I love thinking about the future, and most of my ideas about the future come from watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.
On Star Trek, there’s this technology called “the Replicator” that can materialize food, water, and pretty much everything else people need out of thin air. It’s the Replicator that lets everyone on Star Trek devote their lives to exploration and self-improvement, because they’re not worried about where their next meal is going to come from or where they’re going to live.
Captain Picard explains this in season one, when the Enterprise defrosts a cryogenically frozen Gordo Gecko type figure from our century named Ralph Offenhouse:
Offenhouse: There’s no trace of my money - my office is gone - what will I do? How will I live?
Picard: [Amused] This is the 24th century. Those material needs no longer exist.
Offenhouse: Then what’s the challenge?
Picard: To improve yourself… enrich yourself. Enjoy it, Mister Offenhouse.
Star Trek taught me that how we get things like food and tools is at the heart of the way we live and what we can do with our lives. Daniel Quinn writes:
Nothing is more fundamental than food. There’s only one way you can force people to accept an intolerable lifestyle. You have to lock up the food. Though it surely isn’t recognized at the time, locking up the food is the beginning of the hierarchical life we call civilization.
As soon as the storehouse appears, someone must step forward to guard it, and this custodian needs assistants, who depend on him entirely, since they no longer earn their living as farmers. A manager class soon emerged to look after the accumulation and storage of surpluses - something that had never been necessary when everyone was just working a few hours a day. They soon came to be regarded as social and political leaders. In a single stroke, a figure of power appears on the scene to control the community’s wealth, surrounded by a cadre of loyal vassals, ready to evolve into a ruling class of royals and nobles.
What these founders of our culture fundamentally invented for us was the notion of work. They developed a hard way to live - the hardest way to live ever found on this planet. Their revolution wasn’t about food, it was about power. That’s still what it’s all about.
I’ve always been incredibly excited about technology that subverts that system of power by putting the means of production into the hands of regular people, whether that’s something like The Plant here in Chicago or affordable CNC machines that are kind of like the Replicator. In the latter category, nothing is more prominent than the MakerBot, which is the first and best 3D printer affordable by civilians like you and me.
I’ve been fascinated by the MakerBot since it was first released in 2009 and I started seeing at conferences and hacker spaces. Even though the MakerBot kept getting better and better, I resisted getting one because a). I knew that some assembly was required and I am both clumsy and don’t know a lot of basic information (e.g. sometimes I still have to call my dad to ask things like “how do I frame a picture?”), b). I didn’t think that even if I assembled a MakerBot I’d be able to learn to use it (I’ve never touched any 3D modeling software), and, c). I didn’t know anyone who had a MakerBot who could help me.
All of that changed at XOXO Fest, where I got a chance to meet Bre Pettis, the guy who started NYCResistor and created the MakerBot there. Bre gave a talk about how MakerBot has grown and scaled (“We’re going to hit every single wall until we find a door”) and at the end, he mentioned that his biggest customer was NASA, which got a huge round of applause from the audience, and got me thinking about the Replicator from Star Trek.
I went on the MakerBot website, saw that the current model was called “The Replicator,” and ordered one from the airport on my way home.
That MakerBot came yesterday, and as of this moment it’s my favorite robot. Pretty much all of my fears were handled by the friendly documentation and vibrant online community that comes with a MakerBot.
- The instructions (beginning with a section on how to unpack the MakerBot) were shockingly idiot-proof, and the picture-aided assembly was easy even for me
- I asked for advice on Twitter and got help with every problem I encountered, including some 3D modeling advice a Pixar animator (who is unsurprisingly a MakerBot fan) and a lot of help from all-around awesome guy John Biehler, who has been very generous with his time answering my dumb questions
- Learning to make some basic objects with the MakerBot was frustrating, but not nearly as hard as I feared. After a lot of trial and error (including some prints where the extruder just hung pathetically in the air and dribbled plastic onto the platform) I was able to figure out a workflow going from a piece of browser-based CAD software called 3DTin to netFabb Basic for .STL repair to ReplicatorG for conversion to gcode and CNC control (don’t worry if that sounds insane and neckbeardy to you - I had no idea what any of these words meant until this afternoon, and I taught myself in a few hours by reading the excellent resources on Thingiverse)
Once I had figured out how to control the MakerBot and printed a test project, I decided to rapid-prototype some pieces for a board game I’m designing, and I was able to go from a drawing to a 3D model to 3D printing to board game pieces in about forty five minutes (see above).
There are many problems with this generation of 3D printers, including the low resolution, the high cost, the petroleum-based raw materials, and the fact that it can’t make me tea, Earl Grey, hot. But to its credit, the MakerBot exists here in the 21st century, not the 24th, and even with all of its 21st-century constraints we can use it to improve and enrich ourselves, just like Captain Picard said.
I know that’s still not Star Trek, but it’s closer than we get most days. I’ll enjoy it.
Whenever I read about stuff like this, I always think wistfully of Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots, which detailed some of her ideas regarding reconstruction in Europe after WWII. (It was written in 1943, the year Weil died). She made the case that industrial production in a factory setting must always be dehumanizing, and that the solution was to create small-scale modular/adaptable machinery and to decentralize production — she wanted the mechanical manufacturing equivalent of a loom or a blacksmith’s forge. 3D printing isn’t really anything like that (socio-economically speaking), but I can’t help thinking that there’s at least a potential connection.