Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Beyond Digital Artisanship

Douglas Rushkoff has a recent article which seems to be doing the rounds.  This is very much the standard narrative about automation and its ultimate direction - namely that we all become digital artisans exchanging informational artifacts with each other.

In a way this narrative has a lot of truth to it, because we have already witnessed the emergence of a post-scarcity economy in the world of information and software.  Information used to be costly to produce and distribute, but the advent of the World Wide Web changed all of that.  In the domain of information, a large fraction of the world's population is now in ownership of the means of production, and it's reasonable to assume that in the near future everyone will possess equipment which means that they can become an information producer or a digital artisan if they so desire.

My main criticism of the Rushkoff narrative is that it doesn't go far enough.  There is another revolution waiting to happen beyond the world of bits within the realm of atoms and molecules.  This is the democratization of production of physical goods and services using advanced automation, similar to that written about in Kevin Carson's Low-Overhead Manifesto.  It's dependent upon the prior information revolution, but is likely to be highly disruptive to the old and highly centralized factory model of production with its reliance upon cheap human labor, economies of scale and the problematic relations of political power which were propped up by that sort of economic arrangement.

What I think we're about to enter is an era of robotics enabled Shanzhaiism, where the new entrepreneurs are people with a small factory in their loft or garden shed and who may be either subsistence producers or producing on a small scale for the local community or extended family group.  This isn't a new idea, since Isaac Asimov imagined these possibilities in The Bicentennial Man.  In that story the robot becomes a producer of furniture which is then traded to support the family.  Unlike the subsistence farmers or peasant farmers of previous centuries the robotic Shanzhai will be able to produce consumable or trade-able artifacts of arbitrary technological sophistication.  Indeed the automation of small scale gardening or farming could be a major turning point in history which leads to the elimination of food shortages, and which paves the way towards a sustainable life for human settlements beyond the Earth's biosphere.

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