Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, oversees a wildly ambitious 50 year research project in digital fabrication whose ultimate goal is to create the equivalent of Star Trek’s replicator. A few years ago, he had a surprising revelation: they’d figured out the technological roadmap to build replicators, and although it would take several decades to work their way down that road, the technical issues weren’t the biggest hurdle.
We’re finding we have to build a completely new kind of social order, and that social entrepreneurship—figuring out how you live, learn, work, play—is hard.
As result, in 2017 he and his brothers Alan and Joel decided to write a book to kickstart a public debate about the impact of digital fabrication on society. They wanted to make sure we didn’t make the same mistake we’d made with the Internet and personal computing.
As early as 1965, the signs of the coming digital revolutions [the Internet and personal computers/smartphones] were there for anyone to see. And yet most of the world missed them. As a result, few were prepared for the deep economic, social, and cultural impacts of the first two digital revolutions….
The negative aspects of the first two digital revolutions are not simply accidents. Nor were they driven by some unseen hand. Decisions made (and not made) and priorities set (and not set) early on, as the technologies were being developed and introduced to the market, have had lasting effects.
And if more than a handful of people are going to be involved in making those decisions about the digital fab revolution, we need to start a public debate now.
The best time to shape the destiny of transformative, accelerating technologies is early, before changes have become both widespread and entrenched. This is when the embedded assumptions in the technology and the initial market instantiations are in the early stages of formation and still negotiable.
Digital fabrication isn’t the only field that’s going to create unprecedented change. In the next 20 years, robots and AI, augmented reality, and other emerging tech will begin to fundamentally transform our society and economy.
Imagine a future in which robots and AI, augmented and virtual reality, digital fabrication, wearables, and other emerging technologies have become ubiquitous. Because we’ve implemented the Makers All strategies, many people in every community are now working in emerging tech, developing designs for digitally fabricating sneakers or creating robot “recipes” for painting a home’s interior. In this new economy, the answers to questions about how emerging tech markets should be structured could have a deep and profound impact on which communities and individuals prosper.
Today, only a handful of people have a say in answering questions like these. Equally importantly, few people understand the issues well enough to meaningfully have a say. This is particularly a problem given that many of these decisions won’t get made in public by politicians; they’ll be made behind the scenes by people in the tech world as they create standards, informal norms, etc.
If we want more than a handful of people to shape the rules of the emerging tech road, we must ensure that as many people as possible in every community learn not only the technical skills but also the civic skills needed to truly participate. In Part 3, we will draw lessons from Citizenship Schools’ experience teaching civic engagement, explore the implications of these lessons for emerging tech civic training, and provide a brief overview of some of the economic questions emerging tech will raise in the coming years.
One final note. While civic training must be rooted in specific values such as freedom, equality, and justice, it must also be designed so it can assist people from a wide variety of political ideologies and perspectives learn how to shape the direction of emerging tech, our communities, and our society. The goal of this training is not to push a specific political viewpoint, it’s to help revitalize our democracy in an era of rapid technological and economic change.