Monthly Archives: October 2013

3D printing a house

See Contour Crafting: Automated Construction (via Peak Energy)

Behrokh Khoshnevis, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, is developing a scaled up version of 3D printing that he has dubbed ‘contour crafting’. He hopes that it may one day be able to alleviate housing shortages in the world due to its speed (he estimates that an entire house can be constructed in about 20 hours) and the reduced costs associated with its use.

This is a clear cut example of a solution that, as Khoshnevis says, “benefits from advanced technology”. It tackles the complicated problem of affordable and abundant housing head on, though it would appear to do nothing about addressing the larger problem of poverty. Opponents to the technological approach might argue that the real problem has to do with the structure of societal and financial systems. Though a cheap and sturdy home might be a step up from the slums, if the underlying problems of income inequality and resource allocation still remain, they will surface in other ways. One only needs to look towards housing projects in American cities and elsewhere to know that giving someone a roof over their head doesn’t necessarily free them from a life of poverty and crime.

Khoshnevis mentions another potential use, which is using contour crafting to construct buildings in situations where previous construction methods could not work (such as in building a moon base). This strikes me as a better use of the technology, since the problems it solves here are more straightforward and direct, rather than being simply one small subset of larger socio-economic issues.

See also: ContourCrafting.org, craft.usc.edu

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Nature and Technology – Wendell Berry’s Middle Ground

Wendell Berry, in his essay ‘Preserving Wildness’, defines his position on the issue of protecting ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’. He views this problem as one which there is often a high degree of polarization between ‘nature extremists’ on the one hand, who see the natural operations of the environment as dominant over mankind’s imposed artificiality and who favor something like a primitivist, back-to-the-land ideology, and ‘technology extremists’ on the other hand, who believe that the creativity of the human species reigns supreme and all problems can be solved by our wits combined with new technologies. The outline of his middle ground is as follows:

1. We live in a wilderness, in which we and our works occupy a tiny space and play a tiny part. We exist under its dispensation and by its tolerance.
2. This wilderness, the universe, is somewhat hospitable to us, but it is also absolutely dangerous to us (it is going to kill us, sooner or later), and we are absolutely dependent upon it.
3. That we depend on what we are endangered by is a problem not solvable by “problem solving.” It does not have what the nature romantic or the technocrat would regard as a solution. We are not going back to the Garden of Eden, nor are we going to manufacture an Industrial Paradise.
4. There does exist a possibility that we can live more or less in harmony with our native wilderness; I am betting my life that such a harmony is possible. But I do not believe that it can be achieved simply or easily or that it can ever be perfect, and I am certain that it can never be made, once and for all, but is the forever unfinished lifework of our species.
5. It is not possible (at least, not for very long) for humans to intend their own good, in the long run, without intending the good of our place – which means, ultimately, the good of the world.
6. To use or not to use nature is not a choice that is available to us; we can live only at the expense of other lives. Our choice has rather to do with how and how much to use. This is not a choice that can be decided satisfactorily in principle or in theory; it is a choice intransigently impractical. That is, it must be worked out in local practice because, by necessity, the practice will vary somewhat from one locality to another. There is, thus, no practical way that we can intend the good of the world; practice can only be local.
7. If there is no escape from the human use of nature, then human good cannot be simply synonymous with natural good.
He acknowledges that we cannot live in the world without changing it to some degree:
We have no way to work at this question, it seems to me, except by perceiving that, in order to have the world, we must share it, both with each other and with other creatures, which is immediately complicated by the further perception that, in order to live in the world, we must use it somewhat at the expense of other creatures. We must acknowledge both the centrality and the limits of our self-interest. One can hardly imagine a tougher situation.
But he also asserts that we cannot take the inevitability of our having an impact on the world to declare a free-for-all, anything-goes attitude towards that impact:
The worst disease of the world now is probably the ideology of technological heroism, according to which more and more people willingly cause large-scale effects that they do not foresee and that they cannot control.

The Tragedy of Science

Well, still quite busy, but perhaps I can make some time for a brief discussion.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I have been looking through a book called ‘Modern Science and Human Values’, by William Lowrance. There are many interesting ideas in it, and I haven’t yet even made it halfway through the book, but I want to bring up one of his comments. The book is all about the ongoing effect that scientific knowledge and technological inventions have on the developments of the human species. Early on in the book, Lowrance states that his approach to the subject is one in which he views technical progress as ‘deliberately directed tragedy’. Where ‘tragedy’, he clarifies, is taken to mean “the deliberate confrontation of deeply important but nearly irresolvable life issues.” He goes on to say that “tragedy begins in our knowing of causalities, in our intervening in particular causes, and in our technical enlargement of interventional possibilities.” Examples of this are quite prevalent from the large scale to the small. With the production of atomic bombs, the question arises, when and where do you use them? What are the costs (in terms of money or people) of using them or not using them? With the development of medical technology, and the rise in cost associated with more complex machinery, the question can be asked, when is it too costly to preserve a life? The tragedy of these situations is due to competition between two or more values on a stage where there is no clear winner.

I agree with Lowrance’s view that science gives us tragic confrontations, for the same reason as gaining any sort of knowledge can open up difficult choices. It’s the well-worn idea that ‘ignorance is bliss’. The humanities – art, literature, music, etc. – can help us in this regard, teaching us how to deal with tragedy, with the tragic confrontation of values.

This theme has more or less been an undercurrent to much of what I’ve written about so far in this blog, and I want to continue to explore to it, to hash out the relationships between science, technology, values, and progress and to begin to address in some small way the questions that arise at the boundaries of these topics. Science and technology present us with many difficult issues. Rather than embrace ignorance, or make a blanket decision to forgo all technological advancements, is there some way of deliberately determining the level of technology to accept in our daily lives? What are the tools I need to live my values and attain my goals? What are the tools that humanity needs? How do we, as a species, deal with the uncomfortable truths that science might uncover?