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Challenges and Opportunities in Building the Hardware to Change the World

Two weeks into the internship, and we’re packing up a 15 passenger van with 2 tons of steel, 13 people, and enough food and equipment for a week of camping. We’re driving to Wisconsin to lead our first workshop on the CEB Press at Mid State Technical College, and showcasing it at the renewable energy fair. We’ve all finished out module instructionals and have received some elementary training on welding. Here we go.

A lot as gone on since I arrived, and we’re all pretty well versed in the rhythms of doing intensive collaborative work. A few days before we left, I had a long talk with Catarina Mota, an Open Source Pioneer who works with OSE, about her most recent research on the changing landscape of technology, hardware, and democracy across the world. We discussed how there is a growing discourse around the need to find some means of democratizing technology, and that this is a widely agreed upon sentiment in many academic spheres. But, as Catarina pointed out, very few people are talking about DOING as a means of democratizing. Some people will suggest shifting policies, others want a means of community control, but who is talking about democratizing technology by crowd sourcing it? This helped give me some perspective on the impact Open Source Ecology is having on the world. They are the leading organization in Open Source Hardware, and they are doing their work on a global scale. More importantly, they are living proof that this model of open collaboration is viable and achievable even when you are collaboration is often spatially limited (you need to be in the same place at the same time to build a machine together, unlike collaborative computer coding or information compilation).

But still, I wonder about the challenges we face on the way. I write as if their model is flawless and efficient, but it is far from it. We met many of these challenges in the past few weeks. It turns out modular is not necessarily as clean and easy as I suggested. There are tons of tiny design flaws that are not realized until after the machine is built, there are many different formats of designing and building that are not necessarily aligned with one another. There are many questions around the kind of efficiency that we want (sure, we can build an entire house in a day, but shouldn’t we allow it to take more time so we can anticipate some of the structural problems before putting it all together?).

And what about the challenges of people working together? There is a type of diversity strongly present at OSE—that of geography, perspective, life goals, and nationalities, but there is also a degree of homogeneity present as well. The majority of people here identifies as White, Straight, come from middle class backgrounds, attended college, and so on. Being at OSE is a privilege in itself; to take time of work, pay money to work here, have access to information and knowledge necessary to be a valuable asset to the team. I wonder just how Open Source we can be. When we say that anyone can access and use this technology, what we are really saying is that anyone who knows about this project with the time, care, and knowledge necessary to engage with it, can access it.

In my darkest thoughts, I wonder if this is hardware really for the people, or if it is another form of collaboration meant only for the educated and privileged enclaves of individuals across the world. Are we building viable alternatives or building a self-help network?

I also wonder a lot about how people react to the kind of project that OSE is: intensive, built on sweat and powered by vision, deep radical potential, and so on. I think people, especially young progressive college students, have a set of expectations in their mind about how this kind of work is supposed to pan out. People don’t expect reality to smack them in the face: this is really hard work. Lots of hours, lots of crises, no 5-star hotel accommodations. It gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The septic system might not have enough diffusers, the pump might be broken, and the weather might kill all of your tomato plants. You have to deal. Be calm under pressure. It’s not that bad. I’ve learned that many people are not ready for this. We make plans and want to stick to them (but you know what they say… the Universe laughs in your face when you make plans). I should say that I’ve spent many years in thought about this, about how people react to these situations, and why I think they do, and what I have to say about it (with a lot of boring personal backstory to how I got here), but I suppose that I am simply trying to establish that there are a multitude of challenges on many different levels that we face.

But these are the dark thoughts. OSE is creating something powerfully imaginative and dangerously impactful and I am most proud that I have the privilege to be a part of it. This work is, after all, what I want to spend my life doing!

Sam Kiyomi

Open Source Ecology: Taking Back Our Means of Production

In the great state of MO there is a little town called Maysville. Maysville is a farming town, acres of corn and soy surround the small central Missouri town. About a mile outside of the city limits, off a little gravel road is a 30-acre compound. The entrance has a small sign: “Open Source Ecology” stenciled on to a piece of plywood. There are little huts made of mud, a few houses made of compressed earth bricks, and a workshop with several of every power tool you could imagine. Inside of a small silo out back is 10 tons of steel. Steel is like tomatoes: $1/lb. Big 4″ steel square tubing with holes cut every 2″ makes the building blocks for life-sized erector set machines. Along with engines and pumps they are put together in different ways to make tractors, trenchers, hay bailers, brick presses, and tillers, which are lined up in a row behind an old beaten-down workshop. There are no vegetables growing, but 2 acres of land has been freshly rowed up; we’re going to plant them. We stay inside a small hackerspace/dormitory called the HabLab. In the small hacker space we are greeted by young people from all over the world. An Alaskan fisherman, a Grad student from Rio de Janerio, a financer from Miami who just sold his condo and quit his job to start a new open-source life, a genius construction worker from Canada, and undergraduate students from all over the country. We’re all here for the same reason: to build the Global Village Construction Set. Open Source Ecology came up with the GVCS four years ago. Fifty different machines that are believed to be the necessary components for a small-scale sustainable civilization to exist: wind turbines, tractors, tillers, 3D printers, CNC torch tables, Induction furnaces, welders, brick presses, and so on. Now they are journeying on the long process of designing and fabricating each one of them to meet industry standards of performance with their own unique standards: 1. It has to be cheap—each of their machines costs a fraction of the cost from proprietary makers. Industrial scale bulldozers cost about $250,000, they expect to be able to build one for $30,000. 2. Modular–each machine is broken down into several modules. These are independently functioning devices that, when put together on a proper interface, form whole machines. This allows them tons of flexibility in the building procedures, allows them to design and build machines in a fraction of the time it would normally take, and allows them to mix and match modules from different machines to produce new ones. Say we have a machine we want to design and build. So we break it down into 10 different modules. Now each person takes a module and designs it on their computer in parallel, cutting the time it takes to design in half. Now the same people, using their CAD files, build each module, cutting the time it takes to build in half again. All you have to do is connect each module at the end, and you have a machine! 2. Life-Time Design—rejecting practices of planned obsolescence, they build their machines meant to last for a lifetime. They use quick connect hydraulic hoses (easily detachable and moveable), they use universal parts that are easy to find and cheap to buy anywhere, each facet of the machine is easily accessible and replaceable. 3. DIY– If anyone has the necessary tools and space, they ought to be able to build these machines without any prior experience or knowledge. They are working to dispel the black magic around engineering. Detailed videos and instructions help anyone build their own machine 4. Open Source– All documentation is put up online free for anyone to replicate, reuse, or make their own derivatives off of. No patents, just collaboration. Anyone can contribute, anyone can participate, anyone can use. They want to democratize hardware and technology and they want a collaborative global effort to make it happen. I think one of the essential questions at hand in their work is HOW can we put the means of production into the hands of the people, HOW can we make it easier for us to get basic human needs met in an affordable and globally replicable fashion. I stress the ‘how,’ because I believe that it is a central premise to the organization; how can we make this happen? I found out about Open Source Ecology through my work at an Urban Farm in New Orleans. A documentary team from Los Angeles stopped by our project two years ago and told us they wanted to film a doc on what it takes to ignite The Spark in people to actualize viable alternative ways of life and living (like taking the red pill and disassembling The Matrix). The documentary was about us and OSE. The film crew wanted the two projects to meet, so last year a bunch of my coworkers went up to Missouri and built a tractor in 3 days and drove it back down to New Orleans (I had to stay for class >:| ). We’ve been using the LifeTrac for over a year. I was helping Marcin, the founder of the project, with some recruiting throughout the school year, and I felt like it was finally high time to get up there. In the first few days we got quickly oriented, catching up to the fast paced collaborative dialogue and action. There was tons of work to do. In a couple of weeks, we were to drive up to Wisconsin to lead a workshop on building the CEB Press machine, build it, then showcase it at the renewable energy fair. So we had to learn fast. We spent most of the morning working on detailed instructionals for the Brick Press. The machine has about 12 functioning modules, so we each took one and developed instructions independently. You can check out mine here: Main Cylinder (not finished, always a work in progress, but you’ll catch the drift). We had to learn how to weld, the basics of hydraulic mechanization, and a few other things to make it all work. The second half of the day, we were on the ground doing hands-on work. Tons of work to do: the soffits still needed to be put on the building we were staying in, scrap metal needed to be organized, machines needed to be deconstructed, irrigation needed to be laid out. Never any shortage of work. As for my learning goals, this is what I set myself for my month-long trip 1. To be able to understand and articulate the challenges of and opportunities for democratizing technology and hardware. 2. Basic hands-on training in welding, metal work, engineering, carpentry. 3. Gain experience with this particular model of collaborative work. 4. I’m not sure exactly what to call this goal– I want to grow with the zen habit of mind of working with people and working with machinery (See Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the inspiration). 5. Set up relationships to bring the OSE connection to New Orleans. (Seriously, I think a lot of people, especially the TU SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE *COUGHCOUGH* would really be excited with the possibilities I’ve encountered. See more on the Microhouse as an example).


Next post coming shortly!


Sam Kiyomi