Monday, 5 November 2012

The Whole Earth Catalog and The Global Village Construction Set

When I was young and impressionable--an entirely different state of being than my current old and impressionable state--I bought a copy of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Younger folk may not know about the importance that catalogues held when I was young and impressionable. Our household, like just about every one else's, received two department store catalogues in the mail, Simpsons-Sears' and Eaton's. These were phone-book-sized tomes that had, it seemed, everything: ladies' underclothing, silver rings with an embedded Tiger's Eye stone, major household appliances, furniture, toys, and so on, all through the material inventory of modern culture. Looking through it carefully, placing bookmarks or dogearing pages, we planned our Christmas Lists, made our Christmas purchases, and laid our plans for future purchases. We received, no doubt, a sense of the multifariousness of our material culture from those books.

In 1968 appeared another catalog, on sale for $5.  It was even bigger than the others, just as varied, and seemed to contain nothing that the other books had. I bought a copy, I don't know when, and it fascinated me. It was called The Whole Earth Catalog and was subtitled Access to Tools. It had mini-reviews on books about building dome houses, classics about the relation of math and design, waterproof fabrics that made safer motorcycle clothing than mere leather, the address for ordering a poster of Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion Map, and more. It was like a Sears' or Eaton's catalog but intended for back-to-the-land or urban, free-thinking geeks. You can still find the content on-line, but that misses out the heft of the book, the size of the pages, and the texture and smell of the off-white pages.

One of the TED Talks brought back strong memories of that catalog. The speaker is Marcin Jakubowski, a farmer with a PhD in fusion physics. He, too, is concerned that people have "Access to Tools."

His story is a powerful argument for the value of education. As he says in the video, he found that his attempts to farm were disastrously stymied by the need for heavy equipment that broke and then broke ("and then I was broke, too"), so he designed and built his own equipment.

This being the age of the Internet, he attracted a supportive community that helped to improve his work. It is working towards the goal of inexpensive, local, repairable designs for the "50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small civilization with modern comforts." These are listed on his Open Source Ecology website as "The Global Village Construction Set."

These machines may make their way onto farms in the developed world because of simple economic advantage. A new tractor that can be built for $12,000 in six days of work compares very well with a commercial equivalent for twice the price. I expect that the developing world would be even more receptive to his ideas and inventions. Small businesses in Africa or Brazil could start to provide machines and parts, and machines to make the parts, and machines to power the machines, all for much less than First World companies could do.

Could the effort be shut down by litigation, through patent lawsuits and SLAPP suits? Perhaps, but the bottom-up nature of the effort might make it too hard to shut down. A single company making tractors can be sued into bankruptcy; a thousand companies making a few tractors each, not so easily. Ten thousand farmers making one tractor each for personal use, not at all.

Businessweek has just published an update on the project, and Slashdot is weighing in with comments on it. There has been funding from individuals and a big whack of it from the Shuttleworth Foundation. Jakubowski's farm looks and smells like a shambles, but a turning point may be reached in December, when Jakubowski starts selling copies of one of his machines, a "a DIY compressed-earth brick press":
[he] is hopeful he can turn it into something the farm can sell for $9,000 each. “The closest competitor is $45,000,” he says.
If it goes as planned, he hopes to prove "that the farm can make a profit of $5,000 per day from one of its machines." I hope that he does, and even more on the other forty-nine machines in his Construction Set.

I hope, at any rate, that his dream develops more quickly than another project that I have been following, on and off, for decades: Arcosanti. Like the Construction Set, Arcosanti combines idealism, education, and volunteer labour. Unlike the Construction Set's, its progress has been glacially slow. Any hope that Arcosanti can improve the world is now, I'd have to say, minimal to the point of nonexistant; that the Construction Set will do so is much, much greater.

No comments:

Post a Comment