Archives for August 2013

Tech-driven Morality in Maker Messiah

Can lifeless technology improve human behavior?

In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker argues that Western societies have already altered our baser natures for the better, partly through technology. But could a single technical advance create lasting moral improvements in weeks or months, rather than over decades or generations?

Despite steady progress in science and technology, there hangs a vast suspicion today over the very idea of technology advancing the human condition. Smartphones and cancer drugs, yes. Compassion, not so much. Even in fiction, powerful new technologies almost always portend dark and brutish futures.

Instead of examining the potential flaws in this perspective, or arguing that the proverbial glass is half-full rather than half-empty, Maker Messiah dares to ask: What sort of technology could plausibly change human behavior for the better? Not 100 years from now, but tomorrow.

If Maker tech blows through our assumptions about scarcity, what happens to the moral sensibilities we have based on those assumptions? Notice the technology comes first, with the rationalizing and explaining (morality, religion, philosophy) following along afterward.

Could Philip Machen’s Makers become a reality? Are the 3-D printers being tested today harbingers of true matter replicators? If so, no one would be more surprised than I. Yet if matter-energy transmutation is possible on a practical scale, I believe it will be done. Then we will really have to pay attention. Got freedom?

What’s in a Name? Freemaker is a composite.

 Maker prototype

Maker prototype scale model

Freemaker is a composite with more than one meaning.

Foremost in Maker Messiah, Freemaker is a label, a title for the protagonist, Philip Machen. His name, Machen, means in German to make, and as the father of Makers, he is the source of Maker devices, concepts, and dreams. He is the Freemaker. Could he also be a secular messiah?

Freemaker is also intended to evoke sharing as a consequence of effortless production. Philip invents Makers and gives them away. He also urges people to copy their Makers, and to share them without compensation, to establish new social expectations of ubiquity and goodwill. In other words, Makers should be free because they constitute the economic backbone of Philip’s new sharing-based morality, which becomes the social basis for Freemaker communities.

In this last context, Freemaker acquires a political meaning, as some citizens embrace Makers while others (Tories) oppose them. In the story, a loose movement of Maker owners coalesces to support Makers, perhaps even to support Philip’s Maker enclaves and his sharing sensibility.  The success of his Maker advent depends ultimately on the judgment, courage, and goodwill of strangers like Everett Aboud. Just as the success of the novel depends on readers like you, ordinary people will decide.