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Three brothers anticipate the rise of digital fabrication

Designing Reality: How to Survive and Thrive in the Third Digital Revolution

Neil Gershenfeld, Alan Gershenfeld, and Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld
Basic Books
297 pp.
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In Designing Reality, three brothers join together to tackle the topic of digital fabrication. Their core premise is that widespread technological and societal transformation is on the horizon as today’s simple three-dimensional (3D) printers give way to a new era of digitally designed materials and fabricator networks.

Digital fabrication will drive a third digital revolution, the brothers maintain, with consequences even more radical than the two previous digital revolutions in communications and computing. But they disagree about the implications of the coming revolution. One brother is optimistic, anticipating a world where things are digitally designed and assembled in self-sufficient knowledge-sharing communities. The other brothers are less certain. They worry about the economic inequities, environmental harm, and other adverse societal impacts that digital fabrication could generate.

The sanguine brother is Neil Gershenfeld, a physicist and computer scientist who directs the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Bits and Atoms. Neil has pioneered innovative small-scale approaches to personalized and community manufacturing. Two decades ago, he established an MIT course called “How to Make (Almost) Anything” which led to the emergence of “fab labs”—community workshops with a variety of tools, including laser cutters, milling machines, scanners, 3D printers, and computers, where people make things for themselves, including products yet to be envisioned by established manufacturers.

Neil presents a forward-looking road map where digital fabrication evolves to widespread personal fabrication in homes and small businesses, followed by phases of universal and ubiquitous fabrication. These two latter stages are propelled by shifts from additive manufacturing to materials designed to organize into component building blocks and then to biologically inspired programmable matter where materials and systems grow, evolve, and repair themselves.

The more skeptical siblings are Alan, with long-standing experience in digital media, education, and social entrepreneurship, and Joel, a Brandeis University professor who works on workplace and institutional change. Alan and Joel offer contrasting views in chapters that alternate with Neil’s.
Despite the communications and computing revolutions, they argue, billions of people have yet to gain access to the resulting technologies, while societal and environmental challenges continue to mount. Although Alan and Joel acknowledge that digital fabrication could help address these problems, they fear that this third digital revolution could make things worse.

Although fab labs have spread worldwide, very few people today have the capacity to make the things they require. Social factors, including low levels of fabrication literacy and institutionalized barriers, could slow digital fabrication’s growth, with sharp social “fabrication divides” emerging. Alan and Joel further worry that digital fabrication in every home could be environmentally disastrous, given that 3D printing currently relies on petrochemical-based materials.

Nonetheless, all the brothers anticipate the expansion of digital fabrication. Indeed, Neil posits that the number of fab labs will double every 18 months, an exponential surge inspired by the prescient prediction from Intel’s Gordon Moore in 1965 that transistors on integrated circuits would double every 2 years. Alan and Joel counter with a limiting factor, observing that institutional change rates are, at best, linear.

The Gershenfelds agree that any technological road map for digital fabrication needs to be integrated with a societal road map. They argue for early consideration of impacts and for anticipatory processes of redesign for digital fabrication. Recommendations to scientists, philanthropists, investors, government officials, and community leaders call for improved tools, integrated deployment, inclusiveness, and risk minimization.

Yet, important aspects are overlooked. The brothers too briefly consider the possibility that large corporate interests will dominate the third digital revolution. This might override aspirations for community purpose and networked governance of digital fabrication.

Additionally, they suggest that digital fabrication will lead to self-sufficient “fab cities” but do not probe what other actions would be needed. In focusing on digital fabrication, interactions with other emerging technological, industrial, and societal trends are underplayed.

Writ large, however, Designing Reality delivers a thought-provoking dialogue with relevance for other emerging technologies as well as digital fabrication. The Gershenfelds engagingly alert us not only to the opportunities that digital fabrication presents but also to the societal and governance challenges that the widespread diffusion of this technology will generate.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Manchester Institute for Innovation Research, The University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PL, UK, and the School of Public Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA 30332, USA.