Recently on Slashdot I read a thread about how 3-D printing — the technology of making an object layer by layer, as opposed to carving it out of a block of matter or forming it in a mold — is limited by the difficulty-of-use of 3-D design software. As threads on Slashdot do, it quickly became a forum for all kinds of venting and debate. One especially nerdy (and I mean that as a compliment) rebuttal explained a system for recreating sheet-metal parts in software, as a way of showing how “easy” it is to digitize a flat object like a gasket.
I suppose if I described exactly how to build my garage shelving out of 2x4s and plywood it would be even longer, but most people will read that post and be glad they have a hardware store to run to when their garden hose is dripping.
Tinkerers persist in society despite the vast system of production and shipping that we humans have created. This is of course usually seen as a blessing — where would we find innovation if not for such people — but the people doing this seeing are often faux-wistful columnists who would not at all be happy if they had to design their gaskets, or even their paper clips, from scratch. It’s hard to be a tinkerer, even to think like one. Try being the first on your block to get LED lights and solar panels. Try to explain your hobbies. Scrapbooking, why not? We’ve all glued things. Designing gaskets in CAD software, not so much. And yet tinkerers persist. I think it’s genetic, and no doubt it’s a blessing for humanity, but it sucks for the individual. It will suck harder.
We are in a long process of coming to terms with our increasing individual smallness relative to the systems that we create to support ourselves and satisfy our needs. There are lighthearted approaches, such as The Toaster Project, and ones rather less so, such as The Walking Dead. I also think this is one of the core problems dividing the United States’ body politic. It is even more natural for Americans to fear dependency on systems than for people in other nations — since it was our forebears who left their old systems, and survived long enough to breed. American distrust of government is both cultural and genetic. Some of us — urbanites more likely, Democrats more likely — have perhaps worked past this, through some unknown combination of rational thought and epigenetic change, and are less worried about the reach of government. But we watch The Walking Dead too.
In Alan Moore’s comic book series Miracleman, a character had a supernatural ability to create and control fire. It was explained that humanity naturally threw up such sports from time to time, and in the dawn of humanity such skills were essential; in the 20th Century he had become such a liability that he was forced to live in a junkyard, until other superhumans discovered him. Never underestimate Alan Moore’s prescience. As goes his firebug, so may go the tinkerer, the gun nut, and one day — a day where our meals are reconstituted insect flour and 3-D printed algae steak — the farmer.
On that day my descendant will not be able to have his or her children help in the garage, building shelving from raw lumber and cheap plywood, the way my 3-year-old son this week helps me; the carbon tax on real wood will be too high. And my descendant will feel a strange disappointment, down in his or her genes, that cannot be explained.
Or maybe not. Maybe my descendant will hit up /., dust off that old CO2 harvester (from the good ol’ days, back when China still made things), and teach his or her children how to print shelves. Right after he or she votes against that damn reactionary free-marketer who wants to lower the carbon tax again, when it’s our God-given civic duty to clean up this polluted Earth, one garage shelf at a time.