The Fab: A use case for the net

As publishers (and other industries I’m less familiar with, like this one) look to adjust their business models to cater for a digital world, they have to find business models that don’t rely on controlling copies of their work. (Cf. Cory Doctorow: “any business-model that depends on your bits not being copied is just dumb”.) Copying is at the heart of anything digital: when information moves from one place to another, it replicates. (Nod to Kevin Kelly’s important piece on this.) The Internet itself is made of copies and copies of copies, all of them essentially zero-cost, bar the raw materials of cables, terminals, bandwidth and power. And yet it’s still hard to think of business models, especially in the creative industries, that don’t control the distribution of copies, where each copy is sold for a unit price or a subscription. So I am trying to imagine a world where all copies are essentially zero-cost after raw materials. What would that world and its business models look like? Here is a stab at describing it.

In that world, there was an appliance called a fab, and every family had one. A fab, for fabricator, made stuff. Anything, really: musical instruments, furniture, medicine, books, stationery, toys, food, even other fabs. There were also fabs in classrooms, hospitals, waiting rooms, offices – anywhere a fab could be useful.

“Forgot your sunglasses at home, again, Joe? Go get a pair from the fab.”

Some fabs were like vending machines: for a dollar, you could choose from a hundred different soft drinks. Refreshment-fab specialists did quite well from these, because when you’re sitting in reception or strolling a showroom, a big, powerful, specialised fab was quicker than the multipurpose one built in to your phone. And having paid to get into the showroom, you were a captive market.

There were still some old, specialised fabs around that could only handle certain kinds of raw plasma, like PVC or paper: fabs for toys, fabs for books, fabs for cleaning products. But the latest ones could do the whole range.

Some fabs were really serious machines: it cost a lot to hire the industrial fabs that made big items that were safety-guaranteed, like car parts or girders for bridges. You paid not only for a truckload of plasma, but also so that you could sue someone when your girder buckled.

Of course, you had to know what your fab could do, and how to get good stuff out of it. And if you wanted your fab up-to-date, it had to be plugged in for constant updates, loading thousands of new models – plans for fabs to follow – from all over the world every day. There was a helluva lot of crap to filter out, what with everyone trying to get noticed or feeling the need to share.

Say you wanted a xylophone: there wasn’t much point googling ‘xylophone’ and fabbing the first one you found. It could have been designed by a fifth-grader in design class. Even if the kid’s prototype had worked, the chances were slim that the teacher had double-checked its deepscan for errors before loading it to the net for fabbing, or that the school maintained its deepscanner well. Servicing fabs and deepscanners could be pricey, and it was a hassle to get a new deepscanner fabbed and set up.

To really know what you would get from a model, you either had to spend a lot in time and wasted plasma making rubbish in your fab, or get a recommendation from a friend or a curator. Curators were like experts who built their reputations on making good recommendations, and sometimes charged for them. The automated curators, like Google Fab or Amazon FabMarket, crowdsourced their recs and were mostly free, but they didn’t always get you the best stuff. For a direct line to the best stuff, you had to pay a specialist curator from your fab’s terminal or visit a showroom. The top showrooms could be expensive to get into, but when you were shopping for a vehicle for your family, or a power saw that could take your arm off, you couldn’t mess around.

Many human curators were freelance designers with dedicated followers, who’d pay to meet them or hear them speak or go to their skills workshops; like paying to see live musicians. Others were large design houses, with big brands to promote. They curated their own stuff, or sought out and bought good models in. They usually charged you to load their data straight to your fab. But you trusted them (or believed their advertising), so as your life got busier and your mind filled with cares, it became quicker to just shell out and load their models direct. Some companies made all their money from over-thirties in a rush, who’d got hooked on a brand in their student days, when they’d had time and energy to fish through data-farms and take chances on unverified models.

I won’t take a chance on an unverified model again, that’s for sure, even if it was just my mistake that had us wreck our boat on this island. We didn’t think to bring a fab with a loaded hard drive. By now, living offline almost feels normal, though we have much less time for each other, for sport and arts, stuck as we are in our huts making things one by one and carting them about.

I guess it’s much like the early days of the net, when fabbing was specialised and expensive, and people sold the physical copies of things, rather than guarantees and the expertise to choose them and use them well; back when books cost as much as a teacher’s time, and showrooms were always free to browse, back when people were only starting to put data on the net and 3D-printers still couldn’t make complex parts. Perhaps I should write stories on paper, and sell each sheaf to the people on the island here, like loading data hand-to-hand. Imagine that.

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