Digital DIY from a perspective of Free Knowledge and Open Hardware

The Free Knowledge Institute (FKI) helped co-develop the DiDIY project, a research project on the impact of “Digital DIY”, which was selected for funding by the EC. In January 2015 we started the project lead by Luca Mari from Università Carlo Cattaneo/LIUC and with the Politecnico from Milan, R&D company Ab.Acus, University of Westminster, Manchester Metropolitan University and the Amerikano Kollegio Anatolia in Thessaloniki (see partners). An interesting team from various backgrounds, which is very necessary to grasp the changes our society is going through. From FKI, mainly Wouter Tebbens and Marco Fioretti are participating.

Our first challenge is to establish what “Digital DIY” actually means, what it encompasses, how we should define it? This is to establish the common knowledge framework (WP2) upon which to build the rest of the project.

Here are some notes from the FKI team:

  • Do-It-Yourself is the common term, but in reality most DIY activities can and should be seen in a larger community context: while one person can work alone to make something, that person typically builds on ideas and projects developed by groups of people. Therefore some people use also the term Do-It-Together or Do-It-With-Others.

  • Central in DIY communities is the aspect of sharing knowledge, so we can appreciate peers producing shared knowledge, which is what we call commons-based peer production (CBPP). Commons because the knowledge is shared, it is a knowledge commons. Sometimes this shared knowledge is just about how to make something and in other cases complete design files and manufacturing instructions are shared in a commons-based form (as Free Knowledge).

  • From DIY to Digital DIY we introduce “digital” in the equation. Digital refers to information being coded and let's note here the particularly paradigmatic aspect of the zero marginal cost reproduction costs of digital information.

  • While Digital DIY can still have a broad scope, we focus on those technologies and activities where “bits become atoms” or “atoms become bits”, i.e. we talk of “Atoms and Bits Convergence” (ABC). Looking at the conversion of bits to atoms we have digital fabrication technologies and digital actuators. In the other direction we have 3D scanners and sensor networks that “capture” aspects of the physical world and convert that into digital information (in bits).

  • Costs can go down a lot, when sharing knowledge is used (and above all allowed!) to move from mass production of throwaway (cf. planned obsolescence), non-repairable stuff to production at home/locally OR on a different, but still "industrial/for-profit-only" scale) to production of repairable/interoperable stuff. An old style assembly line canin many cases optimise costs much more (even if you count in all the externalities) than a bunch of DIY machinery... if the goal remains to produce the same number of objects, of the same
    (throwaway) type, every year. But if the goal becomes production of stuff that LASTS for life, that is if people stop making dishwashers and what not, with deliberately incompatible spare parts... and parts that are designed to break then the cost of washing dishes with such lasting machines will become much less than those of the mass produced ones. That's about sustainability of product, household and planet.

In part we are looking at hardware projects and how people are changing their relationship to them. On one hand we can appreciate how sharing knowledge of the tools brings the overall costs down. I have called that an exodus towards the commons: proprietary knowledge and tools are commonised and can be accessed through the Internet without (marginal) costs, as soon (and as long) as the commons is maintained by its community. This is what we have seen with the Encyclopedia Brittanica closing the press. And in so many software market segments, where mature Free Software alternatives have been made available, the market size has shrank to a tiny portion of its potential size. That is the Wealth of Networks (as is the title of Yochai Benkler's famous book on Commons-based Peer Production).

On the other hand we can appreciate how not only the knowledge is constructed as a commons, today also many design files of very sophisticated machines are becoming commons knowledge. When one of the 3D printing patents expired in 2005, Adrian Bowyer and others started to develop the RepRap, the first 3D printer that had all its design files published under a free license. Now we see a thriving RepRap community where many individuals, universities and companies have added their improvements, in such way that a considerable part of the world population can have access to this technology. In the development of electronics there's arguably even more social innovation going on. Flagship Arduino is now receiving a growing number of competing electronics projects, that also publish their hardware design files, software, manuals etc under free licenses, to enable peers to replicate, modify and improve. These are just a few wellknown projects, as complete pick-and-place machines that semi-automatically produce electronic circuits are being developed, robot arms, prothesis arms, hands and legs are developed.

The bottom line is what Jeremy Rifkin argues in his recent book “The Zero Marginal Cost Society”, how the communications, logistics and energy Internet of Things are boosting human productivity and reducing marginal costs of producing additional units of goods and services. As, a result, corporate profits are drying up, intellectual property rights are weakening (think patents and copyright), and the conventional notion of scarcity is giving way to the possibility of abundance. Rifkin sees a hybrid economy rising where a growing group of people peer produce a growing number of products and services collaboratively, outside the market and inside new commons-based models.

The DiDIY project is observing these changes and tries to address the core challenges in different disciplines. What is the impact of these developments on creativity and what opportunities does it offer? And how in the workplace? While in the past a product idea went through a whole range of departments before finally being developed and supplied to an end customer, now this process can be run by one or a few persons with a community around them, for much less costs and less time. What does this mean for education and research? How will the access to information and low cost tools change the quality of the learning and research work?

Finally what ethical and legal challenges will we need to deal with? We are seeing a renewed War on Filesharing (TM), not of software, music or movies, but this time in 3D design files (e.g. see this Techdirt article). Are patents the right tool and if so, can they be enforceable – especially in the case of private non-commercial use? On the other hand, how can peers interested in building the design commons effectively share their designs, as the Free Software developer communities have done so well in the last 30 years. What policy changes do we need to allow for example small scale produced vehicles on the road.

For selected readings on these matters, the FKI team has published an overview of recommended books and articles on various aspects of the topic of Digital DIY.

This article has been published as well at the Free Knowledge Institute's website.