A cup of tea and a crowbar materialize in space…

Picture me rounding the corner this morning, heading in the opposite direction of coffee, just to take another look at the arcade that is presently setting up shop across the street from my office. An arcade! In 2014! Not surprisingly, it’s next to a vintage clothing store, a punk-rock hair salon, a craft beer bottle shop, and the office’s favorite “artisanal” burger joint. Where you can order a burger medium-rare because the beef is local and the patties are hand-formed. So you get the vibe. But this arcade, it’s the talk of the office. And yes, yes, it should serve drinks and it should be called Barcade. Missed opportunity. But the big question is, what games will they have? Much speculation and window-peering has already gone on. And everyone’s guesses are more indicative of age than anything else. So, a big swell of enthusiasm for Street Fighter II, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Mortal Combat — pretty much all the multiplayer games of the mid-to-late 90s that attracted middle-schoolers by the hundreds to mall arcades everywhere. Most just to watch; few to play; all gathered around their local Rufio who brought a primal order to the pre-pubescent chaos. So long as he won, of course. In the heart of every 13-year-old in attendance — especially the watchers — was a burning desire to see Rufio defeated, and in their fantasies, to be the one to do it. But then they’d be the Rufio, wouldn’t they…? What I want from our Barcade is a nice row of authentic 90s beige towers running the classics: Oregon Trail, Simcity Classic, Civ2, Carmen Sandiego. None of those is going to produce a Rufio, I guarantee it. No, you’re heading into Comic Book Guy territory there. And who wouldn’t want that element on hipster row? Think it over. Anyway, it’s worth noting how quickly things are changing around here. The Google Maps street view of my office is still circa 6 years ago, when it was an empty, dusty lot. But just one tap in any direction and, voila, you’re whisked through time and can gaze upon the glories of a William McDonough-designed, modern structure. So yeah, picture me in these parts, calling out to you from the second-floor of the glassy future.

Wherefore future capitalism? Did you watch Star Trek? Any of them? Come on, be honest. TOS? DS9 Voyager? Oh, you weren’t an Enterprise person, were you? Ok, good. No, you were probably a TNG fan. For most people I know, Star Trek: The Next Generation was THE show. The best of the Treks. Perhaps not the best all-around TV show, but it was the Trek that captured our hearts. Maybe it was timing. Maybe it was the cast. I mean, come on: Geordi La Forge! Data! Captain Picard? No matter how much Wesley we had to put up with, none of it was going to rain on our Picard parade. Anyway. If you’re reading this and you are not already deleting because STAR TREK, my money’s on you and TNG. So this is going to be right up your alley: The other day, I stumbled upon an article grappling with the future economy of Star Trek, and, specifically, theorizing on the survival of Capitalism in a post-need society. If you recall, one of the big ideas of TNG was the replicator. The magic box that could make, well… whatever, really. TNG introduced a universe that was, thanks to the replicator, post-currency, post-work, post-need. With a technology that could create anything, what need is there for all that we know of economy? For supply and demand? For competition? For rich and poor? The show, I suppose in a dramatically savvy move, didn’t explore this much. It was just a basic truth of its universe. But some nerds can’t leave well enough alone. So, we get a web page on the anti-Star Trek — a theory of how capitalism can survive in a replicator’s future.

Basically, the befuddled nerd’s idea is to take the principles of contemporary intellectual property law and extend them to the 24th century. Or, in other words, time-capsule the magic of 20th century licensing. Licensing to use the replicator, licensing fees for everything you might replicate, and surely, use restrictions for replicated goods. Think DRM for cups of tea. Sounds terrible. Unfortunately, this is essentially the vision of sugar plums that 3d printers have put in our capitalistic heads: That, one day, we’ll be able to just print out that thing that, today, requires some exorbitant supply and logistics chain to manufacture and distribute. Of course, between us and that vision are two significant problems: (1) Materials. What, exactly, is being printed, and where does it come from? Right now, it’s a cheap and fragile polymer. Like something between Cinnabon frosting and superglue. (Do not eat.) It’s easy to get and use, but it isn’t good for much more than showing that 3d printing can be done. For 3d printing to transcend the proof-of-concept, we need a variety of printable materials, ideally across multiple spectra of biodegradability, flexibility, and durability. (2) Complexity. Right now, 3d printers can print discrete objects. Static, do-nothing things. Paperweights. But we need them to print things that can we can use. Things that do stuff. Things with multiple, movable parts. The future is in scaling the complexity of one machine so that it can produce another.

OK, so all of that makes sense. If we can solve the material and complexity problems of 3d printing, then it probably isn’t hyperbolic to suggest that we’re in for another industrial revolution. That might be a good thing, or it might not. It depends upon who’s running this thought experiment — the big multi-national corporations and the uber-rich who own them, or us little folk, who just want to eat food that is food. It basically comes down to what can be patented and when and by whom. On the not-so-scary side, you might consider this: Can IKEA patent the chair — any and every chair, regardless of its aesthetic particularities — leaving you and I unable to make any chair without paying IKEA first? Gosh, I hope not. Or, will there be “open source” printables? That would be better. BUT EVEN SO, with 3d printers and patented plans, we’re very, very far from the replicator of Star Trek, which is light years (see what I did there?) beyond the material and complexity problems of the 3d printer. See, they’ve solved those problems in a profoundly greater — if not universal — way. A Star Trek replicator can produce a crowbar — an actual crowbar, not a hardened cinnabon frosting shape of a crowbar like the one you can make with a 3d printer today — but it can also produce a cup of tea! A cup of tea, no matter how banal after the millionth time Picard orders it, is still exponentially more complex than a crowbar. A crowbar is pretty much a two step process — first replicate material as strong as iron, then shape it into a bar with a single curved end and flattened points. Easy peasy. But a cup of tea? Forget it. First you need the cup. And the saucer. So, figure out what they’re made of. And coated with. And whatever lovely design is printed on it. And then you need the tea (Earl Grey, duh). And the water. And it must be hot for god’s sake!

If that cup of tea beams into existence, it’s because you’ve replicated materials, industrial processes, and things found in nature. A machine capable of doing that would obviously tear down the entire industrial structure of our civilization. To try to enforce the anachronistic intellectual property law we’re already using as a means of extending the rules of pre-digital industrial engagement into a very digital world (a.k.a. today’s mess) would likely catalyze some sort of revolution. Either that, or somebody’s getting away with patenting tea, which, to be clear, would be a patent on a particular plant that grows in many places on our planet, AND, at the very least, one or more processes of drying, fermenting, flavoring, and mixing that plant with water. Allowing that to happen would be a big, big, big, huge, no good, very bad problem. And not just for our future British (but somehow French?) starship captains who prefer ancient drinks — I mean, come on, Picard’s preference for Earl Grey would be like the Jet Blue captain on your flight from JFK to Logan ordering mead. Assuming he wasn’t flying, of course. Whatever. You get the point! — but for anyone who wants to eat anything_at_all. It’s a scary idea. Today, there are plenty of food-related patents, but thankfully, most reside on the packaging and marketing side of things, wherein Cheerios is a patented form of dried, whole-grain oats owned by General Mills, that includes the name, packaging, various taglines, etc., but not the basic process of drying whole-grain oats and eating them with milk for breakfast. Which is why you can have generic stuff like “Toasted Oats” and “Malt-O-Meal.”

So, while the replicator was always a bit of a glib technology for the nerdiest of Trekkies, it was never abused, really. As far as I recall, it was never a deus ex machina by proxy. No one ever used it when they were in a bind (like, replicating a phaser to blast their way out of a pinch), nor was it ever invoked to produce a new warp core or a new ship or fix Data or anything of the sort. If it had been, surely we all would have demanded to know just how this magic box works and where the magic box that made these magic boxes was and so forth. But we never asked that and never needed to because the future of Star Trek never got bogged down by the economic ins-and-outs of a replicated world. And thank goodness it didn’t. People already spent enough time discussing things around conference tables on the Enterprise (which, to be honest, is what I liked about that show). Any more wonkiness and we would have ended up with the equivalent of C-SPAN in space. (C-SPACE? SPAN-TREK?) Actually, the fact that the Enterprise crew are so darned cooperative and so rarely dysfunctional or ego-driven was always the detail that seemed to best make sense of a society that had indeed been liberated from economics. The fact that Voyager depicted a ship with the complete opposite culture — out of control egos, ambition, and backstabbing — is what made me think that either someone didn’t care about the world building or that someone realized that the cautious, methodical, ethics-weighing conferencing of TNG just didn’t make for the sort of exciting space drama that the UPN wanted to air on weeknights at 8. OK, I guess the TNG crew wasn’t that virtuous. There had to have been some subtle racism worked in there somewhere, as is evident in watching Worf get denied over and over again. By everyone. Despite his rank as Chief of Security. That’d be like watching a supercut of all the times good ol’ Rummy was denied. Sadly, no such cut exists. And if it did, my what a different beginning our third millennia might have had. Wherefore utopia…

Here’s some ten-year-old wisdom (in which it will become clear that ten years isn’t really that long ago): The first bit comes via Dan Hon, who mentioned a piece by Danny O’Brien in one of his recent letters. I’m going to just give you a taste — albeit a long one — of it:

“The problem here is one (ironically) of register. In the real world, we have conversations in public, in private, and in secret. All three are quite separate. The public is what we say to a crowd; the private is what we chatter amongst ourselves, when free from the demands of the crowd; and the secret is what we keep from everyone but our confidant. Secrecy implies intrigue, implies you have something to hide. Being private doesn’t. You can have a private gathering, but it isn’t necessarily a secret. All these conversations have different implications, different tones… On the net, you have public, or you have secrets. The private intermediate sphere, with its careful buffering. is shattered. E-mails are forwarded verbatim. IRC transcripts, with throwaway comments, are preserved forever. You talk to your friends online, you talk to the world… There are only two registers on the Net; public and secret. In the public sphere, everything you say is for everyone. Talk in the secret register, and you have something to hide. And this is what the end of privacy means. It means the end of the private register. Not everything that is private is meant to be secret, meant to be hidden. It’s just not intended to be public. That grey area is fading, and soon it will be gone.”
— Danny O’Brien, The Register, 2003

The second comes from William Gibson. If it sounds familiar, it may be because I referenced it in the conclusion of an essay I wrote on being online in 2014 back in January. Or perhaps because you read it for yourself ten years ago.

Our ‘now’ has become at once more unforgivingly brief and unprecidently elastic. The half-life of media-product grows shorter still, ’til it threatens to vanish altogether, everting into some weird quantum logic of its own, the Warholian Fifteen Minutes becoming a quark-like blink. Yet once admitted to the culture’s consensus-pantheon, certain things seem destined to be with us for a very long time indeed. This is a function, in large part, of the rewind button. And we would all of us, to some extent, wish to be in heavy rotation. And as this capacity for recall (and recommodification) grows more universal, history itself is seen to be even more obviously a construct, subject to revision. If it has been our business, as a species, to dam the flow of time through the creation and maintenance of mechanisms of external memory, what will we become when all these mechanisms, as they now seem intended ultimately to do, merge? The end-point of human culture may well be a single moment of effectively endless duration, an infinite digital Now.”
— William Gibson, Errata: Signal to Noise, 2003

Both from 2003. Both almost completely in tune with the sorts of things people still talking about over a decade later. Both pieces are much longer, and particularly with Danny’s piece, I’ve done it a disservice by hacking it up with so many ellipses, but I didn’t want to lose you with a 15-paragraph block quote. Go read it when you have a chance. What Danny is talking about bears a lot of resemblance (and significance) to today’s conversation, in light of things like TinyLetter mailings just like this one, or Paul Ford’s somewhat accidental Tilde Club, or why The Well still exists. Among many other things. I suppose the point is that the mega-gardens, past and present — so, Facebook, MySpace, Google+, Twitter, and even Medium — have created a general impression that all is public and that public are quite content with being public. And yet, things like TinyLetter seem to be on the rise because there’s a desire to be somewhere in between secret and public. Or, as Mandy Brown put it in her first letter, “a place to connect things that don’t seem to fit anywhere else, an excuse to write long sentences and paragraphs rather than leaving things at 140, an opportunity to experiment and try things out absent the nipping at heels that happens in public.”

Heavy Rotation: All Songs Considered included a Röyksopp track in their New Mix this week. It’s from a forthcoming album called The Inevitable End, and man, did it sound good. I’m eager to hear the rest. In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for Senior, which is fine.

Recent Tabs: The Justice Department claims that a federal agent had the right to impersonate a young woman online by creating a Facebook page in her name without her knowledge. Good grief. Also, when the singularity hits and you decide to go live in a computer, just know that you’re in for a major attractiveness downgrade. Because computers don’t understand the human face. Really, they don’t. See for yourself! And in other dystopic realities: “What the X-37B is designed for and what it may or may not carry into space are top secret. The cost of the plane and the budget of the program are also secret. Some people have questioned the secret program as a waste of taxpayer money since no reason for the program has been made public.” But, nah, there’s no secret space program.

Written by Christopher Butler on October 16, 2014,   In Essays

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