There is a lot to like about Lauren Smeadley‘s intriguing proposal to establish a Fab Lab in the Fayetteville Free Library. While I suspect it will yield positive fruits, I confess to being skittish about some of the rhetoric she and her supporters have used to support the idea. While I delight in the video clips featuring Captain Picard in his fully-enlightened glory, any honest Trek geek would admit it wasn’t replicators that brought about a post-capitalist society, but the fatigue for conflict following the Eugenics Wars and first contact with the Vulcans. Not a technology, but a philosophy. Anyway, tempting as it may be, it’s not Jean Luc’s rhetoric I’m here to consider. It’s just that I get a very familiar vibe off of this effort. It takes me back to the heady days of my youth, driving to my first real girlfriend’s house to dialing into the local BBS. At a respectable 1600 baud we traded software and chatted with people with clever (and not so clever) handles. Just by participating in this underground culture we were fighting the power and changing the world, as long as we didn’t get booted when her mom called home from work. Idealism should never, ever die. Nor should we ever stop trying to change the world. But if we’re going to do it, we have to make sure that we’re not letting our enthusiasm make us vulnerable. Vulnerable in particular to the agendas of folks who want to keep the world exactly the same. Mixed in with Picard’s bemused confidence has to be a little of Sisko’s realpolitik. In other words, to push the Trek references a little too far, “never turn your back on a Breen”.
There are so many cautionary lessons to learn from of the early “information society” apostles. For example, I remember reading this quasi-utopian rhetoric and being so inspired. Even this flashy corporate voodoo was exciting (and featured Anna Paquin auditioning for the part of what I can only imagine is conduit to the Senior Partners at Wolfram & Hart). The problem is that the beautiful logic was all flawed. Enthusiast believed that by the Transitive Power of Progress, if a given technology was revolutionary in one domain and was created by smart people with egalitarian intentions, it would necessarily bring about smart, egalitarian revolutions in other domains (politics, economics and society). It just doesn’t work that way. Technology doesn’t make things better, it just makes things different. People can then choose to make things better, or not. It’s so much easier to choose the path of not. Neil Postman wrote a lot about the technological determinism fallacy. Love him or hate him, he has to be accounted for. He pointed out how the internet, like so many other technologies, began with idealistic hobbyists only to come increasing under the control of just a handful ISPs and Telcos. Sure everything is digital now, but at the price of having to deal with the intellectual propertization of everything, too.
What’s my point? The point is, rhetorically overselling the power of technological progress dampens the urgency and sense of individual responsibility people need in order to change the world. And boy does the world need changing. If we don’t take responsibility for carving (or printing) out the future we want, the same people with financial power now will extend their influence to include 3D printing, dominating it, and by extension the very people who need public libraries the most. It’s not just companies doing the dominating either. The Arab Spring demonstrated the power of a highly networked society to subvert autocracy. WikiLeaks, Stuxnet and the AntiSec hacktivist movement demonstrated how vulnerable governments are to cyber espionage. How are central governments going to respond to that? Even in nominal democracies, the government pushback is going to open up millions of personal back channels. It will get harder and harder to be anonymous on the web and easier and easier for mass marketing and mass media to target you personally. No level of proxying or encrypting will protect us if we’re voluntarily participating in a hegemonic panopticon. Right?
So, if the rhetoric of progress is a dangerous way to promote the idea of adding Fab Labs to public libraries what rhetoric should be used? The one that will appeal most to other librarians is one Smeadley is already using, the rhetoric of the public library being an arsenal for democratic culture. This is a popular ideal, and one that does good in the world. Unfortunately it’s one that Michael Harris’ The Purpose of the American Public Library. A Revisionist Interpretation of History poked pretty big holes in, too. It’s not impossible to still use the foundational myth, but one has to do so very cannily in order to be persuasive. There’s also the librarian’s classic (mostly unfounded) fear of losing relevancy to yet another emerging technology approach, but that would be a very dyspeptic one to try. In the end, I’m not sure it’s a grand rhetoric that is needed, even while one is trying to secure funding. 3D printing is a powerful, emerging technology. It would be useful to get ahead of the adoption curve on it, so librarians can help shape its adoption and implementation in a way that favors free or fair access. That is enough to get me really excited, and probably many other people too.
To be clear, I admire Smeadley’s initiative (in both senses), and am not accusing her of being anything but forward-thinking and appropriately enthusiastic. I am just concerned that it is so very easy to slip into the rhetoric of progress and technological determinism, and that can lead to problems down the road. Not only might it make the local trough of disillusionment deeper than it has to be, there is the very real possibility that if left to the devices of oligarchs, 3D printing could make things worse for democracy instead of better. I sincerely hope I’m just being an old coot about all this, and this time the technology really will change things. I look forward to keeping up with developments in Fayetteville.