Destroy all of the things!

This is the biggest philosophical dilemma I have on my mind nowadays: do we have the ethical responsibility to ‘hinder progress’ if future dangers seem too great, or must we simply let things go on and then deal with the consequences later?
For example, there are clear uncertainties with nano-technologies. Some studies and concepts seem to have clear benefits but there could also be some huge, far-reaching negative impacts. But do we just stop all the research? And who has the responsibility for doing this? What is the governance chain? What do we lose by doing so?

Many people I know are very leery of garage biology, to give another example. And these are not Luddites, to be written off as crazies who want to live a pre-industrial existence as if the steam engine (or even the Difference Engine) had never been invented.

As some of you know, I ran a series of discussion events on ‘Sustainable Maker Culture‘ at the World Design Capital Pavilion this past summer. Fortunately the lovely and talented Peter Troxler was in Helsinki in early July, so he gave a talk about Fab Labs at Helsinki Green Drinks during a sunny Friday afternoon. One of the audience members asked Peter about bio-hacking and to compare it with the DIY practices that we see in Fab Labs. Are there the same risks involved with DIY making as DIY biology? Should we be worried about Fab Labs spreading? As expected, Peter was reassuring – there are certainly not the same health and safety issues involved. People in Fab Labs are playing around with matter and material but not (usually) the matter of life itself.

Peter Troxler
Peter Troxler speaks at Helsinki Green Drinks, 6 July 2012

Still – I can only be hopeful that people themselves have the foresight to establish the ethical procedures required in garage biology and that Marleen Stikker from the Waag Society is right when she says confidently that along with these peer-to-peer and DIY practices, with the learning and knowledge sharing, comes responsibility.

Now you’re surely labelling me as a conservative and a Luddite. Cindy, Cindy! This is what civilization is all about! Look at how society has benefited from research and exploration and letting scientists do what they do best! It’s human nature to experiment and to advance and improve both our knowledge and our living conditions!

Have you read Ian McDonald‘s Brasyl? There’s a part in it where (SPOILER ALERT!) an inventor type has created a machine that forebodes future digitization and the replacement of human labour with machines (the setting is pre-1900s, if I remember right). There’s a priest character, whose instant gut reaction is to destroy the machine. I don’t think I’d actually be the priest in this little scenario, but I can almost understand that immediate response.

Antti Ahonen from Koelse says that 3D printers should be outright banned. He is being deliberately provocative, of course, but I think we should be at least having the discussion and raising awareness of the benefits and risks of a technology that is bound to mainstream. And not just makers and lead users, but all citizens. (See also Eero Yli-Vakkuri’s excellent discussion here.)

Still, with peak oil and peak rare earths and peak metals… the only 3D printing we may end up doing in the further future is solar laser sintering using sand. That’s *really* Slow Design for you. I’m kidding, of course.
I think.

Solar Sinter
Photo from www.markuskayser.com/work/solarsinter/