the bank shot: the hardest question in 3D printing/replication

When Adrian Bowyer invented the RepRap 3D printer, he set forth a vision of the future of manufacturing based on self replicating robots–3D printers that make parts for other 3D printers. In the time since, 3D printing has advanced dramatically, in terms of reliability and cost. Design options have proliferated. There is enormous experimentation going on in the field. Many new open and closed source printers are available.

I often wonder what the 3D printing industry could learn from the history of open source software. As I compare the open source software and hardware businesses, I notice an interesting difference: the most successful companies producing open source software are not primarily in the software business, whereas the open source hardware businesses all seem to be primarily in the hardware business.

Red Hat and Canonical are certainly successful businesses, don’t get me wrong. But do they return the same level of shareholder value as IBM or Google? All these businesses produce open source software, but two have direct models and the other two are more indirect.

By ‘direct,’ I mean Red Hat and Canonical have open source as a foundation of their business. They give the software away, but charge for service and support.

And by ‘indirect,’ I mean IBM and Google are really in other businesses, but contribute to open source development  strategically:

  • IBM is really in the services and hardware businesses, but open source software helps it leverage commoditization against its software-industry competitors.
  • Google is primarily an advertising company, but it relies on an ecosystem of open technologies powerfully reinforced by open source software. Google needs Internet specifications to be freely available and widely implemented in a consistent way. Competitive, freely available open source software makes it easy to choose to interoperate with the rest of the world, and hard to choose otherwise, in a way that benefits Google’s business directly.

So what does that have to do with hardware? I’m not sure, but I suspect it could be a powerful direction of inquiry.

All the 3D printing businesses I see are in the business of either making and selling 3D printers (Lulzbot, Stratasys/Makerbot), or 3D printing services (Shapeways). Neither of which benefits from sharing source designs.

I’m curious: is there a business that could gain strategic advantage from using replicating 3D printers, but doesn’t necessarily sell them?

I love Adrian Bowyer’s vision of replicating machines, but it needs a business model. I’m envisioning entire industries being taken over by replicating bot farms, selling cast-off but still useful machines for belo cost once they’ve returned their investment, throwing off massive production capacity as a waste product.

But to unlock that possibility, we still need an entry point. We need a suitable business that will benefit from replicating 3D printers that doesn’t sell 3D printers or 3D printing.

The Google strategy doesn’t seem that relevant to me at this point. I do think interoperability and software standards are necessary, but we’ve had them for a while now and replicators haven’t taken over yet. We have the .stl file standard, and sites like Thingiverse, and sharing capabilities with Mediagoblin, and an open source software toolchain to drive these devices. The software toolchain does need work, but even an excellent open source toolchain wouldn’t increase replicator virality much: it’s necessary but not sufficient.

The IBM strategy seems closer to me.

I’m looking for the bank shot. Is there a bank shot here? Or is there one that’s close–an industry one could go after with a bit better technology than we have now? Is there a direction we could push things that would open this up?

Such a market would need to have these properties:

  • sufficient margins/ROI from replicators to suport investing in the technology;
  • potentially high levels of production–millions of units;
  • some locus of intellectual property central to the business but outside 3D printer design;
  • products that match the parameters of current (or soon to be available) 3D printing production–tolerances, sizes, and materials;
  • high demand for customization.

I find it hard to imagine such a business working in plastic items (PLA or ABS being the main feedstocks for 3D printing at this point). The large-scale production of plastic stuff I know about is pretty low margin. To me that says you need devices that work in metal, which at this point means CNC (subtractive) manufacturing. Maybe you need a device that combines the two. So as I write this, I don’t have an answer.

NSA data collection

There are a lot of things wrong with the NSA conducting mass surveillance. One aspect hasn’t gotten enough attention, I think.

The governing doctrine, as I understand it, is that the Fourth Amendment search and seizure rule doesn’t apply to data collection. It only counts as a ‘search’ that may or may not be ‘reasonable’ when they actually look at the data and attach identities to the actions tracked.

They’re asking for a lot of trust. But not just trust in the present.

I don’t know how long they keep that data, but keeping it is cheap, and the agencies involved are known for keeping records a long time. That means even if you trust the current administration with it, you’re also trusting future administrations as well.

Thus: say you are a woman who called your doctor and then called Planned Parenthood. You might trust the Obama Administration with records of those calls. But what would a Santorum Administration do with that data? I’m sure there are hypotheticals a conservative could come up with in the converse.

One of the ways Americans avoid slippery slopes is to not grant powers on the basis of personal trust. You don’t grant power to an Obama Administration that you wouldn’t trust to a Santorum Administration, or vice versa.

It’s bad enough that this policy exists and could be expanded upon by future administrations. But that’s compounded by the archiving of the data itself. Who knows what policies will be applied in the future to data the NSA has now?

self-expanding domains

I am talking about a domain, or category of things that are made with certain other things, perhaps a particular set of tools. They take an input, and produce an output within the domain. An example would be woodworking–things people use woodworking tools to make. You take wood from trees, and use woodworking tools to make wooden toys, furniture, or signs.

What makes a domain self expanding is if the tools/implements/whatever are in the domain itself. You can use woodworking tools to make the handle of a saw, but not a functional saw. So woodworking is a partially–and weakly–self-expanding domain.

There’s only one completely independent self expanding domain I could name, and that is life. Living things can metabolize non-living matter and produce living matter. Mushrooms and plants can use chemical and solar energy to break up rocks and turn them into more mushrooms and plants, and more bioavailable dirt. Also, by definition, any living thing has the capacity to reproduce itself, on top of whatever else it produces. Species within life count as self-expanding domains, as does life overall.

When the inputs are within the domain we call it domain cannibalism, and when they come from outside the domain we call it genuine expansion. For example, when you eat plants, for the overall domain of life, that would be domain cannibalism, but for the subdomain of human beings, it would not. Elements brought into the domain we call vitamins.

Some domains are indirectly self-expanding. Viruses do not reproduce directly, but they hijack living cells to produce more viruses.

Other domains are only partially self-expanding. Other than life, all the ones I can think of require human operation to force the action forward. They need to produce something that humans want other than the tools, so humans will continue to propagate those tools and and maintain and expand the domain’s capacity for expansion. And, of course, they need to reproduce, either of their own volition or with human operation.

The reproducing elements we call domain seeds. The products that do not reproduce we call domain flowers, in analogy to the way flowers and bees interact to reproduce more flowers. Flowers attract bees; useful products/domain flowers attract humans.

Early humans saw life propagating itself, and noticed that seeds from a plant grew into the same plant. So they planted some of the ones they liked to eat, chose the best ones to replant, and the first human-operated self-expanding domain was born: agriculture. Some of our plants would continue replicating themselves without us, but many wouldn’t. It takes a lot of human work to keep that self-expanding domain on track, producing and reproducing.

Machine and metalworking tools are almost entirely self-expanding, though they need a human operator. I’ve heard both the lathe and the mill  referred to as the ‘mother tool:’ they can be used to make the entire shop of tools, including themselves. That may not be the most efficient way for them to reproduce, but even the most efficient way involves their use: they are needed to produce the molds and stamps that produce their pieces. They form the basis of industrial production.

Software is built using other software (compilers and various packaging tools), but all software depends on computer hardware to run on, and humans to use them. That hardware is produced in a process that involves software, computer hardware, and a range of other tools.

Computer hardware is also arguably partially self-expanding at this point. Early semiconductors could be designed using pen and paper, but now with billions of circuit elements on a given chip, that’s just unmanageable. Also, mass production of semiconductors requires fairly sophisticated automated processes.

So there are two self-expanding domains that intersect, computer hardware and software. Software helps hardware create more hardware, and hardware gives software a place to run and do all the things it does, including make more software. Together they form the basis of an information based economy.

These domains also support evolution: as domain seeds are used to produce more domain seeds, they can be used to improve and test designs, advance the state of the art, and accelerate change as seed designs are refined. Repraps are an attempt to make that loop more explicit, and to use the open-source model to broaden involvement in that process and accelerate it.

Also, note: agriculture, industrialism, information technology: we are distinguishing the core of epochal technological transformations. When a new self-expanding domain is invented, it’s transformational to the economy.

This a materialist idea: it’s about things making other things, or people making things with other things. You could think of it as a material extension of memetics. I’ve tried to extend it to economics or culture, but I think memetics already explains that.

your jealousy is understandable…

… because how awesome is my laptop now?

bunnywaveresults1

it’s a wave…

bunnywaveresults2

of bunnies!

I have long loved Kozyndan’s ‘Uprisings.’ It’s a play on Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa,’ with bunnies. I got my anodized aluminum Macbook Pro, and saw someone had etched theirs in a laser cutter. I thought this was a great choice to put on mine. I bought the poster, had it scanned at a shop with a large-format scanner, pulled it into the Gimp open-source graphics package (comparable to Photoshop), and messed with it a fair amount. Then I brought it into PS1 and etched it on our laser cutter. I have to give credit to Will McShane for his assistance in showing me how to edit the image and operate the laser cutter. Both operations fall in that category of things I do rarely and are sort of complicated, so my memory doesn’t hang on to them well. It came out perfectly. Thanks so much for your help, Will.

I wanted to document the process a bit, though I neglected to take pictures.

getting and editing the image

I ordered the paper poster and had it scanned at the highest resolution I could find. At 16×22, that wasn’t that high–Fedex/Kinko’s got me a 100 DPI image. Which turned out ok.

Once I had it in my machine, I used the Gimp to make it more laser friendly. This took the most messing around and blind alleys, but Will got me going in the right direction. From there, it wasn’t quite as straightforward as what follows, but this is the bottom line.

  • I opened the image in Gimp, and did Layer > Duplicate Layer;
  • selecting the top layer, I used Filters > Edge Detect > Edge to pull out the bunnies visually, and Colors > Invert to get the image in black on white instead of the other way around;
  • In Colors > Brightness/Contrast I turned up both–brightness to wash out the noise in the image, and contrast to keep the black outlines sharp;
  • did Layers > Transparency > Add Alpha Channel, and in the layers dialog turned the opacity of the top layer down so the lower layer would show though;
  • selected the lower layer and turned up the brightness and contrast on it too;
  • feathered the edges… this was the part that did not come out perfectly. I selected the top layer again, did Select > All, Select > Shrink by 50 pixels, and Select > Rounded Rectangle;
  • did Select > Invert, and then Select > Feather. Then I did Edit > Clear, and saw the top layer feathered. I selected the bottom layer and did Edit > Clear again.
  • did Color > Desaturate in both layers to get it in grayscale;
  • computed the right DPI so that the image would fit my laptop. The original was 100 DPI, and was 1669×2229 pixels. It had to fit a 9 inch vertical space, so I divided 2229 pixels by 9 inches, and got 248 DPI;
  • went into Image > Scale Image, and changed the vertical DPI to 248, and Gimp computed the rest;
  • exported the file to jpg, and put it on a thumb drive to put in the computer running the laser cutter.

I don’t think this is precisely the process anyone should follow to make an image laser-printer friendly. It worked with mine. Some of these steps and techniques might be useful. It might be good for you to just resize your raw image and see how it etches on a piece of cardboard or something first, just to get an idea of what it will do. Speaking of which…

To ze LAZZORZZZZ!!!!1!!1!!!

So I put the USB key in, brought up Corel Draw, and got to etching. I will not document the entire process of using the laser cutter. Different cutters, different software, different setups… if you want to learn PS1′s setup, come down to PS1 and get certified on the device. But this was basically how it went:

  • I cleaned all the food/fingerprints/accumulated schmutz off my lappie;
  • did a test etch on a piece of cardboard, and saw an artifact along the right edge of the image, which was easy to clean up;
  • (this was Will’s moment of genius, I thought) taped another piece of cardboard to the top of my laptop, along one edge so it could flip over like a hinge. I made sure there was clearance inside the laser cutter so I could actually flip it without moving the laptop;
  • positioned the laptop inside the laser cutter, as precisely as I could so the etch would fall in the right position;
  • etched once with the cardboard in place. It looked perfect;
  • flipped the cardboard over;
  • took a deep breath;
  • and etched my laptop.

And you see the results above. To be clear, I should give Will more credit–he did a few of the hands on steps there, and was helpful throughout.

Aaron Swartz lives

aaron-swartz

By saying ‘Aaron Swartz lives,’ I do not hope to establish a silly Elvis mythology about his continued secret life somewhere in the Caribbean or something. I mean that his commitment lives on: the liberation of human communication. The fire of his curiosity is the fire of our curiosity, and of human curiosity. Let us not fear its flame. Let us fan it into a raging inferno that consumes the Earth and launches us to the stars.

Aaron Swartz lives!

the Wesley Willis Tower

I am building a twitterbot that responds to tweets referring to the Wesley Willis Tower as the Sears Tower/Willis Tower with correction. It was such a great thing when the Sears Tower changed hands and they renamed it in honor of Wesley Willis, but people still get the name wrong. So I’m building this bot, and teaching myself Haskell in the process. Fun little project.

To register my program with twitter, I need a web page on the public Internet so people can see what the hell I’m doing. Thus this post. I do intend to make my code public, and contribute updates to the hs-twitter library back–it’s pretty badly out of date, and doesn’t work at all.

#wesleywillistower #wesleywillis #rockoverlondon#rockonchicago #wesleywillisfiasco #rockandrollmcdonalds #whipthellamasass #loveyoulikeamilkshake #iwhuppedbatmansass #daddyofrocknroll #bumpmyheadsayrah

rethinking LNT

I identify as a Burner. I’ve been to Burning Man twice, though not since 2008. I almost went this year, but couldn’t quite put it together. Oh well. Next year. I have a lot of good friends in that community, and have a lot of fun with them in Chicago.

One of the Ten Principles of Burning Man is ‘Leave No Trace:’

Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Which is an important idea. I like it in a lot of ways. But as I reflect on it, I think it’s predicated upon what I’ve begun to think of as footprintism: the idea that there isn’t a legitimate role for humans to play in nature. That the impact humans have on their environment is their ecological ‘footprint:’ All things inside the footprint are ‘artificial,’ an interruption in nature and therefore bad. All things outside the footprint are ‘natural’ and therefore good. A footprint is to be minimized. I’ve written about it before.

And in some circumstances that might be true. Burning Man itself happens on the playa, an ancient dried lakebed, where the top of the food chain is marginally multicellular. It’s hard for me to think of a healthy role humans can play in that ecosystem, even just for a week.

But we don’t just go to Burning Man in the desert. We have regional events (Lakes of Fire is the one I’ve been to) in different kinds of locations, and we have various  local parties and events: Precomp and Decomp (events before and after Burning Man) are celebrated in a lot of places, and we have Resonate and all the various Freakeasy events in Chicago. Us Burners like our parties.

And outside the playa, it’s very likely we can find a legitimate ecological role for humans to play. That might also look like leaving behind a clean, intact environment. But it also means participating in natural and invented cycles: composting as much as possible, recycling where necessary, and minimizing (eliminating?)  landfilling.

We could also try composting and recycling within our community, and see if we can make that work. Upcycling event waste into art seems like a natural practice for us. We could even design our future waste (cups, plates, whatever) to use in some art project, or with some general purpose in mind.

I really hesitate to carry this line of thought much further, being as it might end with me running composting and recycling for Burner events, and I feel like I’m already pretty busy. Though, hmm…

an open letter to Dan Savage

Dear Dan,

I support you and tend to agree with almost everything you say. I’m a big fan of ‘It Gets Better’ and the podcast and new MTV show and your entire media empire.

I think you’re about something bigger than fighting bullying or sex-positivity or gay rights or any of that. You’re about sexual rationality for Americans. What would it look like if Americans had a well-adjusted, sane, reasonable, honest, rational sexual culture? How would such a culture accommodate all the odd wrinkles of human sexuality? How would we think about ourselves, and interact with others? I get a dose of your vision a couple times a week, with your great humor, and it’s improved my life.

But that’s a radical project. American sexual culture is utterly screwed up, and a lot of Americans spend  a lot of energy on protecting that screwed-upness. You know that. And while I endorse you ‘getting up on your hind legs’ and confronting the hatred and bigotry, there are different ways to do that.

It’s not a stretch to compare that confrontation with the movement Martin Luther King led. In some ways, this fight is actually greater. White folks in America thought differently about African Americans after the civil rights movement, but they didn’t have to think that differently about themselves. They didn’t have to accept aspects of themselves they’d long rejected. And while white couples do not have black children, gay children are born to straight families every hour of every day.

But when MLK upset white people, there was no tit-for-tat in his responses. There was truth telling and unconditional love. He was unwavering in his  dedication to the ideal that the people who so hated him were his brothers and sisters, and that only when everyone understood that would we be truly free.

Truly free. Isn’t that what you really want, Dan? Freedom from the ignorance and fear that clouds our sexual culture?

And that’s a tough standard. It’s hard to give unconditional love to people who hate you. I don’t think it’s something you even aspire to. I don’t think it’s anything you’re working on.

Remember, Martin Luther King is not a liberal icon today, he’s an American icon. People across the political spectrum must recon with his memory. The people who would condemn him today are at the far end of the margins of political life in America. He didn’t get there by telling people they were full of shit. He told them they were wrong, but he did it with love.

And I know you didn’t ask to be Martin Luther King, but remember, he didn’t either. When Rosa Parks got arrested and people asked if they could have a meeting at his church, he didn’t say ‘yes.’ He said, ‘let me think about it.’ I don’t think that role is natural for anyone.

If I’m right about your ambition, I think you need to think long and hard about how to get there. Catty and bitchy and pointing and laughing are fun. I enjoy them too. But it’s my feeling that you need to up your game.

the human niche: towards an ecological politics

DarwinWhen life was new on Earth, it invented photosynthesis. Photosynthesis takes light from the Sun and captures it as useful energy. It also produces waste oxygen.

We like oxygen, because we breathe it, but we forget that chemically, it’s pretty nasty. Oxygen gas is implicated in lots of bad things, from rust to explosions. It’s not stable, and it’s highly chemically reactive. It sits on the periodic table next to fluorine, and if you know anything about fluorine, you know you should stay away from it. And when photosynthesis first evolved, oxygen was deadly to most life on Earth.

And in fact, once it started reaching high concentrations in the atmosphere, it wiped a lot of that life out, in what we now call the Great Oxygenation Event. But then other organisms evolved to make use of that oxygen. They produced waste CO2, which the photosynthetic organisms used. So a cycle emerged, and an ecological balance came into existence. And here we are.

We talk about nature’s harmony and balance as though it’s eternal, but that’s wrong. These sorts of balances and cycles are older than humanity, but they are born in time, in the process of evolution. They are dynamic, and they shift with changes in the Sun and solar system, and with the things evolution invents as it progresses.

We are one of the things evolution invented. There is an idea that humans exist somehow outside nature, and that we create things and environments that are ‘artificial.’ I think that’s misguided. The problem is time: if you make enough of the very most toxic things humans produce, and then give nature enough time, it will invent processes that will make use of them, or render them harmless somehow.

It’s less a matter of ‘damaging nature’ than incurring a debt to Darwin: creating ‘waste,’  or unlooped materials, substances that nature doesn’t yet know what to do with. And time really is the problem: we don’t have the millions of years to wait around while evolution figures out what to do with our garbage.

Personally, I don’t think it’s within our power to threaten all life on Earth. Life has endured worse things than us. It might be in our power to extinguish all human life, though humans are pretty hardy: we have existed in a lot of environments, from the Arctic to the Sahara to the Amazon, for many generations. It would be possible to render our current civilization untenable. I think that’s the track we’re on now.

To get off that track, we need to think about humanity in the context of broader nature. We often talk about other species as occupying an ‘ecological niche,’ a role in nature. Wolves are hunters, at the top of the food chain; wildebeests are ruminants, eating grass, pooping fertilizer, and feeding alligators. But we don’t talk much about the human niche.

We do talk about our ‘footprint,’ but that’s still non-ecological thinking: everything in our ‘footprint’ is assumed to be artificial, damaging, an interruption in nature; everything outside is assumed to be harmonious, balanced, and ecological. When we seek to ‘reduce our footprint,’ we seek to reduce the damage we do. But we don’t seem to focus much on legitimate ways for humans to participate in nature.

Notice we never ask: what is a wolf’s ‘ecological footprint?’ It’s hard to apply the logic of ‘footprint’ when we assume an organism is already operating in a way we see as ‘natural.’

the human niche

So what would a human niche be? Being humans, we have some choice in the matter. We probably can’t become ruminants, because we can’t digest grass (unless we modify our own biology, or the biology of the grass), but there are so many things we can do. The only question is, how long can we do them? If we don’t consciously choose to participate in ecological cycles, we can only persist doing what we’re doing so long. Our current role is probably short-lived, one way or the other. So for a longer-term role, we need to be inventive. Here are a couple ideas that come to mind:

ecological designer

So what can humans do that other species can’t? The closer we look at that question, the shorter that list is, but we do seem to be pretty good at designing things, and we do seem to have some ability to be reflective. So if we combine those and look at our role in nature, it’s logical that we could find  a long term role as ecological designers, creating and participating in new natural cycles.

And clearly, to create a natural cycle is to participate in it. You might not execute all the steps yourself, but you can cooordinate with others, humans and other species, to close your loops and eliminate your debt. Bill McDonough talks about it in detail in Cradle to Cradle.

OK, then: what does it mean to do good ecological design?

A lot of what comes to mind should be familiar: closed loop recycling, balanced capacities for generating and using waste products, complete recycling of the entire waste stream. Some might seem pie-in-the-sky, but we’ll have to get there at some point. I’m reminded of this Ted talk by Michael Pollan. A couple new things (to me) do come to mind:

managing debt: parsing waste as debt brings to mind all the financial tools related to debt, as well as all their risks and rewards. You can build up debt in planned and unplanned ways. You can pay down debt. You can work with it in a strategic way. Which I think would be useful in moving towards a more sustainable society.

But debt can also mess up your life, and on a large scale, your society. Ask a Greek how they feel about debt right now. Poison in the groundwater,  waste CO2 in the air, can cause us and a lot of other organisms problems. Like I said above, maybe if we had a few million years, we could wait around for nature to adapt our debt to its use. But in the time scales humans care about, we need to take some kind of action.

beauty: the dimension of time is central to the idea of sustainability. For humans to continue to make choices that benefit an ecology over long periods, they must develop a heritage of an appreciation of that ecology. So beauty is more than a good thing we should all want, it’s also a material priority.

It’s part of what persuades others to join us, and part of what binds the next generation’s way of life to ours. We don’t expect them to live the same way we do, but we do need to persuade them that what we create for them is worth sustaining and building upon. And if what we create is beautiful, and we can show them how to appreciate that beauty, that will be easier.

infection agent

Terraformation is a staple of science fiction. But from the viewpoint of Earth’s ecology, it’s infection: spreading Earth’s life to other worlds. Mixed with the ‘ecological designer’ role, it means we could be a vector for life in general, inventing new ecologies that could persist in diverse environments. Freeman Dyson speculates that we could even make species ‘native’ to space itself. It’s an interesting idea. One open question: how do we get off Earth in  a harmonious way? Launching payloads into space requires enormous concentration of energy in one place, far more than nature generally does. And the scale of terraforming would require truly massive launch capability, or very long timeframes.

biome protector

Another staple of science fiction is the comet strike. Protecting the Earth’s life from comets could be an important ecological role for humans to play.

conclusion

I guess what I’m saying is: we can participate in natural cycles deliberately or not. Not participating is not an option.

We’ve built a civilization that we value. If we want to operate in a civilized, conscious way for the extended future, we need to include nature in that vision of civilization. If we don’t deal with broader nature on the best human terms, it will deal with us on its own.

money hacking: problems and pitfalls

This is the fifth article in a series. The previous ones are

I don’t want to represent myself as a guy with all the answers. More to the point, I value skepticism and uncertainty deeply. Caution and a sense that things can go wrong is important. I’ll talk a lot about trust here, and it’s important too, but doubt is a core value for me. Anyone who says they have the final answer to all our economic problems is either shortsighted or dishonest.

Americans have not faced a currency crisis in living memory. We collect dollar-spewing securities for our retirement and accept dollars in exchange for things. We accept that inflation is a fact of life, and we try to protect ourselves against it. But we don’t really worry about what currency we’ll use to fund our retirements. We imagine the dollar will always be there.

That’s trust. We trust in the operation of our currency and our economy. We trust it like the air we breathe. Literally: we’re a little concerned about air pollution, but most folks don’t get bent out of shape about it. We’re a little concerned about the economy, but most folks don’t plan to stop accepting dollars anytime soon.

trust

I said it before: money is an agreement. And the foundation of all agreements is trust. When the agreement fades into the background of our consciousness, it’s a sign of trust. When it jumps to the foreground, usually that’s because the trust is being questioned.

If we want to operate our own currency, we must deal with the problems that could violate trust or call it into question. We must take responsibility for a host of issues, so people can trust its operation:

technical integrity: any system needs to be correct, secure, and reliable. It’s not ok when you can’t get your money because a system’s down. It’s not ok when people can hack the system and steal it from you, or create it arbitrarily. It’s not ok when your personal information is shared or exposed without your knowledge or consent. There are a lot of really basic issues that you only think about when something breaks. We need to think all of them through and address them reasonably well before anything breaks. ‘Good enough’ is a very high standard.

economic integrity: in a monetarist system, the money supply needs to grow (and shrink) with the value produced by the economy. That relationship needs to be protected, or either inflation or deflation will result.

In Greco’s you standard, the currency is backed by various issuers within the system. They have an interest in sustaining a high level of trust in their currency. Doubt in a particular issuer may or may not lead to doubt in the entire system. They need to issue only as much as they can stand behind. That can be regulated.

If the amount a merchant is allowed to issue is based on circulation through their account, we will need mechanisms to ensure that there is real value being exchanged. A pair of fraudsters could pass money back and forth between accounts to drive up their circulation and increase what they can issue. This would only have short-term benefits for them, but that short-term mentality is known to occur in human beings, and it would be a liability for the rest until they figured out what was happening. Better to prevent it.

In a commodity-based system, any accounting of a commodity needs to match the supply of the actual commodity being traded. Again, that relationship must be guarded.

operator integrity and transparency: it’s been said that the best way to rob a bank is to own one. That also applies to currency operators. There are probably a million scams you could run by issuing your own money. Any currency operator who won’t talk about that possibility openly is not someone you should do business with.

A system is only as good as the people who operate it. There’s no way around that. You have to trust some human beings, be they bankers or currency operators. Currency operators must keep a very high standard of conduct. They must be subject to the same rules as the rest of the merchants working in the economy. That includes any rules they enforce. They may need to establish independent authorities to ensure the perceived and actual integrity of the system they operate. Additionally they must keep open and transparent records of their own transactions so trust in the entire system can be sustained in the community.

cultural integrity: Any system that depends on feedback from its participants needs that feedback to be fair. Any Web 2.0/true information age-currency system is going to use such feedback. That system needs to allow a community to judge the value its members provide fairly.

timing and government interference

 I’ve said it elsewhere. I think what I’m proposing is legal, at least in the US. That doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. If such a system were successful and spread virally and rapidly, I would not be surprised to see opposition from government and various vested interests. The question is, could it improve people’s lives and self-determination enough that they would stand up for it? Could we make such opposition politically un-viable?

The success of any currency project started right now would be a matter of luck. There are a number of needles that must be threaded. The one thing that gives me confidence is the fact that anyone who protects the old system will be paid in its currency: dollars. And if the dollar system is as corrupted and weak as it appears to be, something will have to break out and take its place. I have a few ideas about what that should look like, but that doesn’t mean my vision will win this particular lottery.

I’ve quoted Milton Friedman elsewhere: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

There are a lot of ideas one could support this way, and a lot of possible reactions of the government to their spread in a crisis. If we can manage to enable people to sustain and improve their lives in the presence of a crisis, I wouldn’t assume hostility.

Though one other danger might be co-opting: government entities might join a you standard system, but would need to abide by its rules. If, for example, some municipality (or nation) were to legislate some special status for itself (for example, like the equivalent of legal tender), it would undermine trust in the whole system. That should be resisted. Perhaps interest-based lending is useful for some things: financing wars comes to mind.

possible outcomes right now

So if you were starting a currency project now, I’d imagine there would be several possible outcomes:

facebook success: you build something that navigates the obstructions listed above and succeeds massively, taking over the world. This could be great news for you or anything you built, but questionable at a systemic level. It might replace an old intellectual monopoly  with a new one, unless it supported a variety of monetary models. It might also establish a real business monopoly too, unless it was based on an open federation of services, like email;

local success: what you build doesn’t take over the world, but it does succeed on a local level. It helps that local community survive the coming transition, and serves as an example of community self-sufficiency;

good failure–communities learn new tools: the Netscape outcome. Your partial success invites more effective competition, that effects the change you set out to make. You don’t get to take over the world, but maybe your ideas do.

The other risk here is that the design space for currencies is much broader than the design space for browsers, so maybe your ideas take over, but maybe someone else’s ideas do. Maybe their ideas are better than yours, but maybe not. The best man does not always win;

good failure–career transition for you: the Marc Andreesen (founder of Netscape) outcome. For something big to happen, individual people have to take risks. Their expectations matter. So, even if you try and fail, you care about what happens to you. This is the individual version of the ‘good failure’ story above: what you build doesn’t quite work out, but it has a big influence. At the end of the process, you’re no longer just a coder (or whatever role you had before): you have changed the world and you have a new role in it;

bad failure: total fizzle. Your ideas don’t catch on, the transition happens, no lessons are learned, or the wrong lessons are learned. The new economic world has none of the tools you built. You must make your way in it with the rest of us, with the same resume you had before.

doing nothing

All this is predicated upon the belief that risks associated with establishing an alternative system are smaller than the risk of doing nothing. That’s a belief I do espouse. Of course the power elite might respond to the viral breakout of an alternative system with a heavy hand. But by the time such a system got on their radar, the idea of an agreement based, community-initiated system would have spread dramatically. So if (when) the shit hits the fan, they’ll have new tools in their back pocket. They’ll have an alternative to heading for a bunker in the countryside. They’ll have a civilized choice.

Doing nothing seems to me like the bigger risk. The current system is an intellectual monopoly, and it’s showing its flaws, and it seems to be producing catastrophes every few years, and they’re getting bigger as time goes on. Maybe utter collapse will come when Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling in August. Maybe it will come when Greece or Portugal or Spain defaults. Maybe it will be the catastrophe after that.

Or maybe utter collapse isn’t coming at all. Maybe we’re just witnessing the acceleration of a system that produces catastrophes by its design. Maybe people need to just get tired of it and take matters into their own hands.

The most important thing is education: people need to understand that it’s possible. It’s possible for them to take charge of the way they account for the way they produce value. It’s possible, and here are some ways to do that.

The next thing is trust. They need to learn to be trustworthy to each other. They need to learn to rely on each other, and build a web of trust that doesn’t rely on some distant authority with its own problems. The bottom line is this: when people build trust together, they can build wealth together.