The wealth of networks, the hive mind, and the future of [mass] production

One of the more interesting books published  in the past ten years was that of a law professor called Yochai (pronounced Yohai) Benkler. His book was called “the Wealth of Networks”. Its contention was simple. The Internet is allowing for the return of a way of forming wealth that had all but disappeared from modern life: the free association of people contributing their time to a shared project.

Open-source software is an obvious example. A group of people devise an open standard; other people contribute continually via public discussion.   The economist asks why anyone would contribute free labour to a project.  It is obvious that when the costs of participation are low enough, people will freely contribute hours of labour to collective projects: for honour, for prestige (the same thing almost), for a sense of belonging to something important, even great. Among the many collective works shaping the world today are Wikipedia, Linux, Apache software, and a host of open-source codes.

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The particular wealth-creating capacity of the Internet is not merely to facilitate trade and intellectual exchange, argues Benkler. Its genius is to allow for the conditions necessary for a group of volunteers to devise something complex and important: rather as if a group of amateurs could assemble a cathedral, a warship, or a car. In the conditions of production that prevailed until very recently, people lacked the tools of communication that would allow for mass participation, long-distance, specialized, and most important, voluntary association of a kind that would permit things to be done easily, without resort to the market or to the corporation.

Until now, the productive forces of society were organized either into markets, or corporations. Markets occur when people can trade safely, but markets have their own transaction costs. Corporations internalize a bunch of costs, so that you deal with another department of your corporation for services rather than go outside. The boundaries of the corporation are set by the relatively greater expense of dealing with outsiders rather than dealing with people in your corporation. In both cases, the transaction involves money, whether in the form of salaries for the insiders, or fees for the outsiders. Neither form of production runs on voluntary, unpaid association, whose emergence into significance is the change worth noting.

A case in point was raised in the National Post on Thursday in an excerpt from a book by Clive Thompson, “Smarter than you think”. The particular case was the  use of volunteers using their own computers to solve problems of protein folding. The biologists put out the problem for the public to solve, with the assistance of shared software and a scoring system. The project elicited the volunteers’  cooperation, and on the other, competition among them. The results were highly productive, and generated results that astounded the biologists. The same kind of shared use of computers occurs in the processing of possible signals from outer space, which involves a software download which then engages your computer’s idle time to analyze noise from radio telescopes for signs of intelligent life in the universe. Regardless of the possible futility of the idea, the SETI project is only possible because of the processing power of thousands of linked computers.

So far collective projects of this nature have involved the capacities of humans and computers to analyze signals and situations, write and improve software, and to invent processes. What if the next stage involved  the mass production of things? More accurately, what if the next step of collective creation involved the production of  complex objects and machines? What if the cost of producing tangible things, and not just computing, sank to the level at which a father and son shop in Bangladesh or Arkansas could produce a $100,000 gas turbine with only somewhat more effort than $300 bicycle?  What if “mass” production gave way to production at your local garage of complex spare parts that today need to be ordered from a factory or a warehouse?

Possibilities of this sort might suggest that  the era of the mass production factory might be coming to an end. More likely is that its preponderance would decline when every place with a bunch of lathes, a supply of electricity, and some skilled hands,  were enabled to create complex machinery to nanometer accuracy. If they can make Kalashnikov rifles in upcountry Pakistan with current pre-computer technologies, think what the same sorts of handy people could do with open source software driving their lathes.

That time is not far off. I am aware of an open-source software project, to be embedded on a chip, the price of which will be on the order of $30. Its purpose will be the control of complex operations of automated machine production. This is the missing link between higher-order software of the kind that runs our computers and machine tools. To a great extent, there has been no open-source software developed to control complex machine fabrication. It has all been proprietary, and as companies disappear with the regularity of mushrooms, the software they developed is not replaced, thereby idling huge and expensive machines for want of software to drive them. A friend of mine is leading a project whose purpose is to bring the most complex machine operations under the programmable control of users for a price that can be afforded, not just by McDonnell-Douglas, or General Electric, but by father-and-son shops in Arkansas, São Paulo, or Bangladesh.

The move to “print” solid objects is only an aspect of this development, and not the most important. Most useful tools will not be fabricated from injection moulding of plastics. Durable machines need to be made from metal. Here the trick is to get software controlled machinery to produce complex objects to nanometer accuracy, if necessary, and to do so as cheaply or more so than large factories.

Consider what is going on now: mass participation in improving software, which enables us to solve puzzles and problems, such as protein-folding, that could not be solved without mass participation. Next, inject into this picture of innovation and distributed participation the ability of very small workshops to produce useful tools and parts to the most exacting specifications, all across the world. This means that material objects might be subject to the kinds of criticism and orderly improvement, as well as the surprising innovation, that characterizes open source software, and scientific experiments conducted by computer-mediated mass participation.

Wealth creation has largely been conducted through corporations and markets, rather than by means of honour- and prestige- based cooperation. The promise of cheap, open-source software for the control of machines is  twofold: the same kind of innovation that has occurred in software can occur in the production of things and, moreover,  the participation in complex production is democratized to every place it the world with a stable supply of electricity, a few lathes, and a few pairs of hands. It raises the possibility that the driving force of open-source software will transform the productive powers of formerly backward parts of the globe, from Arkansas to rural Russia. As for the advanced portions of the world, maybe Speedy Muffler will get most of its parts for your car from workshops down the street, rather than from hundreds of miles away.

Your local machine shop may become the source of important technical innovation, just as it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.