In his latest book, Revolution in the Making: 3D Printers, Robots and the Future, Guy Rundle – whom I should disclose is a friend – makes a case that contemporary society is at the beginning of a social transformation, a technological revolution that will change the very social structures which dominates our lives. As is usually the case, Rundle’s book showcases his cutting edge sensibilities and his restless intellect. It’s a fascinating and zesty little book.
For the last fifty years, Rundle argues, we’ve experienced a revolution in information technology, one that has transformed our means of communication, but that has left the day-to-day facts of our lives – the working week, the way we produce and consume our material comforts – untouched. Factories, shopping centres, our everyday working lives are not much different from the way they were in the decades following the Second World War, even if globalisation has sent much of industry to the Third World.
According to Rundle, this is all about to change, with the development of 3D printers, robotics, the development of new nanotech materials like graphene and with emerging alternative energy sources.
Most of the book details Rundle’s journeys into the new worlds where engineers, scientists and inventors are developing these technologies. He travels across the US, the UK and Europe, and watches tumours cut with precision by medical robots, holds a sheet of material (graphene) one atom thick, and investigates 3D printers capable of self-reproducing. His journey takes him to high-tech labs at universities or private institutions, and – more interestingly – to ‘makerspaces’, grand semi-communal workspaces where developers work, quite often using ‘open source’ or collective processes. At their most radical edge, these makerspaces are run by radical libertarians or leftists – part-inventors, part utopian communalists – driven by the desire to democratise the technology and alleviate human suffering.
It’s impossible, as Rundle notes, not to be swept away by the excitement of the inventors and their new technology. He explains that, for ‘those who take even a little interest in the subject it becomes entrancing and all-encompassing.’ Lest I underplay the argument, let him speak for himself: the new technologies of 3D printing, robotics, and alternative energy ‘could liberate the entire human species from brute domination by nature’s most life-denying forces (those of hunger, extreme climate, and disease), but could do so while offering an alternative to the routinised drudgery and waste of life that passes for work for so much of the population in much of the world today.’
What we have, as Rundle’s outlines in his final visionary conclusion, are the beginnings of a revolution that has the potential to disrupt capitalism and, in its interstices, build new, alternative ways of producing: versions of post-capitalism directly bypassing the deadening bureaucracies of state socialism that failed so spectacularly in the twentieth century. The distribution of the technology ‘could potentially provide the wider population with the tools to create forms and regions of countervailing power against centralisation.’ Not everyone will become a ‘maker’, though there might be 3D printers in garages around the world, printing out essential items for a minimal cost. For some time, he suggests, these systems will coexist, in all their messy complexity. Quite likely the capitalist system would coninue in crisis, as its mechanisms were undermined, and the utopian future will only ever be a vanishing end-point.
Still this is a kind of revolution akin to the industrial one – after it, everything will be forever changed.
While there’s no doubting the potential of much of the technology Rundle describes, we might have some reservations about the argument.
To begin with, Rundle’s future history is driven by two key ideas: the notion of ‘autonomous’ zones – makerspaces using ‘open source’ material – and technological determinism, the notion that the technology itself has the power to transform society. Admittedly, Rundle is never crude in his position, making his own critiques of these things, and pointing towards more dystopian future possibilities. But in the end, he still follows these general arguments.
Autonomous zones have a long history, dating back at least to the utopian socialist communities of the nineteenth century, though in their modern incarnation they descend from the counterculture of the sixties, in the form of rural and urban communes, or as a political tactic used by radical leftists – anarchists, autonomists, communists, even self-proclaimed Leninists.
Technological determinism has a longer lineage, but is found across the world today. Its embodied in notions like the ‘singularity’: the concept, driven by post-humanists (and familiar to anyone in the field of science fiction) that at some indeterminate point technological progress will ascend at such a rate that it will outstrip human control and lead to a radically transformed world of artificial intelligence, the end of death and virtual worlds into which we might download ourselves.
Both of these projects face the same problem, an objection that has as a history almost as long as autonomous zones and techno-utopianism. It’s one that Rundle never addresses front-on. The objection runs like this: the circuits of capitalism regulate society in such a way that transformative moments are always contained and re-integrated. Production and distribution, private property, the law (including such things as patents), the state (both coercive and consensual) : all of these act to reassert the status quo.
As a result, communes and autonomous zones can only ever sustain themselves for brief moments. History is littered with examples of their disintegrations, from the New Australian utopianists who settled in Paraguay to the communes of New York’s East Village. One suspects that the makerspaces, for all their idealism and generosity will face similar futures. Some of the inventors will move on to other interests; others will be bought off by corporations; some will become entrepreneurs in their own right, making the kind of transition that Jerry Rubin did after the 1960s.
Meanwhile, even if the tech does develop its world-changing potential (something not at all certain), like other forms of technology, it will find itself either adopted, bought off, or crushed by corporate and state interests. After all, technology has rarely been the problem; there are already many ways of solving the pressing needs of society. The problem is one of political will, and it’s here that Rundle’s book, for all its vitality and verve, is silent.
One of Rundle’s best traits is that, regardless of what we make of his argument, he’s always interesting, and Revolution in the Making is no exception. These new technologies do indeed have wondrous potential, and Rundle’s book is a cornucopia of fascinating facts, a great brush-up for anyone who wants a quick conspectus of the field. But it seems to me that it tells only half the story about how we might build our future.