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The Moral Questions Raised by the Rise of Maker Culture
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maker movementWhat are some of the fast-changing elements of the “maker movement” currently reshaping part of the American economy? In an item here a few days ago, I went through some of major developments in recent years affecting the maker movement and looked at where some experts think it’s heading in the future. Now, I want to consider some of the intriguing challenges and dilemmas (educational, legal, moral, and ethical) all this will increasingly pose in the years to come.

Before I continue, here’s a quick recap. I’m writing in these two posts about what panelists at the recent Conference on World Affairs in Boulder had to say about the maker movement (the common term used to describe the widespread diffusion of the spaces, tools, and collaborative application of knowledge to create enterprises, especially physical products). I noted Jules Pieri‘s conclusion that the availability of makerspaces, the rise of crowdfunding, and the role of local retailers are essential elements of the growing importance of makers.

And all the panelists agreed on the centrality of easily accessible 3-D printing technology, the rapid evolution of which is already sparking revolutionary thinking in synthetic biology (according to the futurist Jamais Cascio), meaning that the printing of human body parts and food may be just around the corner. These rapid changes in 3-D printing are what give rise to many of the challenges and dilemmas the CWA panelists spent time considering.

Education Challenges: One interesting line of discussion involved the kind of education that people will need to thrive in this rapidly changing world. At each panel, a worried parent approached the microphone during the Q&A period and asked for advice on how to steer children through these rapidly shifting waters. Some were concerned about very young kids, others about those of college-age.

The consensus answer was that the emphasis should be on collaboration (learning with others, working with others—both keys to much of the advancement of the maker culture), learning how to think (specific subject matter is less important, with an important exception noted below), and being able to think in a systemic way (seeing how things fit together).

For young kids, the panelists said, the goal should be to get them started early. Will O’Brien, a tech entrepreneur, noted that he got into computers very early. His father worked at IBM, so computers were a family preoccupation. When O’Brien was 10 years old, his brother was in college, writing programs in BASIC. So, Will started to write in BASIC, too—mostly making computer games. That early influence proved important, as O’Brien went on to become a serially successful executive in computer-game and other tech companies.

O’Brien gave his own kids tablet computers very early. “When my son was 6 months old, I gave him an iPad and let him bang around on it, interface with it. When he was a year old, I gave him a thing called a MaKey MaKey (pronounced makie-makie).” The product’s website describes it as “a simple invention kit for beginners and experts doing art, engineering, and everything in between.” Its creator, Jay Silver, raised over $568,000 on Kickstarter to help launch the product. The kit makes experimentation easy. It has alligator clips that you can attach to anything—a banana, Play-Doh, whatever. O’Brien’s son became immersed in creating a banana piano, making his own music on bananas. “I think it’s very important,” he said, “to expose kids to the building blocks.”

The consensus on what’s important for older kids and adults is concise: coding. All the panelists agreed on that, and clearly that viewpoint is already widespread. In our American Futures travels, we see coding classes almost everywhere. In this post just last week, Jim Fallows described Bitwise, a tech incubator in Fresno, California, that runs a program to teach coding skills to people at many stages of life, preparing them for job opportunities that require these tech skills.

The CWA panelist Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in California, pointed to a free programming language and online community called Scratch from MIT’s Media Lab that, he said, is “like Lego for coding.” Using Scratch, people learn programming skills while they create their own interactive stories, games, and animations. “It’s a good way to learn—in fact, one of the best tools we have today for how to learn,” Shostak said.

Educating ourselves and those younger for this changing world is far from the only challenge all this raises. Reflecting on 3-D printing technology and its predicted applications in synthetic biology, panelists identified a wide range of concerns:

Legal Challenges: In an age when anybody can print out a 3-D copy of almost anything, what happens to intellectual property? Cascio noted that you can go to your computer or smartphone and download 123D Catch, an app that will allow you to take a photo of something and then turn that photo into a digital file that you can print out with a 3-D printer. So, for example, you could make your own copy of some sculptor’s work that you see in a local art studio window. Is that fair? Is that economically just?

Issues of equity, fairness, and inequality: Panelists worried about the uneven distribution of emerging technologies around the world and asked: How do we take the whole world with us on this journey as opposed to just a small portion of it? How do we all progress? Different scenarios emerged from the discussion:

Scenario 1: We simply don’t all progress together. These technological developments become an engine for greater and greater disparities of power and wealth around the globe.

Scenario 2: People in the developing world become the beneficiaries of innovations emerging from the advanced world. The latter become the beta testers, turning over to the former those breakthroughs (like 3-D printed food?) that are promising. An precedent is how cell-phone networks allowed the developing world to leapfrog over the infrastructure costs of wired communication.

Scenario 3: Better living for everyone and broad inclusion in wealth-creation will occur by having open networks, open communication, open-source programming, software, and making. Open source, Jamais Cascio says, “is the zenith of the notion of combining collaboration and creation—the ‘making with the many.’ What you’re doing is literally putting it out there for others to use, and to remake and reshape it.” He pointed to the open sourcing of the SARS genome, which was sequenced and put online for anybody to see, as being one of the critical factors leading to a treatment for SARS being developed far faster than anyone expected. “When you have a complex problem, when you have a complex threat, collaboration is one of your better tools for response.”

Issues of ethics, morality and criminality: In my post last Friday, I quoted Cascio’s observation that with our emerging ability to 3-D print human organs and use synthetic biology in astonishing new ways, we may be acquiring capacities “reserved to the deity,” but “what we haven’t been developing as swiftly is the wisdom to know what to make and what not to make.”

The interesting question, as several panelists observed, is whether we are developing a moral and ethical framework as quickly as our technological capacities are evolving. Is our current moral and ethical framework compatible with the maker movement?…

SOURCE: The Atlantic

 

 

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