From Atoms to Bits – and back!

Nicholas Negroponte famously articulated the vision in the Nineties that digital technology translates atoms into bits, relieving information from its physical vessels – good point, now most media is digital. Last year another tech celebrity, Chris Anderson, suggested that 3d-printing technology have the potential to turn bits into atoms, bringing the potential of unlimited digital distribution to physical objects. This week, Netopia interviews Brian Bannon of Chicago Public Library who runs a 3d-printer experiment in the so called Maker Lab. Speaking with Bannon, it seemed that the questions on copyright were new to him, but if Anderson is right it looks like 3d-printers are destined to bring the file-sharing debate back, with a vengeance. Because this time around, it will not only be about entertainment media, but pretty much everything: spare parts for cars or household appliances, toys… complex objects with moving parts (including guns!) already exist. Thereis a 3d-printer (“RepRap“) that can create about half of its own parts. Most everyday items can eventually be made with 3d-printing technology. And it is increasingly affordable too, the hardware is on a similar trajectory as photo printers a few years ago. Don’t be surprised if you own one yourself in a couple of years! This is a potential for distributed production, democratization of manufacturing… and piracy on an unprecedented scale that could affect the whole economy. Technology Review writes about suggestions for streaming services and various protection measures, all familiar from the entertainment industries efforts to protect its content. But as long as it is discussed as a problem for the rights-holders to fix, it will be a dead-end. The path forward is for society to demand that the providers of these machines work take sufficient measures to protect the integrity of the digital content. (Which, I might add, should also have been the case for entertainment content – still a good idea!) Netopia will follow this development closely. Will the 3d-printers repeat the pattern from entertainment media? Or will we be able to avoid making the same mistakes this time around?