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January 10, 2006

Building a Better World

I've been reading Neil Gershenfeld's FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop--From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. In addition to being a fascinating read, it's also a sobering reminder of just how much our world wastes human potential.

FAB tells the story of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms's experiments with "fabricators" that someone with very little technical knowledge can use to build just about anything. Early in the project, they decided to see if they could create fabs that could be used in the real world by ordinary people. As a result, they've helped to create fab labs from Boston's South End to South Africa to Vigyan Ashram in rural India. FAB documents the end result: an astonishing outpouring of creative solutions to local problems by members of the local community. At Vigyan Ashram, for example, villagers are creating sensors for analyzing whether milk farmers want to sell is sour -- a crucial issue since "if milk from even a single farmer is contaminated (bacterial, others.. ) it spoils the whole batch " -- developing tools to make it easier to rebuild diesel engines used for pumping underground water, and building small wind mills to produce energy.

Most press coverage of FAB focuses on the future, in which "personal fabricators" will allow us to have this power at our desktop. But today, the existing Fab labs, which cost about about $21,000 each, show us that in the middle of the grinding poverty that Nathan describes below, there are millions of human beings with creativity, vision, and resourcefulness whose abilities are being squandered.

Will this potential finally be unleashed when inexpensive personal fabricators are created? Maybe. Then again, that's what they said the Internet would do. If groups like the Self Employed Women's Association aren't given the support they need to win the fight for justice, it's quite possible that in the end all the Fab labs will create is another pipe dream of a better future.

Posted by RalphTaylor at January 10, 2006 05:52 AM