Hacking Civilization2014-01-18 00:00:00
At first glance, things aren't going too well around here. Depending on who you ask, our civilization will end soon from either climate change, energy shortages, fresh water shortages, drug-resistant microbes, electromagnetic pulses, or any of a host of other apocalyptic visions. They may be right, I don't know. However, right or not, we can do something about it. Personally, I tend to think we have more time rather than less, and that we're more resilient than most give us credit for. However, we can do much better than we are. Here's how I think we should start.
One thing ancient, one recent, and one brand new
The concept that I think has the power to save us and make us happy has three parts, all of which are put together to achieve one thing in particular. The thing I want to achieve is passive, distributed infrastructure.
Distributed systems are far more resilient in general than highly centralized systems. If you look at the trends in our society over the last century, we've been centralizing as much as possible, as quickly as possible. In some ways this makes sense, there is a benefit to be gained from economy of scale, and it does take some concerns off of people's minds (very few people know how to grow food, or even cook, for example). Unfortunately, like anything, it's not so simple. High centralization leads to single points of failure and destruction of diversity. If at some point, we discover that one of our strategies isn't working out, it's a calamity if that's all we have going. If we have hundreds of other things that can fill the gaps, then our world can evolve without being a threat to our future.
The other thing I want to achieve is passive systems. One of the great powers of centralized systems that makes them extremely attractive is that they are great for division of labor. If you can offload a concern onto somebody else whose sole responsibility is to do a good job on that thing, then you can focus on something else and really master it. In fact, centralization is a form of passive system - you do your specialized thing to make money, and you know that your needs will be met by a system running in the background. The interesting thing is that we can get a lot of the same benefit by designing passive systems that nobody has to maintain (at least not much).
So, if we can make distributed systems, we can become much safer from disasters. If we can make them passive, we can avoid losing a lot of the great benefits of centralization. I think we can do this!
The three components we need to get there:
- The Internet
- Distributed manufacturing
I'll have a lot more to say about permaculture as we go through this process, but in a nutshell I think of permaculture as hacking ecosystems. It's a design process aimed at building a living, functional ecosystem that happens to also provide for most or all of your base material needs. Of the ancient, recent, and brand new, this one is the ancient. There are functional food ecosystems that were designed and implemented by humans 7000 years ago that are still in production. Most people focus on food when they think about permaculture, but in fact it also provides effective ways to sustainably generate energy, building materials, textiles, medicine, sanitation, and a variety of other material needs. If we put this stuff to work for us, we can get a big proportion of all of our basic necessities covered for us by a system that mostly maintains itself, while at the same time improving the world's environment and the land's fertility.
I probably don't even need to say much about this to this community, but I'm going to anyway. The Internet is the most powerful force for bootstrapping your life that has ever existed in history. The one thing that is most important for all of civilization to exist is the transmission of knowledge from the present to the future. That means people who know have to tell people who don't know. If that chain of knowledge is ever irrevocably broken, civilization will end. The Internet makes it possible for anyone with access to go from primitive to civilized, soaking up thousands of years of hard-won knowledge, basically for free. Not only that, but it allows people who are pioneering new things to spread the word instantaneously all over the world. If we're going to change the way the world works, this is what will make it happen. We can develop the most amazing technology and passive systems the world has ever seen, but without the Internet to spread the word, it'll take eons for change to spread.
This is the new arrival on stage in our model of decentralized passive systems. The ability to download a plan from the Internet, send it to a 3D printer or CNC milling machine, and come back later to find a precision, functional part is a major game changer. It is becoming possible for people to develop a rapid prototype, test, redesign cycle in hardware that's nearly as fast as the cycle in software. Also as with software, the barriers to entry are dropping like flies. The speed of that cycle combined with low entry costs are what I believe have driven the software revolution that we've observed over the last 30 years or so. It is so easy to write, test, and rewrite code that anybody can do it. My mind boggles and what this will do for real life hardware. I remember being in high school (more years ago than I'd like to admit) and having dozens of ideas for things I could make if only I had some piece of equipment. I worked around it to some extent by learning metal casting and pattern making, but it was a laborious process and error-prone. If I'd had a CNC mill or a 3D printer back then, I would have created dozens of oddball inventions, some of which might have really been winners. When this stuff gets to be widespread, the world is going to change, and fast.
Putting it together
If we take these three technologies and combine them within communities of makers and hackers, the result will be incubators of ideas such as the world has never seen. Many of you have probably experienced the feeling of working on a functional team, with adequate resources and a clear goal. Making progress, solving problems, finding that perspective change that suddenly transforms a hairball hack into an elegant, minimal solution is one of life's greatest joys.
So, that in a nutshell is how we're going to hack civilization - we're going build hackerspaces and makerspaces in our communities. We'll build productive passive ecosystems all around ourselves to free up our time so we can focus on the new instead of redoing the old. We'll teach everyone how to do what we're doing over the Internet. Progress will spread like a contagion when people start feeling what being a human can really be like, and in the end, civilization will be forever altered for the better.