Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Open-Source Freedom

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
Robert A. Heinlein

Northwestern Localist asked an interesting question in response to the column Homebrew Production is Coming.
How many years are we from designing and building our own farm equipment, transportation, etc. etc.? This kind of technology makes massive centralized government control less viable.
I happened to know the answer is zero, which sent me searching for something I vaguely remembered, and that led me to the today's column. While Northwestern Localist won't be printing up a tractor on a RepRap machine any time soon, his question goes far beyond that, to the concept of shared knowledge.

In the past, books could provide the knowledge necessary to design and build a tractor, but from there he would have been on his own, with his choices limited to designing and building a tractor from scratch or buying a tractor from some taxed and regulated organization with the capital to manifest that knowledge as a factory mass-producing tractors and the rationale to be sure that tractor would need replacing in a few years.

The Open Source movement, which started as a way for programmers to share code to accomplish particular tasks in the electronic world, has expanded to encompass similar code to accomplish particular tasks in the physical world. The implications for the future go far beyond the RepRap machine we examined in Homebrew Production is Coming; even far beyond the farm equipment Northwestern Localist asks about. But let's start there, with Open Source Ecology, a network of farmers, engineers and supporters building the Global Village Construction Set. Check out this description.
Open Source Ecology is a network of farmers, engineers, and supporters that for the last two years has been creating the Global Village Construction Set, an open source, low-cost, high performance technological platform that allows for the easy, DIY fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a sustainable civilization with modern comforts. The GVCS lowers the barriers to entry into farming, building, and manufacturing and can be seen as a life-size lego-like set of modular tools that can create entire economies, whether in rural Missouri, where the project was founded, in urban redevelopment, or in the developing world.
"A life-size lego-like set of modular tools that can create entire economies." If that doesn't set a brushfire in the mind of any entrepreneur, tinkerer, futurist, localist or agorist who reads it, I don't know what could. Except perhaps their estimate that these repairable machines will cost 1/8th the cost of comparable commercially-produced machines, with all their problems associated with planned obsolescence and long-term parts availablity.

In this video from a year ago, TED Fellow Marcin Jakubowski and organizer of Open Source Ecology explains the concepts that drive the project.

This video provides a two-minute tour of the Global Village Construction Set. They've added an additional ten machines to the plan since the video was made.

For those who want more, all 124 of Open Source Ecology's videos can be found here.

Now that we've answered Northwestern Localist's question, it's worth noting that open source isn't limited to building entire villages. In the field of 3D printers, for example, besides the RepRap project, there's MakerBot, which produces 3D printers, kits, and parts, all based on open source designs. Thingiverse is an open source site that allows for sharing of designs that can be created on 3D printers, and TinkerCad provides free on-line software that can be used to create those designs. The three sites combine to create a complete open source ecology for 3D printing.

If you're not the hardware type, you can probably find a fabricator at 100kGarages who's willing to take your project from design to completion and send you the finished product.
100kGarages.com is a free resource for getting custom products made, just the way you want them. Makers, designers and digital fabricators (we like to call them Fabbers) -- all are welcome here. Our mission is to help you connect, collaborate and create custom items!

Let's say you have a CAD file for a cool design and want to find a fabber to make it, this is the place for you. If you're looking for CAD/CAM projects to maximize your investment in digital fabrication tools, you should sign up as a Fabber and offer your services. People with established businesses who use CNC routers, laser cutters or 3D printers of any brand are welcome to sign up as 100kGarages Fabbers.
Other open source projects span the spectrum from media to robotics. The Open Source Initiative is a non-profit dedicated to building bridges among different constituencies in the open source community. They include education among their initiatives . Other open source education organizations include the Open Source Education Foundation, Open Source Textbooks K-12 and the California Open Source Textbook Project. The Kahn Academy, with over 3000 videos online, and MIT OpenCourseWare, with over 2000 courses available, are other free education sources, although not strictly part of the open source movement.

Electronics open source projects include the Arduino and Open Electronics among others. Sites such as Make Magazine and TED are packed with ideas that adopt readily to the open source concept.

For those who are nervous about striking out on such projects on their own, you'll find that all of the sites listed have an active and friendly user community, more than willing to assist the uninitiated in exploring their particular field.

As Heinlein's quote points out, a broad skillset is a uniquely human accomplishment. By sharing our own knowledge and building on the knowledge of others, everyone benefits. Open source leverages knowledge by allowing us to share physical manifestations of concepts that before could only be shared through the printed word. The open source movement, initially anchored in the world of bits and bytes, has expanded to offer a new world of freedom of information that is rapidly encompassing the physical world as well.

...and that's all I have to say about that. Author's Note: The series continues in The Homebrew Production Model. Here's a Table of Contents for the Phoenix Society series of posts.


  1. nice post just shared this on digg

  2. So, I love the quote at the top, and I love the idea. But...how realistic is this for everyone? It requires a lot of time for research, finding others with experience in your field, learning from them, and then the time to execute whatever it is you're trying to execute...leaving time for failure the first few shots. Let's look at homeschooling and pretend Kylie is my biodaughter. There's no way I could stay home and teach her. Not because I don't think I could do it intellectually - my mother homeschools my brother, so I know I could do it. :D But I need to work. And I need to work fulltime.

    Let's pretend I wanted to build a tractor. Wonderful. But when would I do that? I work fulltime. I maintain a household that is NOT easy to maintain thanks in part to its size and in part to my husband and daughter. I have errands to run. I have to workout for both my emotional and my physical sanity. My daughter has swimming and horseback riding and school activities. My husband and I both come from large families and like to spend time with them. We have a boat on the Potomac 3 hours away (a little one but still), and we like to spend weekends camping and fishing and crabbing. We have stuff around the house we're doing, household projects. We have a yard and plants (we are, at least, attempting to grow some of our own berries and veggies). And oh, yeah...I write (or pretend to), I have a few friends, and I need time to read or else I go crazy.

    So tell me...how would I find time to make everything I need myself?

    1. You don't make everything you need yourself today, why would you ever want to? But what if you need a tractor and someone in your community can offer you one for half of what you'd pay John Deere, all built out of parts he can replace, just like the one he's been running in his garden? What if he's willing to trade part of the cost for something you or your husband are good at, or will take some of those crabs in partial exchange? Or maybe you'll just rent his tractor when you need it in exchange for a bucket of crabs and some fish after one of your excursions.

      Realistically, it will be a while before you can put your daughter in your next-door-neighbor's school, but that's not true for most of the world's population.

      This really isn't about everybody learning to do everything, and doing it for themselves. It's more about communities learning to do more amongst themselves, shifting some of their reliance from a faceless globalcorp to somebody they actually know.

      And think about why you need to work fulltime... to pay taxes that finance that school you send your daughter to, transportation costs for all the stuff that's not produced locally, and profits for megacorps, among other reasons, including paying for a house too big to easily maintain, gas for three-hour trips to the boat... well, you get the idea.

      The Phoenix Society isn't something that will pop on one day when someone flips a switch. It's something that will happen over time, as people examine their current choices and decide to make different ones... like attempting to grow some of their own berries and veggies.

    2. Well, yes. The answer to your questions in the first paragraph is absolutely. Without doubt.

      You do make some interesting points about why I need to work full time...although the trips to his parents' property aren't up for debate. LOL. We haven't been down there at all this year, and my poor fisherman husband is dying. Enough derail though...

      I see your points, and if those things became available in our own community, we'd definitely take advantage of them. It's one of the things I'm grateful for - my husband's skills. Woodworking, building, drywall. Plus the guys who work for him and all the contacts he has in the service industry. We are fortunate and have many skills to trade should we need to one day.