The fabbing economy looks just fine

Paul Raven @ 06-07-2009

Ponoko stall at Maker FaireDespite the desperately fixed-grinned hand-waving from Downing Street and Washington, signs of economic improvement seem pretty scarce on the ground.

But commercial fabbing company Ponoko seems to be doing fine – so fine, in fact, that they’re trying to draft volunteers to help them keep up with explosive demand at their new San Francisco outlet. [image by tom.arthur]

In response, Fabbaloo asks whether “we hear the sound of the 21st century industry emerging” – and while it’s too early to be sure, I think they may be right.

China, Green Dam and peer pressure

Paul Raven @ 01-07-2009

Chinese soldierThe Chinese government is backpedalling with all the terse dignity it can muster; its controversial Green Dam end-user censorware has received so much political criticism (and vendor footdragging) that its launch has been delayed:

Xinhua, the state news agency, reported the change of plan four hours before the software launch was due.

“China will delay the mandatory installation of the ‘Green Dam-Youth Escort’ filtering software on new computers,” it said in a terse statement attributed to the ministry of industry and information technology.

The authorities looked likely to miss their deadline for the rollout of the software that blocks pornographic, violent and politically sensitive content.

The Guardian struggled to find a single retailer who had Green Dam either installed or bundled with computers.

Adding to the mystery, Lenovo, Sony, Dell and Hewlett Packard refused to comment on whether their PCs are now being shipped with the software, as the government ordered them to do last month.

The government says the software is necessary to clear the Chinese web of “harmful content”. But critics say it is a misguided attempt to put the internet genie back in the bottle by a Communist party that now has to answer to about 300 million web users.

The appropriately-named Isaac Mao sees this as an epochal moment for the Chinese:

I think this is the tipping point between the people rising up and those in power trying to suppress them. The great firewall is overloaded and that is why the authorities are trying to move the focus of control to the desktop. But it has annoyed a lot of people. Not just liberals who want free speech but the young who see it as an intrusion into their personal lives.”

I rather suspect that commercial resistance has had as much of a part to play as political. Whether the Communist Party has shot itself in the foot by trying to control something inherently uncontrollable remains to be seen, but this is another example of the web appearing to break down geography and erode the power of nation-states. Revolution seems to be a popular pastime at the moment – maybe we’ll see the Red Dragon try to slip its chains soon? [image by Ed-meister]

Jeff Jarvis takes the opportunity to point out that big companies like Google and Siemens who have been known to collaborate with repressive governments actually have the clout to bring them to the bargaining table… and that as such, it behooves us as their paying customers to keep the pressure on them to play nice:

Technology companies from Cisco to Nokia to Siemens that have provided technology to enable censorship and tracking, and companies from Yahoo to Google that have handed over information about users to governments that use it to oppress citizens should be ashamed. And we need to shame them. We need to give them cover by demanding behavior that is not and does not support evil.

In a digital age, censoring the internet, stopping citizens from connecting with each other, and using the internet to spy on and then oppress citizens is evil. We shame companies that helped enable fascist regimes in the ’30s and apartheid in the last century. Is it time for technology boycotts? I’m not sure. But it is time for the discussion.

I’m not sure outright boycotts would work, if only because of the size and ubiquity of many of the companies in question.  But so far it looks like vocal objection and discussion is chipping away at the walls of the more monolithic states; perhaps it’s too much to hope for, but maybe totalitarianism’s time is coming to an end? Even the arch-realist Chairman Bruce suspects we may just not have it in us any more.

Of course, the possibility of sweeping away nation-states only to replace them with equally dictatorial multinational corporations is worth bearing in mind. I think Jarvis is right: we need to keep up the pressure on big businesses so that they don’t start eyeing up empty thrones. Vote with your feet, and with your pocketbook.

The terrible cost of cash

Paul Raven @ 23-03-2009

a pile of Euro notesIt sounds like a tautology to say that cash costs money – ten bucks costs ten bucks, right? But for every ten-spot note you carry in your wallet or purse, you’re paying extra in banking fees elsewhere for the maintenance of the cash storage and distribution system – the upkeep and servicing of ATMs, for example. And then there are the subsidies, and the social costs…

David Birch suggests that, while we’re looking around for ways to make our economic systems more rational, ditching cash in favour of all-digital transactions would be good for us. But he’s aware it’ll be a hard sell:

I can’t see how the pricing problem is going to be resolved. Telling consumers that they will have to start paying more at the ATM because they will gain more overall will never work because the costs are immediate and visible but the benefits are diffuse and invisible. Perhaps use e-money fans should refocus. As Leo pointed out to me, almost two-thirds of the euros in circulation are in high denomination notes: these are not used for everyday transactional purposes but as stores of value in the less-regulated parts of the economy. Could be then achieve the goal of reducing total social costs and boosting the net welfare by explaining to our elected representatives that cash is not simply expensive, but dangerous?

The implicit point in there is that large amounts of circulating cash are of benefit to those who already have more money than everyone else, and to businesses whose legitimacy may not be entirely unquestionable; history suggests that asking governments to make things harder for such groups is unlikely to be a great success, for a variety of reasons. [image by stefan]

I remember being told at school in the late eighties that by the time I was part of the adult world, no-one would be using cash any more; a cashless society is well within our technological grasp, yet still we tote around slugs of metal and grubby slips of paper to pay for things. Would we really be better off without physical currency? And if so, why aren’t we already rid of it?

Lubing the unregulated edges of the internet

Paul Raven @ 20-02-2009

cellphone solar chargerIsn’t that the best title ever? Jan Chipchase strikes again, talking about the anthropological outcomes of the proposed universal micro-USB phone charger format:

Widespread adoption of Micro-USB lowers barriers to entry for would-be services providers – they currently need support a range of memory cards, umpteen data cables, Bluetooth and InfraRed […] A mobile phone optimised Bollywood movie can take 20 minutes to transfer from a laptop onto a generic micro-memory card – currently it’s hardly convenient.

If you follow Chipchase’s Future Perfect blog (and if you enjoy the stuff we talk about here at Futurismic, I suggest that you really should do) you’ll be aware that developing nations are far more dependent on their cellphones for infrastructural purposes than we are in the West; universal accessories would remove a number of small and pointless obstacles from the flow of commerce. In other words:

There is a place at the edges of the internet where the level of friction makes content and data grind to a halt. It’s largely unregulated. And it just got seriously lubed.

[Image by Ken Banks,]

Caveat emptor: news reports from the Age of Direct Digital Manufacturing

C Sven Johnson @ 18-02-2009

Sven Johnson’s Future Imperfect returns with more news from our very near future. You’ve heard of fabbing or 3D printing, right? Won’t it be amazing when anyone and everyone can become a designer – a web-based brave new world of commerce?

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson

Well, not necessarily. Sven looks at the disconnect between the old model of pre-corporate capitalism and the new model that a Fabrication-on-Demand industry will produce. In a nutshell: it’s the consumers who’ll run the greatest risks, without any of the safety nets provided by an up-to-date suite of intellectual property laws.

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