Books You Should Read: Designing Reality

These days, budget CNC builds are mainstream. Homebrew 3D printers and even laser cutters are old hats. Now I find myself constantly asking: “where’s it all going?” In the book, Designing Reality, Prof Neil Gershenfeld and his two brothers, Alan and Joel, team up to answer that question. In 250 pages, they forecast a future where digital fabrication tools become accessible to everyone on the planet, a planet where people now thrive in networked communities focused on learning and making.

Designing Reality asks us to look forward to the next implications of the word “digital”. On its surface, digital  means discretized, but the implications for this property are extreme. How extreme? Imagine a time where cnc-based fabrication tools are as common as laptops, where fab labs and hackerspaces are as accepted as libraries, and where cities are self-sufficient. The Gershenfelds invite us to open our eyes into a time where digital has vastly reshaped our world and will only continue to do so.

The book cleanly sets the stage with a history lesson, and it takes a close look at two digital revolutions that happened in the last 50 years or so: those of digital communication and digital computation. The fruits of these revolutions are twofold. In digital communication, sending signals around the world became cheap, easy, reliable. In digital computation,  processing power became cheap and ubiquotous, entering the home as the personal computer. From here, the Gershenfelds welcome us into the third digital revolution: digital fabrication.

This time, we take all the benefits of cheap processing power and cheap communication and leverage them to move seamlessly back-and-forth between the “bits and atoms.” Right now we’re living in a time where transforming a design (the bits) into a real product (the atoms) is hard. It takes manufacturing muscle and the know-how to wield it. In the future, manufacturing may not be so hard. Perhaps it will even be as easy as a button-push to make an object real or make it digital again. Don’t believe it? Go back and tell the 1960’s equivalent of you that in 2018 average people will be able to video chat with their friends in Europe while riding the bus in Seattle.

With this “big picture” in mind, 3D printing, laser cutting, and other rapid prototyping tools fall into place. They’re the latest-and-greatest accessible digital fab tools in a time where digital fabrication is on the rise. What’s less clear is the “why” and the “so what.” In other words, just because this book shows us a world filled with “Star-Trek Replicators” doesn’t mean it’ll actually happen.

Fortunately, the Gershenfelds tap into many reasons rooted in our nature that offer a good reason why it could. As Hackerspaces, Makerspaces, and Fab Labs are on the rise, the Gershenfelds take a close look at how these places came to be, who works in these spaces, and what they’re making. Along the way, they share their findings on what it is about “making things” that makes us human.

It’s Already Personal

While many of us were tinkering around with RepRaps back in 2004, Neil was pitching for funding for CNC equipment. He succeeded, and he created the world’s first Fab Lab. Since then, the number of Fab Labs has almost doubled every year. Now there are over 1000 scattered around the world. You might even have one in your home town. And if not, you can help start one. Along the way, many sister-concepts, like the makerspace and hackerspace have sprung up and followed suit. For anyone wondering how these public places came to be, this book is an origin story.

A True Story

Oddly enough, Fab Labs are also managed to wind themselves into my own story, too.

Back in 2012, I was studying engineering at a small liberal arts college in Claremont, CA. In the previous summer, the engineering department went through a huge overhaul and brought in thousands of dollars worth of new tooling: a vinyl cutter, a pcb mill, a laser cutter, and a shopbot among them. I remember one of my friends mentioning: “Yeah, they bought tools to model our new design lab after MIT’s Fab Lab concept.” At the time, the words “fab lab” floated in out of my head, and I forgot about them completely.

Over the years that followed until I graduated, my friends and I had a blast making laptop stickers in the design lab late at night. We had adventures and misadventures pushing the tools to their limits to see just what exactly we could realize with them. When I was ready to graduate, I was sad. I thought I’d never see a community like this again: one where people gathered around the tools to make things and teach each other.

I was wrong. At the exact same time, communities like these were sprouting up all over the world. Those communities are the Fab Labs and the people who work inside them. This whole time I thought I was just having fun in the evening doing projects with my friends. What I didn’t realize is that the drive to tinker and create isn’t just inside me. It’s everywhere. Fab Labs just give us a roof and some tools to let this part of us come forth.

Any reader on Hackaday knows something about themselves: we’re not alone. We’re a virtual community online. Designing Reality reminds us that the community has roofs all over the world too. It’s real.

16 thoughts on “Books You Should Read: Designing Reality

  1. The premise seems to be that the ‘fab lab’ is at the same place as the DEC PDPs were at during 70s, and thus poised for non-linear growth of personal making. That is, there are about 1000 ‘fab labs’ at about $100k (USD) each. Having difficult time seeing where Moore’s law is applicable to the maker space movement/progression.

    There has been no digital revolution. There has been a series of technology evolutions.

    FWIW, the authors did a forum (last year?) that was on cspan to push their book.

    1. Yup–you got me! I hear Mudd has some even nicer tools these days (*ahem*: waterjet-in-Paul’s shop). Are you there now? If so, I know classes can be tough, but I hope you’re having a blast nonetheless! (Some of my friends from there feel like family these days…) (oh, and tell Prof Dodds and Prof Clark I said hello!)

  2. Hmm, the way I’ve seen people adapt to (read as retreat from) advanced technology or even middle stream suggests the lazy consumer will grow in numbers and the way corporate interests are going will maintain the trend to exploit people as little more than a commercially bound crop as governments and nation states have been doing for millennia :/ By way of example, I’ve seen many jump on the 3D printer trend and lose interest even after a year or even design capacity decline as if a type of Alzheimer’s is creeping in overall and with food production methods not helping in terms of several mineral deficiencies. So most in terms of reality will buy what’s on offer not designing their own and thus become comfortable victims.
    The well educated well managed cloistered elite fully comfortable with exploring ever more sophisticated devices and economic mechanisms will become even more distant from common public ideas of common place socialised reality (like the mall of western congregations) Eg. Most would have no idea the trends and opportunities, it’s all too hard for them though I concede it does take some discipline to keep pace…

  3. So this is something like singularity lite? The fundamental misunderstanding how things works seems to be there (haven’t read the book) and the association of something completely unrelated (digital *) as a reason for progress seems to be there.

    Progress is progress, this is something that have happened before computers were available, before fast communication were available. Of course fast sharing of information accelerates this just as the written book accelerated teaching and understanding, but the book isn’t “digital” just as computers aren’t (fundamentally) “digital”.

  4. Some years ago, Cory Doctorow published, and distributed for free, the book “Makers”, which, while suffused with the flavor of the Economic Crash, and bringing in the dystopic elements of battling big corporations over what their lawyers perceive as “intellectual property”, was forward-looking in its portrayal of a world where consumers were on the cusp of printing their own things.

    Check it out. It’s a free download.

  5. >”Go back and tell the 1960’s equivalent of you that in 2018 average people will be able to video chat with their friends in Europe while riding the bus in Seattle.”

    Yeah, about that… yes, in theory, but if you’re trying to draw parallels then you might want to scale back your future expectations.

    Cellular network latency both ways adds up to 10 seconds of random lag, plus the packet loss from being on a moving vehicle, plus interference and network congestion from all the other people making phonecalls, making the point of video conferencing in a moving bus, across the globe, an exercise in futility. I can barely check the weather report downtown at times with websites loading in minutes rather than seconds.

    Yes, it can be done, if you just want to look at a broken picture using a crashing application. If you want to take that as an example of what will be possible 58 years into the future… well, you tell me what the practical analog in digital fabrication is. “One hour shops” that manufacture… novelty cufflinks?

    1. Video chatting over a landline works, however, and skype conferences with desktop sharing are a thing, but people still don’t want to look at each other’s faces awkwardly staring off-camera because they can’t look at the lens and see the picture at the same time. It’s just not what it’s sold out to be.

    2. Don’t make any bets. I just read about an in current fiber networks by using, what was it, polarization – maybe circular? – to increase the data constellation by a factor of 100. 10 seems like a news release type number. I would expect a power of 2 the way these encodings are usually done. Anyway, that is just last week. WHat happens next month?

      Found it…7353.8993..9330…0.0..0.206.854.0j4j1……0….1..gws-wiz…….0i71j33i10i299j33i10i160.mx0lzxl83Bs

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