We are beginning to see the emergence of a paradigm shift in society; the seeds of socialism are continuing to take root. The germination is nourished by technology as Marx predicted and further still as the demands of competitive markets dictate. Yet the capitalist motivation for technological innovation and adoption will lead to further alienation and thus political liberalization. The proliferation of computers and the spread of the Internet have introduced two new concepts into the zeitgeist: user generated content and crowd sourcing. The Internet has enabled mass production of content without centralized control; think Wikis. And the wiki method of crowd-sourcing problems – appealing to the masses for information, opinions and solutions – results in an environment where voting with dollars is rivaled by voting with attention; the ideas and projects that attract the most attention will attract the most creativity and the most passion and thus the most innovation. On top of the Internet platform two important developments are taking place: the democratization of education and the rise of home-based manufacturing. The future is a world in which home-based manufacturing will merge with the idea sharing and content generating properties of the Internet.
Globalization creates high demand for educated and skilled workers, and in response education is being democratized. I cite as evidence the proliferation of non-college or university based job training, retraining and education. Organizations like ITT Tech and the growth in online and community colleges are a response to the educational requirements of economic survival these days. Yet what is truly exhilarating is the emergence of Khan Academy, MITx and Harvardx and the Open Courseware movement in general. I believe these ideas are just the infancy of, what I suspect, is a new era in education and thus a new era for humanity. In the future, Ivy League educations will be available to anyone with internet access and the skills. Imagine Khan Academy except the lessons are delivered from the elite of academia; experts and pioneers in their fields. Many in academia are not fond of this idea and worry that the material will not translate well without on campus interaction, and these fears are justified. But this experiment should be conducted anyway; especially in the light of the meager costs at which this information can be transmitted and in an interactive form nonetheless. I contend that once communication technology is ubiquitous, education will become ubiquitous. Those industrious and enterprising individuals who have been deprived it thus far will finally have it within their grasp, and they will use it to better the living standards of their families, their community and themselves. Education, when a birth right, makes possible that from each according to his ability may become both the letter and spirit of the law. Society cannot advance to each according to his need until the inequality of opportunity is relieved.
There is another little known and fascinating industry in its infancy at this time – home based fabrication. Fabbers, as the machines are called, are available from several sources in several different designs. (Desktop Factory, Fab@Home, Makerbot). The technology, a derivative of 3D printing (additive manufacturing), has existed for some time, being used by firms and entrepreneurs to construct product models, but it was and still is of little practical value – especially for the average person. There are Pro-Am artists using the machines to produce sculptures and jewelry and a host of other things and the technology has been used to produce custom fitting artificial legs that mimic the physical properties of the lost limbs. Yet at this time Moore’s law does not apply to the technology because there just isn’t enough demand in the market. Home-based manufacturing needs analogs of Intel and Microsoft (and an Apple wouldn’t hurt either); they need to be in every home in America – in the world. Imagine a world in which you have a machine on your desktop (the wooden one) that can manufacture 3D objects from open source blueprints downloaded from the cloud. Imagine being able to print cutlery, china, basic food items, analgesics and antibiotics, food, hygiene products and almost anything plastic or metal in your home. This is no utopian fantasy. A reality that’s decades in the future for sure but it is coming.
As the technology is developed and refined the price of owning and operating one of these machines for everyday practical purposes will fall. The blueprints to build and the operating system needed for the machines are already under open source licenses. The industry needs a repository of blueprints to make the machines more useful to the average person; hopefully those blueprints will be open source. (At the moment there is an interesting business called Shapeways that will print the blueprints customers upload to their website. In fact someone’s designs can be sold on the Shapeways website and the designer would receive a commission whenever one of their blueprints was bought and printed. It’s an App Store for apps that can physically instantiated.) The biggest impediment to wide scale adoption will be supplying raw materials in suitable quantities, and with the nature of the manufacturing industry the availability and price of raw materials will decide who is printing and selling what. Nevertheless I contend that once additive manufacturing is ubiquitous the need for conventional mass-production greatly diminishes and thus the need for conventional laissez faire capitalism diminishes because specialization and division of labor will no longer be an absolute necessity to produce complex products.
In the coming decades the alienation created by the division of labor will be relieved – will find a release valve – through the ability to express one’s ideas in physical form; everyone is a designer. People will prefer to work from home and utilize their natural talents and interests to provide for their subsistence and this will create distaste for the division of labor – the heart of capitalism.