D2D California Dreaming Series

California's Maker Age

In Neal Stephenson's 1995 science-fiction novel The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, a working-class teenager named Nell navigates a world of limitless material bounty produced by nanotechnology — tiny, molecular factories that can build a car, phone, or pile of diamonds out of thin air. Instead of ushering in an era of universal prosperity, though, Stephenson's Diamond Age is a time of nightmarish inequality where haves and have-nots are more stratified by their access to information than the residents of any medieval village. When anything can be made, knowing how to make things is the only real currency, and, in The Diamond Age, all aspects of that knowledge — from simple literacy to copyright to engineering concepts — are tightly regulated to keep society's Nells on the bottom rungs.

California is not quite living the Diamond Age (yet), but, as Celeste Headlee's report today points out, the state is home to plenty of dreamers trying to pull the more positive aspects of Stephenson's extreme DIY off the page and into reality.

On a basic level, the [maker] movement is about reusing and repairing objects, rather than discarding them to buy more. On a deeper level, it's also a philosophical idea about what ownership really is.

"If you're not able to open and replace the batteries in your iPod or replace the fuel sender switch on your Chevy truck, you don't really own it," Mr. Jalopy argues. "The terms of ownership are still dictated by the company that assembled it and glued the iPod shut so that you couldn't get into it."

Mr. Jalopy, helped codify these ideas in 2005 with the Maker's Bill of Rights. The list of 17 directives includes: "If it snaps shut, it shall snap open" and "Ease of repair shall be a design ideal, not an afterthought."

Like many of his fellow makers, Mr. Jalopy is a simultaneously an artist, tinkerer and craftsman. For him, it's a lifestyle. [more of Celeste's conversation with Mr. Jalopy]

Whether it's Mr. Jalopy's quest to get Americans to fix rather than throw away, or the guerilla farmers at Homegrown Evolution, or the folks at the Bay Area's Make magazine, whose do-it-yourself projects are the "maker" analogue of design porn like Dwell (also in NorCal), California is home to a thriving culture that hopes to give people more control over the products and tools in their lives.

California is also home to some the science and industry that just might make The Diamond Age's nanomachines possible. The Northern California Nanotechnology Initiative trade group hopes to build what it calls "the world's leading Nanotechnology Cluster here in Northern California," this on the basis of the region's thicket of universities, high-tech companies and venture capital firms. NASA's Center for Nanotechnology is also in there, at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

For those of you who think being able to make anything you want inside your own personal Star Trek-style replicator is ridiculous, think again. Researchers at the University of Bath in the UK have been working on a the ultimate DIY tool, a 3D printer:

Printers are a common everyday machine. They use ink and technology to make things in 2 dimensions. Imagine if instead of printing on bits of paper, you had a printer that works in 3 dimensions. You would have to use a solid ink, but you would be able to print real, robust, mechanical parts. To give you an idea of how robust these parts could be think of Lego bricks and you're in the right ballpark. You could make lots of useful stuff. Interestingly, you could also make most of the parts to make another 3D printer, but not all of them. That would be a machine which could make itself. [more]

Right now, the Bath 3D printer is best at making plastic doodads, but soon its makers (er, parents?) hope it will be churning out exact copies of itself. A machine that can reproduce itself is, of course, the very stuff of sci-fi — the scary stuff for some. The paperback shelves at your local bookstore are full of tales of grey goo run amok, tiny nanomachines replicating so fast they end up literally overrunning the planet. (Self-replicating spacecraft - so-called von Neumann machines after space pioneer John von Neumann - were a staple of both space opera and early NASA planning.)

In the meantime, though, the folks at the University of Bath have worked the kinks out on 3D-printing a quintessentially Californian product: a bracket to affix your IPhone to your car dashboard. Sweet progress!

If you could print up infinite copies of something in your house, what would would you print? (Play fair; no credit cards or gold doubloons.)

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