There’s been some concern lately in the open-source micromanufacturing community that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is interested in financing hackerspaces and Fab Labs. The concern is that such funding might coopt and domesticate what otherwise promises to be an industrial revolution based on liberatory technologies.
But let’s put this in perspective. In Cory Doctorow’s “Makers,” traditional American industrial corporations come up against a situation in which cheapening, distributed means of production means no profitable outlet for all the investment capital sitting around. “Capitalism is eating itself …. The days of companies with names like General Electric and General Mills and General Motors are over.” Desperate Fortune 500 corporations, selling off corporate jets and other assets at fire sale prices, attempt to buy into garage micromanufacturing operations as a Hail Mary pass to stave off irrelevancy and bankruptcy.
The corporations ruthlessly liquidate most of their surviving mass-production capacity, and their investment arms use cash on hand as something like a Grameen bank for hardware hackers, to fund thousands of micromanufacturing startups. Eventually players ranging from GMAC and Westinghouse to the investment arm of the AFL-CIO have their own microfinance programs investing in garage startups and trying to cash in on the “New Work” industrial revolution.
But this approach fails. The New Work boom goes bust, not because i’s a failure, but because it’s too successful. The micromanufacturing technologies of the New Work, after the bust, are if anything even more ubiquitous than during the boom. The collapse of the New Work boom doesn’t mean the micromanufacturing technology it’s based on disappears; rather, the technology becomes so cheap and common that it’s impossible for venture capitalists to make money off it. Micromanufacturing is so productive it destroys all the opportunities to enclose it as a source of rents.
DARPA is trying to do essentially the same thing in the real world.
DARPA was created as a research organization with a free hand to scatter lots of money among lots of promising little projects, in the hope that a few of them would pay off and become fundamental technologies of the future. But DARPA’s scheme will fail for the same reason. It’s impossible to enclose a new production process and capitalize it as a source of rents when the technology is cheap and replicable.
Rentiers can attempt to do so through enforcing legal monopolies — building DRM into CAD/CAM files, marketing proprietary printers that refuse to recognize files without DRM, and criminalizing the technical means of circumventing DRM — but they will fail. There are all sorts of open-source 3D printer projects already out there, with moving parts that can be replicated in a well-equipped garage shop, and open-source hardware hackers will keep replicating 3D printers whether American manufacturing corporations want them to or not. Any attempt to suppress the people’s distributed, open-source industrial revolution will result in the same humiliating failure the record companies have experienced with file-sharing.
For thousands of years, parasitic rentier classes have used the state to exact tribute from the labor of the producing classes. The rentiers have imposed one toll-gate after another between labor and consumption, inserting themselves as middlemen and skimming off tribute in return for “allowing” the producers to exchange the products of their peaceful labor. They enclosed vacant land and demanded rent from those who would cultivate it, they conquered already-occupied land and exacted rent from the cultivators, even reducing those who worked the land to serfdom or slavery. Since then they have refined this extortion process, resorting to one monopoly or entry barrier after another — up to the present day, when copyrights and patents are the primary monopoly that empower corporate “vampire squids” to squeeze the earth dry.
For thousands of years, economic ruling classes acting through the state have warred upon the forces of abundance, creating artificial scarcity in order to compel the producing classes to work to feed the rentiers in addition to themselves. But we’ve reached a threshold where the forces of abundance are growing too fast for the rentiers to enclose. Humanity is nearing the end of its millennia-long war between production and parasitism, between natural abundance and artificial scarcity. And now the rentiers will face the same choice we’ve been presented with for all these years: either work or starve.