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Stop Worrying and Love the Technosphere

"Small-scale technology is technolgy that can be used by small-scale communities without outside assistance." -Theodore Kaczynski, Industrial Society and Its Future
I've had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Carson a few times. He lives in northwest Arkansas near where my family lives, so unlike most of the people I interview for the C-Realm Podcast, some of our conversations have been face to face. We were recording an interview at the Springdale Public Library when Kevin surprised me by describing himself as a techno-utopian.

When I hear the phrase techno-utopian I think of people like Ray Kurzweil who expect to live forever surrounded by a cloud of nanobots that transform the world around him in real time to cater to his every need and whim. I didn't think Kevin went in for that sort of wish fulfillment fantasy, and I was right. He doesn't.

When he describes himself as a techno-utopian he means that he envisions small, very local communities that have become self-supporting through rapid prototyping and the use of 3D printers and similar technologies to fabricate, on a small scale, the sorts of items that currently require massive industrial facilities and globe-spanning supply lines.

Under such an arrangement, local communities would supply their own electricity with wind and solar, feed themselves with intensive gardening and mixed-use agriculture, and share knowledge, open source designs and best practices with other communities via the web.

When I asked him about the prospects for transportation in a post-fossil fuel world, he responded that he thought people just wouldn't travel very much in this living arrangement.

This actually sounds pretty good to me. How likely is it to come about?  I'm not in a position to say with any confidence or authority, but a couple of stumbling blocks occur to me.

At present, 3D printers cannot create rare earth minerals for use in electronics. I don't follow the development of this technology closely, but last I heard, 3D printers could not create computer chips. Those still require enormous and enormously expensive fabrication facilities.

But so what? Most small towns in previous centuries had blacksmiths to make horseshoes and other metal items. Given my own dependence on global trade, fossil fuels, and the expertise and labor of people I will never meet, a small town in 18th century New England was a model of local self-sufficiency. But the local blacksmith did not make his own anvil. He didn't make the bellows he used to stoke the fire in which he heated the metal that he worked upon his anvil. Nor did he make the hammer he would use to shape the heated metal.

All of these things were made in far off places and transported great distances and at no small expense. But the tools were durable, and the knowledge of how to use them would provide the blacksmith with a life-long livelihood.
Today's information age tools are not only fragile, but they are designed with the expectation that they will be discarded after a couple of years when the user "upgrades" to the latest version of whatever it is he needs to earn a living. What's more, to prevent one's skills from becoming obsolete requires continuous re-education.

Perhaps rapid technological change is incompatible with local self-sufficiency. Perhaps I should count my blessings, enjoy the gizmos and accept the need for sprawling technocratic systems that give me access to a global audience and wealth of culture and information. Perhaps I should give thanks for whatever amount of stability and predictability life amidst constant technological upheaval allows.
I said I saw a couple of snags. The second is that local autonomy runs counter to the needs of central authorities and the corporations who profit from the inability of local communities to provide for their own needs. That will be the subject of a future entry.

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