“The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.” –Antoine de Saint Exupery
“We will find a way, or make one.” –Hannibal Barca
More and more people are saying we’re in the midst of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” They’re probably right. Problem is, we’re still getting the hang of the first three.
The first industrial revolution came not with a bang, but a slow crescendo of water and steam. A bunch of newly-literate capitalists, experimenters, and entrepreneurs invented and hacked stuff to improve productivity. They didn’t always understand why it worked, but they knew when it did. They harnessed water, steam, and coal. They designed machines to do what only hands had done and only guilds had allowed. They made the first machines that made machines. A world of magic was transforming to a world of increasing rationality. Artisanal economies became industrialized. Products were improved and standardized through systems of factory production. Productive outputs increased by orders of magnitude. The world got bigger.
The second industrial revolution brought more and better. Now they had instruction manuals. Scientific method didn’t only explain why things worked, but revealed why something else might work better, and what to try next. Science brought unprecedented speed and precision. Amateurs became engineers. Philosophers became scientists. Now there was steel, oil, gas, chemistry, fertilizers, road, rail, trains, internal combustion, germ theory, sanitation, the electron. Just as the printing press preserved and increasingly democratized information, telecommunications began to transmit it faster than physical objects could move. Something new was coming about: an early version of mass society more similar to how we live today than to how humans had lived at any time before. The world got smaller, but more people could live there. Then as now, they might have lived better if they could dispense with all the tribalism.
The third revolution was an explosion of vacuum tubes and silicon. The first two revolutions brought incredible physical change, but couldn’t have happened without better ways to store and transfer information. Now, we had a whole revolution about the information itself. Everything analyzed, optimized, miniaturized. Knowledge acceleration continually wrought by increasingly efficient data-driven research and development. Mass industry joined with telecommunications and computing. Integrated logistical infrastructures operating on an efficient knife-edge of complex interdependence. Increasing volumes of information at the disposal of increasing numbers of people. Rapid diffusion of knowledge, innovations by people and institutions large and small. Knowledge economies, the digital revolution, machine learning, Moore’s Law, the Betamax. Creative destruction? There’s an app for that.
But there was still something missing. Industrialization placed formerly-artisanal products into the maws of economies of scale. All this stuff is made in factories now, everybody knows that. Governments knew that too. Modern bureaucracy is made possible by efficiencies in information, but it also reflects how stuff is physically made. Effective government needs hearts and minds, but a great deal of modern government is still based on tracking and controlling physical reality. When almost everything comes from factories, it is only natural to control social phenomena by controlling the physical distribution of goods. Factories are run by businesspeople, and businesspeople can be regulated, taxed, rewarded, and punished. It’s a lot easier to keep track of things when you know what those things are, who is making them, where they are made, where they go, and who is getting paid.
The fourth revolution democratizes physical production the way the digital revolution democratized information. There were always people capable of making factory-quality stuff, but it was harder and you needed more money, skill, or time. Now, tools are cheaper. Precision digital production is increasingly within the reach of laypeople. Information on how to build stuff and what can be built circulates freely. Design is becoming more approachable. New designs are constantly developed and tested. This is the neo-artisanal moment, the beginning of the end for mass industry’s monopoly on making stuff. Sure, they still do it biggest and best. Factory production will continue to dominate mainstream economies. Yet, an increasing number of people will be able to make an increasing variety of things, and they will be able to make these things at a level of sophistication previously reserved for governments and major manufacturers. Sooner or later there will be a tipping point. Eventually we’ll all have to agree that this is kind of a big deal.
The benefits are coming so quickly that they can hardly be forecasted. Doctors are 3D printing skin grafts, cartilage, bones, surgical tools, dental implants, blood vessels, prosthetic limbs, and medical practice models. 3D printed drugs are on the market. School districts, colleges, and public libraries are re-booting the long-neglected shop class by purchasing digital production tools and setting up educational makerspaces. Manufacturers increasingly stock factory floors with digital CNC machines. Researchers and industrial designers develop prototypes on-the-spot with digital production tools. Aerospace firms make high-precision components with sophisticated 3D printers. The legitimate firearms and defense industries are just starting to whet their appetites. Archeologists reproduce ancient artifacts like they were made yesterday. Mechanics will make many parts instead of waiting for delivery. Home consumers and DIYers can design and make a rapidly-widening array of objects with fewer limits than ever before. The democratization of design and production is some new incarnation of Moore’s Law in physical space. Applications will widen, and capabilities will accelerate. The benefits will become so great that we’d be loath to compromise them.
But there is also risk. The difficult yet optimistic journey of human progress has always had its amoral free-riders. Criminals, extremists, and other malicious actors can make stuff too. Some of them are pretty good at it.
If you can make auto parts, you can make guns. If you can do chemistry, you can probably make drugs or explosives. Need to smuggle those drugs or create a platform for your explosive payload? You can use a dizzying variety of DIY techniques to do it. If you’re handy with a 3D printer and open source hardware, you can make your own drones or electronics. Smuggling, crime, war: the physical manifestations of human vice are also becoming more approachable, more adaptive. Daesh makes stuff. The Gulf Cartel makes stuff. Organized crime makes stuff. The illegal makers and traffickers piggyback on this great convergence of neo-liberal trade, technology diffusion, and the industrialized plenty of globalization. Are these brand new problems or old problems in new clothes? Smart people talk about “technology-enabled crime,” “technocrime,” or other neologisms that sound kind of cool and scary. What they’re really talking about is the inevitable criminal adoption of post-industrial methods. As you read this, they’re out there constantly re-booting old crimes and coming up with a few new ones too.
We should be afraid, right? Shouldn’t we make a law? Should we regulate and track tools to ensure no one can use them for criminal purposes? Should we force every 3D printer, CNC machine, and workshop to be networked and monitored? Should we require background checks or registries to possess certain shop equipment? Should we encourage companies to put controls on their tools so people can’t use them to make illegal objects, or break copyright, or make other stuff somebody doesn’t like? Should we track who is sending and receiving certain design files? Should we monitor or ban certain products if they can be illegally repurposed? Should we search everyone’s digital devices to make sure they aren’t smuggling forbidden designs? Should we make it a crime to have the design for an illegal item even if the item isn’t actually built? If something is legal here but illegal there, should we ban the sharing of information to protect civilized societies from cross-contamination? In other words, should we securitize the act of production itself from fear that some small number among us will use it to destroy rather than create?
This is the most comfortable, peaceful, and stable era yet in the history of the human species. We citizens of the developed world expect our governments to provide perfect safety and perfect security. Most of us don’t want to sacrifice anything. Some of us don’t even like being reminded that things have cost. We want freedom without danger. We want to believe we can ban things and they’ll go away, we can regulate things and the regulations will be followed, we can monitor things and nothing will slip through the net, we can build a wall and keep out everything we choose to fear. We want to believe that our laws will map perfectly to reality– that the experts thought of everything. We don’t like being reminded that controlling physical space is rarely enough, that the real battlespace is psychological. The real struggle is to make a better world, not to take all the sharp objects out of the monkey house and hope for the best. We don’t like to admit that peace and security are human goods with human origins and human resolutions. Deeper solutions to the complex problems of humanity are a lot harder than catching 10% of smuggled contraband and calling it a day.
And we don’t like being reminded that our protectors are imperfect human beings doing their best with the resources they have. We want to believe that 20th century political and policing institutions can secure us against every possible misuse of 21st century technology. We want to believe that we can purchase absolute security in a post-industrial age. Are we prepared for the sticker-shock? Are we prepared for the rapidly-increasing costs that perfect security demands of us? What it would take to perfectly secure a growing world of 7.5 billion, where more and more people can make things? We want to believe that the imperfect control we already have will somehow translate to better control in the future, and perfection won’t cost us anything that we’ll miss. We want to believe we can secure this world without fundamentally changing free society, or changing what it is to be a citizen, or human. We want to believe we won’t have to think about it too much. We are foolish to expect any of this.
If drugs are easy to make, the “War on Drugs” becomes an ever-lost war on human ingenuity. If guns are easy to make, orthodox gun control loses most of its major tools. If high quality disguises, fake fingerprints, and fake documents become easy to make, what will we do with all these CCTV cameras and biometric authentication systems? If industrial goods, luxury products, art, electronics, and currencies become easier to counterfeit, how will legitimate industries adjust? If cartels already smuggle contraband with airplanes, tunnels, drones, submarines, and customized cars, what will we do with our modern great walls? Should we secure … everything? Prisons are the most physically controlled environment society maintains. At least there are no drugs or weapons there, right?
If we demand that the modern state shelter us from all possible harms of new technologies, what we are really demanding is that technologic development be slowed to a pace that human policing and political institutions can effectively intermediate. Perhaps within a few decades, technology will reveal enough self-evident danger that this bargain will seem less like an end to what we knew as free society, and more like commonsense sacrifice to preserve the best of it. Perhaps we’ll settle for some decent co-efficient between imposing controls to prevent the worst possible outcomes, and maintaining freedom to pursue the best. First, we’d need to figure out what that co-efficient is. Or, perhaps we can reshape our security thinking, our political discourse, our institutions, and our social attitudes so we no longer need to fear every new and unpredictable danger of technology, nor even the old dangers technology first brought us centuries and millennia ago. Perhaps we can strike a new bargain between individuals, technology, state, and society. We must all decide what innovation, freedom, and security will mean to us in the post-industrial social contract.
A new bargain will necessarily involve some physical control, and some surveillance. These components of security and government cannot be jettisoned, but in post-industrial society they can only take us so far. A new bargain will require willingness to honestly place risks and harms in context, and to accept some danger. It will require focus on the underlying human motivations behind behavior, rather than the superficial methods humans select to secure their ends. It will require us to make a world not perfect, but good enough that those who would leverage technology to disrupt the most peaceful era of history will always remain sufficiently few, and sufficiently isolated, that we do not need ever-expanding control systems to hold them at the gates.