just Worked(tm).

    I remember a while back I was evangelizing Ubuntu to you and your question (and it’s a good one) was “as a graphic designer, why should I want to use linux?” and I didn’t have an answer. I do now: because it’s inspiring. And, also, it’s really fun.

  2. Yeah, I might do that, if there turn out to be applications that do what I want. I wanna put together a set top box, for instance (and have for a long time) and that might be the way to go.

    But as a graphic designer, I have to ask this question: when I downloaded Scribus, “used” it for a little while, then wrote feedback saying, “In MacOS, you don’t make invisible files to hold your preferences in the app folder; You put them in /Library/Preferences” and the support folks said, “Then that’s MacOS’s problem” the Open Source movement showed all of its warts at once.

    Wait… that wasn’t a question. It was a statement.

    Anyway, I don’t think I could stand that type of attitude for long, and certainly not with such core things as my OS. I really want there to be OSS apps to do all the stuff I want to do. I really do! I think it’s an awesome and bafflingly futuriffic way of creating and distributing software (and stuff, if the RepRap people get their thing flying). It foretells an entirely new way of thinking about resources. But when you have to pay for it through hazing, I think it’s doomed.

    So if Ubuntu solves that issue with its local cultre, awesome. The RepRap guys seem to have a similarly “We’ll help you!” attitude. So maybe that will wind up being the culture that survives this primordial soup phase. Maybe the “Install Linux because I hate my mom” culture will fade away.

  3. $40 set top box:

    XBMC + original Xbox from ebay ($40) = AWESOME

    …more open source goodness, too. I just installed a Python script on mine that lets me watch YouTube vids on my TV. Pretty cool stuff, and if you’re ever interested, I’d gladly help you set one up. I have all the necessary goodies.

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