On comics and teleportation and similar Saturday meanderings into the future

Do you remember good old everyday comics? Not manga, nor the kind of stuff people treasure in polythene wrappers and pay a million dollars for. The stuff you touch and read and laugh at and with. At home, we were brought up on a rich diet of comics; I must have read my first comic book around 1962, and for sure I was reading comics regularly all the way to 1975.

Our reading was fairly eclectic and wide-ranging, despite being drawn solely from the US, the UK and India. Children’s comics were mainly from the US: Sugar and Spike and Fox and the Crow were early favourites, as was Dennis the Menace (the Hank Ketcham version rather than the UK “Beano” version, which, amazingly, made its unrelated debut just three days after the Ketcham version).

Dagwood and Blondie. Sad Sack. Beetle Bailey. The Archie series. Superman, Batman, Spiderman and the rest of the superhero class. The whole Walt Disney thing. Yup, we read them all.

We didn’t spend much time across the pond as it were, that was reserved for the hard stuff. Books. So we read Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton and Frank Richards and Anthony Buckeridge till the cows came home, and topped them off with PG Wodehouse and PG Wodehouse and PG Wodehouse as soon as our hands were big enough to hold his books properly. From what I can remember, the primary UK comics we read were the Beano and the Dandy, along with “Commando” series War comics.

And then of course we had MAD Magazine. What would we have done without MAD? Alfred E Neuman and his crazy gang kept us going during hard times; I have particular and deeply thankful memories of reading Sergio Aragones and Don Martin, on days when everything looked bleak and black and blecch. And there were a few of those.

The only “Indian” comics I remember reading, in English, were the Phantom series, the Ghost Who Walks, and the Mandrake series. [It was only some time later that I found out that the original Lee Falk series was set in some place called Bengali, and where there were pigmy people called Bandars. This would obviously not do in Bengal, where I was born and raised, and where the native was called a Bengali, and where “bandar” meant “monkey”. So, magically, the Indian version of the comic was set somewhere called Denkali, if I remember correctly. Both Phantom as well as  Mandrake the Magician were from the same Indrajal comics stable.]

And of course we had the past, represented by the Flintstones ……….

……….and the future, represented by the Jetsons:

Were you one of those people who sincerely believed that we would be flying around in bubble cars by the turn of the 21st century? I was. As a child I really thought it would happen.

And, after thirty years of commuting, I still fervently wish for a solution. Sometimes I think that the concept of the suburb did more to destroy the fabric of society than any single other “invention”; to my way of thinking, only wars have inflicted more visible damage on society.

I hate commuting. With a passion. I hate the idea that people should travel large distances to work and large distances back, every day, like lemmings. The only people who could possibly gain from that are in the transportation, fuel and insurance industries. Enough said.

Which brings me to the point of this post.


Take a look at this extract from the Wikipedia article:

One means of teleportation proposed in fiction (e.g., The Fly, Star Trek) is the transmission of data which is used to precisely reconstruct an object or organism at its destination. However, it would be impossible to travel from one point to another instantaneously; faster than light travel, as of today, is believed to be most likely impossible. The use of this form of teleportation as a means of transport for humans would have considerable unresolved technical issues, such as recording the human body with sufficient accuracy to allow reproduction elsewhere (i.e., because of the uncertainty principle).

There’s also the philosophical issue of whether destroying a human in one place and recreating a copy elsewhere would provide a sufficient experience of continuity of existence. The reassembled human might be considered a different sentience with the same memories as the original, as could be easily proved by constructing not just one, but several copies of the original and interrogating each as to the perceived uniqueness of each. Each copy constructed using merely descriptive data, but not matter, transmitted from the origin and new matter already at the destination point would consider itself to be the true continuation of the original and yet this could not logically be true; moreover, because each copy constructed via this data-only method would be made of new matter that already existed at the destination, there would be no way, even in principle, of distinguishing the original from the copies.

Interesting. So what about things that are not human?

I think we’re at a stage where we already have virtual “teleportation” of digital objects. In the digital world, when we take a piece of text or still image or moving image or music, and we “move” it across the ether, what we’re doing is tantamount to disassembling the digital object at one end of a pipe and reassembling it at the other end. Now this is fine as far as purely digital objects are concerned: it’s the reason why Kevin Kelly called the internet a copy machine, why Hollywood and Universal Music want to own the internet and make it work according to their rules, why downloaders seem to get treated worse than modern-day war criminals. It appears easier to go to war hunting for things that don’t exist than it is to go to peace attempting to change hopelessly outdated intellectual property law.

Over the past few years, this virtual teleportation (where digital objects get disassembled and reassembled at two ends of a fast and fat pipe) has shown the capacity to make considerable inroads into the physical world.

We already have the ability to take decent photographs, store them in the cloud and print them off at home, at the edge.

We already have the ability to order books via the web and then to print the books off at home: here’s the “espresso” book machine:

We already have the ability to make physical CDs and DVDs at home, and to print off the artwork.

And then we have the gift that keeps on giving: 3D printers are already here, and slowly getting better: take a look at Reprap:

When you have the ability to express something mathematically, and when you have the ability for the “ingredients” for that something to be drawn from a standardised pool, then there is no reason why the “reassembly” of physical things cannot take place at the edge: at home, at work, wherever. Using further generations of toolkits  like Arduino, this will happen. [Incidentally, we ran a cloud services workshop for the Innovate and Design leadership team a few days ago, where everyone worked with arduinos. The whole thing was set up, supported and stage-managed by Alex and her team at tinker_it. Thank you Alex, thank you tinker_it.]

Soon we will be in a place where the instructions emanate from one end of a pipe, and where standardised components get assembled at the other end. Like feeding in a recipe at one end and having the cooking done at the other end. As long as the components are addressable and accessible and standardised, this is already possible. Soon we will be in a place where remote tailoring is commonplace, where the instructions are fed down a pipe to a machine and standardised inputs in the home, in order to produce clothes at the edge. [How nice to see that the paper is imagined and written by a Calcuttan].

We’re long past the point where all we could do is to query, maintain and repair things digital remotely. The pipes are getting fatter and faster. The devices at the edge are becoming more powerful. There is greater standardisation of input materials. There is a growing ability to express the workings of markets in mathematical models, to simulate the workings of markets via abstractions. [This, I understand, is part of what Salim Ismail and friends are focusing on at the Singularity University].

There was a time when people could build machines, when people could take machines apart and when people could rebuild them. Cars. Radios. Planes. Boats. Amplifiers and turntables. And yes, computers.

There was a time when people designed and built machines that built machines.

You know something? I have this gnawing sense of unease when I write this. I begin to think about something that unnerves me, that unsettles me. And that is this:

when people were heavily involved in the making of things, the things stayed made.

Building things to last is a builder’s instinct. Building things for planned obsolescence is not a builder’s instinct. We need to stop this cycle of constant build-waste-replace-waste. The world is too much with us.

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
          Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
          Little we see in Nature that is ours;
          We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
          The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
          The winds that will be howling at all hours,
          And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
          For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
          It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
          So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
          Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
          Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
          Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

One of my favourite Wordsworth sonnets. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours. Such powerful words, stated simply.

Human beings love to make things. And that love has been denied for a while, as we moved headlong into more and more efficient manufacture of more and more obsolescence and more and more waste. This is no longer tenable, we have to take our stewardship of the earth’s assets more seriously. And the move to a digital world will help us get there. [I know, I know, the cloud consumes energy. Computers consume scarce raw materials. But these things can be solved.]

I think this human instinct to make things is what drives people like Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty over at Make Magazine, a fantastic read. I think this human instinct is what Cory Doctorow fictionalised so well in Makers. I think this human instinct is what Larry Lessig described so well in Remix.

Taken from the Makers site: Ben O’Steen got his maker on by printing out the entire text of Makers on a cash-register receipt, using a till printer.

Building things is a human instinct.

Taking things apart is a human instinct.

Rebuilding things is a human instinct.

Doing all this in a way that makes the built things last is a human instinct.

When you see battles about copyright and patent, when you see battles about downloads and DRM, when you see battles about net neutrality, don’t assume that the battles are about them, the pinko lefty tree-hugger criminals.

The battles are about you. And your right to build things and unbuild them and rebuild them. The right of your children to build things and unbuild them and rebuild them.

The battles are about the generations that will follow you and me. And their rights to follow their human instincts.

Instincts that are much closer to stewardship and conservation than those of the moguls of Mammon. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The internet was not designed to become an exclusive distribution mechanism for Hollywood and Universal Music. There is a lot of value still to be obtained from the internet and from the web, in terms of health, education and welfare. And it is our duty to see that value emerge.

So go read Make magazine, visit the web site. Buy Makers, or read it for free. Understand the cultural and creative implications of Remix. Do something.

We all need to become better stewards of what we have on earth, so that others may enjoy some of it. The “maker” culture is a critical component of this.

A coda. Thank you Jimmy Wales, from the bottom of my heart. This post would have been so much harder to write if Wikipedia didn’t exist. Thanks, Jimbo!

Of ragu and bolognese and Cory Doctorow

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a thing about ragu, as described here, here, here, here and most recently here.

One of the great things about dishes like ragu with pasta is that there’s so much scope for experimentation.

You can vary the pasta in use: the traditional spaghetti, the more recent penne, the gramigna that the people in Bologna swear by, the paccheri that the Neapolitans used to smuggle garlic, any of thousands of varieties of pasta.

In fact you don’t even have to use pasta.

You can vary the meat. Some swear by pork, some by lamb, some by beef. Some mix pork and lamb. In Sorrento I was served buffalo. Those in the know in Bologna said that the best thing to do is to use salsiccia, a local sausage. But you know what? Even they would say it’s up to you.

Up to you. That’s the beauty of cooking. Someone makes a recipe up. Someone else uses a recipe that’s been in her family for generations. Someone else uses a cookery book. Or even the Web (I’m a regular user of epicurious).

You can use a recipe, but you don’t have to follow it.

It used to be said that human beings go through three stages of development: dependence (as in parent-child); independence (as in adolescent); then interdependence (as in grown-up). These stages are also visible in organisations as they develop: how business units have a dependent relationship on the centre, then flex their muscles as they grow, finally coming to a mutually respectful and valuable relationship over time.

So it is with cooking. I remember a time when the only way I could cook was to follow a recipe parrot-fashion. Then came a time when I wanted to do my own thing, experiment with abandon. Now I read recipes and change them as I want or need: sometimes I have to vary ingredients because one of the guests has a medical condition, known allergic reaction or low tolerance for some critical component of a dish.


What’s all this got to do with Cory Doctorow? Simple. This post is a review of his latest book, Makers, which you can read “serially” for free over here at Tor, or pre-order here.


I’ve been fascinated by the concept of open multisided markets for many years now. How innovation flourishes, how business flourishes, how people flourish and how society as a whole gains from using open models for business. [If you want to learn more about open multisided markets, try reading Paying With Plastic or Invisible Engines, two excellent books on the subject; David Evans and Richard Schmalensee know their stuff and tell it well.]

Cory has done once again what he does so well: he has created a world where we can learn about the rich possibilities ahead of us in terms of cultural development, yet one which is fraught with risks because of the incredibly stupid things we can do. If we let ourselves.

I don’t want to spoil the book, so I’m going to say nothing whatsoever about the plot. What I am going to say is this:

Our world is full of franchise-based models, where people make money by doing something formulaic and controlling input ingredients, manufacturing process and output quality. In itself there is nothing wrong with a franchise model.

But you know something? I can make myself a hamburger or pizza any way I want. I don’t have to go to a particular franchise operator, or buy their ingredients, or use their recipes, or work their processes. I can if I want to. I don’t have to.

Imagine a world where someone managed somehow to patent the burger or the pizza, where it was no longer possible to make your own. You had to use someone else’s systems, their processes, their ingredients.

In a physical world this is hard to imagine, or, for that matter, to implement and police.

In a digital world it is a different matter altogether. We can police it. We can implement systems that force people to use particular systems, particular processes, particular ingredients. We can create artificial monopolies. And suffer the consequences.

I have always maintained that every artificial scarcity will be met with an equal and opposite artificial abundance; that’s why region coding on a DVD is an abject failure, why the music industry moved away from DRM, why we have to find new and pragmatic models for making sure creators and distributors of “content” are appropriately rewarded. [I’ve been visibly influenced by much that Cory has written in this respect; I’d also recommend the works of people like Larry Lessig, Terry Fisher, Jonathan Zittrain, the Berkman Center in general (with the mercurial Charlie Nesson). Rishab Aiyer Ghosh and the people at First Monday are also well worth a visit.]

There are many reasons to avoid creating new monopolies, not all of them pinko tree-hugger in origin. We are learning every day about the value of diversity in genes (I was lucky enough to hear Cary Fowler speak on the subject recently: if you’re interested, take a look at The Threatened Gene, even though it was written nearly two decades ago.)

Gene diversity gives us options for the future, options for conditions and scenarios we haven’t faced, don’t face but could face in the future. What is true for plants is in its own way true for cultures, for the way we think and act, for what we believe.

And there’s something far more important at stake here, how we as human beings learn and develop and create and experience things. What Pat Kane builds out so majestically for in The Play Ethic. What Dan Bricklin expounds so masterfully in his essays on tools in Bricklin on Technology.

As a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Cory knows a thing or two about the world we’re entering. The wonderful possibilities ahead of us. The potential for awful waste. The social, economic and political consequences of getting it right. Or wrong.

Makers is a book about that future. A book that brings together open multisided platforms, opensource and democratised innovation, distributed “edge-based” production, customer-driven demand creation, customer-participated supply.

Makers is a book that brings that future into shape in front of us, allows us to visualise the models that would make it work. Or break it. The implications for patents, for intellectual property rights in general. The role of money and credit and payments and micropayments. The rule of law; and where the law could be an ass.

Makers is a book which lets us get into the heads of the born digital, the grown up digital, the way they think about things. What their values are. Why we should take a leaf out of Larry Lessig’s Remix and make sure we don’t criminalise a whole generation by our lack of understanding.

Go ahead and read the book. Electronically. Or physically.

Go ahead and pay for it. Or not, as the case may be.

It’s your future. And mine. And ours. And those of our children. And a rattling good read as well.