The Arrogance of Justice

A 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden became famous after hostages empathized with the robbers and turned on the police. The term “Stockholm Syndrome” was soon coined to describe the psychological phenomenon where hostages bond with their captors. Few will argue that hostages under this type of duress genuinely sympathize with their captors and would defend them if given the freedom to choose and the time to clearly consider the facts. During the robbery the hostages were manipulated victims, ignorant, and in need of intervention. You could say the Swedish police had an “obligation” to rescue them. Consider now the 18th century Jesuit missions in South America that purposely set out to prosthelytize native tribes who where surely living in plenary freedom and in harmony with nature. The Jesuits would claim that the natives were ignorant and in need of salvation – a similar argument to the case for rescuing the Swedish hostages. I suspect most of the time people will side against whomever they dislike the most – the Swedish police or the Jesuits – but less extreme and contrasting scenarios are quite common and siding with reason is harder than we might imagine. Was the Jesuit intervention in South America justified or was it an arrogant expression of presumed cultural superiority? More generally, is cross-cultural intervention more or less objectionable than cross-cultural abstention? I contend that cross-cultural intervention is not only justified but indeed morally necessary.
What grounds could possibly support a claim as bold as one that suggests that keeping to oneself is more objectionable than obtruding in cases where aid is not only unsought but rejected? At the heart of this question is the distinction between liberty-rights and claim-rights. A liberty-right can be thought of as permission to act without the interference of someone else while a claim-right suggests an outside duty toward the right-holder. Liberty-rights might be easier to define, exemplify, and defend – few might argue against your right to live as a hermit – but the same rights can often be affirmed as claim-rights – hermits may also need assurance that a safe place to “hermitize” exists. In the case of the Stockholm hostages, they were rescued by the exercise of their claim-right to freedom, personal security, or some other life related right that the Swedish government guaranteed. The Jesuits would probably argue that the natives were catechized through an exercise of their claim-right to enter the Kingdom of God. As absurd as that claim may sound to many of us, we contribute in a similar manner today through public schooling for the rearing of our children, a claim-right to education. To cite a more extreme example, how absurd would it be for a new mother to only respect a newborn’s liberty-right to her milk and not their claim-right? “If he wants my milk I won’t stop him from climbing on my lap and helping himself; if he doesn’t, well he can just lie there in his crib and starve.” The common denominator in all these scenarios is the ignorance or defenseless nature of the right-holders but we have established that there is an arguable claim-right to knowledge, truth, enlightenment, or nurture and consequently a duty to guarantee it by those who can.
The question now becomes “how do we know who is defenseless, enslaved, or ignorant and who is independent, free, and enlightened?” To take another real-life example, there are probably as many overweight people who claim they are “free to eat whatever they want and are happy accepting themselves and their bodies as they are” as there are formerly overweight people who assert that they “never knew they could feel so good and that they used to be slaves to their cravings.” Who should we believe? Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant presents an approach to freedom that might help us answer this question. According to Kant, “to act freely is not to choose the best means to a given end; it is to choose the end itself, for its own sake” (Sandel, 109). A drug addict for example, is not exercising freedom when he or she takes drugs – the drug addict is a slave to the vice. This view of freedom is important since it will help us determine the ultimate good in any situation and dictate the most appropriate moral choices. Suppose the Swedish police officers decided to help the hostages only because they knew they would get a pay bonus if the rescue mission were successful. According to Kant, they would not be acting freely. Again suppose the Jesuits chose to spread their mission through South America strictly because they sought power and political influence. They would not be acting freely either. Only when we are free can we make the proper moral choices, insubordinate to any passion or inclination. Kant then intelligently applies our free and untethered understanding of what is good in itself to determine a general moral maxim that applies to everyone. That rule known as the “categorical imperative” is to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Kant, 31). In other – poorer – words behave the way you would like everyone else to behave. The real life consequences of accepting this imperative may be difficult – unless you want others to lie, don’t lie, ever, under any circumstance. Supposing the Swedish police officers would want someone to rescue them under similar situations, they must attempt to rescue others if they are to act morally. In turn, if a Jesuit truly believes there actually is some type of Heaven or Kingdom of God and would want someone else to help him enter it, then he is morally obligated to do the same for others. This applies to Muslims, Buddhists, communists, and Satanists alike. Intervention then seems morally necessary for those in a position to intervene.
A common objection to the position that claim-rights exist and that others are morally obligated to uphold them is that across cultural lines and between different groups moral principles vary. This position is known as moral relativism and exists in several flavors. I will explore some of those views in no particular order of absurdity or plausibility. One type of moral relativism claims that each group, culture, or society dictates rules and that any particular action is right or wrong only within that group. For example, bullfighting has been practiced in Spain for centuries as an artistic expression of their culture and tradition. A moral relativist might claim that for a Spaniard, within Spain, it is acceptable to practice bullfighting but it might be unethical for a Spaniard to try to practice bullfighting outside Spain. A fundamental problem with this type of moral relativism “surround[s] the identification of a society” (Williams, 21). Spaniards have colonized much of the Americas and defining Spanish cultural borders has become difficult; furthermore, within Spain today there is a generational gap that expresses repudiation toward bullfighting. Societal lines are blurry and therefore too unreliable to define moral barriers. Another type of moral relativism – meta-ethical relativism – suggests that two people might both reason logically toward completely different conclusions and that although these two conclusions may be entirely at odds with each other they may both be correct. A comforting thought indeed if one is to advocate a class of unexamined diplomacy where very little is at stake but difficult to prove or even exemplify. A debate between two religions about what is the ultimate good might fall into that category. The more general point however is that beyond the value of a mere anthropological observation, moral relativism seems to presume a neutral ground so as not to make any judgment in favor of or against cultural values of any kind. Let us apply moral relativism in the following scenario:

  1.   Society A holds that it is morally appropriate to judge other societies.
  2.   Society B holds that it is NOT morally appropriate to judge other societies.
  3.   Moral relativist C holds that is NOT appropriate to judge other societies.
  4.   C effectively sides with B and therefore is not neutral.

There is an obvious contradiction within the tenets of moral relativism, namely lack of universality that renders it unenforceable. The Swedish police may have indeed been acting according to societal norms rather than a carefully reasoned ethical precept but that does not disqualify the validity of their actions. The same applies to the Jesuits. Ethical decisions may rarely be reduced to one defining decision. They are more often a morass of steps – or missteps – that invite cross-cultural conflict.
The implications that cross-cultural intervention is not only justified but indeed morally necessary are dangerous. The applied intervention itself however is answerable to the same logic and moral demands as those that prescribed the decision to intervene. In other words, it would probably be morally questionable for the Swedish police to turn around and kidnap relatives of the robbers and hold them hostages in order to negotiate the hostage’s release. It would also be morally questionable for the Jesuits to employ terror tactics in order to teach the natives about the Kingdom of God. The proposition that one should intervene is not a license to blindly enforce a point of view at any cost. Rather it is first and foremost a summons to reason. The moral conviction that leads to intervention must not be one made in haste or it risks failing the test of Kant’s categorical imperative or any other normative philosophical concept. In fact, moral relativism itself may serve as a useful tool in the examination of any moral conviction. After all it seems even moral relativist seek justice in their attempt to respect multiple points of view. Only after a thorough and repeated audit of the moral convictions that lead to some type of “cross-cultural aid”, should the type of intervention be considered. “Intervention” in its modern use is a loaded word and often invokes military imagery. Let us put that imagery aside and consider a novel approach to intervention. Intervention fails the practical test of advancing justice if it does not observe a cause of “increasing [our] ability to see the similarities between ourselves and people very unlike us” (Rorty, 129). There are generally sensible people on all sides of any debate and no matter the degree of conviction that one side may have; it is impossible, in practical terms, to effectively advance that conviction if a prudent effort to truly convince and not merely impose oneself on the other side is not made. Intervention then is reduced to peaceful sharing of ideas.

Sandel, Michael J. “What Matters Is the Motive / Immanuel Kant.” Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. 103-39. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. “Section II: Transition from Popular Moral Philosophy to Metaphysics of Morals.” Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1998. 18-43. Print.

Williams, Bernard Arthur Owen. “Interlude: Relativism.” Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993. 20-24. Print.

Epistemology of Human Rights: Gewirth’s Argument

It is probably safe to say that in one way or another; most of us agree that each of us is entitled to some basic rights. Even worst of enemies acknowledge each other’s right to disagree! This awareness however begs the questions “why do we believe we possess rights” or better, “how do we know we possess rights?” The epistemology of human rights deals with the latter question and perhaps one of the best efforts to answer it can be attributed to American scholar Alan Gewirth (1912-2004). Gewirth claims that we can derive a conclusive defense of rights through logical deductions based on the nature of action. Action in this case refers quite simply to any purposeful human action: walking, speaking, dating, voting. He maintains that “implicit in action…are certain evaluative and deontic judgements…about goods and rights made by agents” (Gewirth, 12). In his paper “The Epistemology of Human Rights”, Gewirth skillfully outlines the logic behind what he coined the “Principle of Generic Consistency”, a principle not dissimilar to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, and which asserts that each of us should “[a]ct in accord with the generic rights of your recipients as well as yourself” (Gewirth, 17). Ultimately, Gewirth’s logic requires not just a proof by contradiction – which in itself may be troubling – but also the use of polysemous terminology. I humbly submit that Gewirth’s logic is incomplete if not flawed.

Let us examine Gewirth’s logic as he presents it. Gewirth numbers his postulates for convenience and begins with (1) “I do X for end or purpose E” (Gewirth, 14) and follows with (2) “E is good” (Gewirth, 15). These two statements simply assert that actions that are purposeful are intended to achieve a good. Good in this context refers to a restricted understanding of good in that it speaks only of the agent’s desired outcome. It follows that (3) “My freedom and well-being are a necessary good” (Gewirth, 15) if I am to achieve my purpose E. These deductions are valid and require little explanation. If I am to execute any action, I need to have the freedom to do it, otherwise I can’t do it! Therefore, (4) “I must have freedom and well-being” (Gewirth, 15). So far the logic makes sense: I cannot act if I do not have the freedom and well-being to do so. I must have it. The big jump that Gewirth takes is from postulate four to five, “I have rights to freedom and well-being” (Gewirth, 15). The first thought that may come to anyone’s mind is that of an adolescent demanding his right to go out on Saturday night simply because he must go out. Gewirth addresses the potential mistrust of his statement by analyzing the result of its denial. He claims that if you reject postulate four you should observe the following path (6) “[a]ll other persons ought at least to refrain from removing or interfering with my freedom and well-being” (Gewirth, 15). Gewirth anticipates the denial of postulate six and follows with requisite (7) “[i]t is not the case that all other persons ought to at least refrain from removing or interfering with my freedom and well-being” (Gewirth, 15). This statement will confuse a reader who is not in a philosophical mindset. The word to observe is “ought”, a uniquely English word that qualifies an agent’s moral action. Postulate seven may be reworded as “not everyone needs to refrain from…” or “there are situations when others might have the right to interfere with…”. The next postulate is a subtle step from the previous one, “[o]ther persons may…remove or interfere with my freedom and well-being” (Gewirth, 16).  Next, Gewirth proposes a contradictory postulate (9) “I may not…have freedom and well-being” (Gewirth, 16). Because nine contradicts four, we must reject nine and it follows that (10) “I have rights to freedom and well-being because I am a prospective purposive agent” (Gewirth, 16).

A way of reading Gewirth’s claims is that we have rights to freedom and well-being because we need them in order to act and denying that we have these rights is contradictory. To clarify the reasoning, let us examine an imaginary dialogue between two fictitious characters. For fun, let us call one of them Gewirth and the other Glaucon.

GEWIRTH.      We act in order to achieve an objective. Do you agree?
GLAUCON.      Sure, that makes sense.
GEWIRTH.      We can deem these objectives to be “good”.
GLAUCON.      Well, that may be a stretch. What do you mean by “good”?
GEWIRTH.      I don’t mean a “moral good” and I don’t mean that it is good for everyone. What I mean is that assuming the action was not accidental we can presume that some value judgment was made before committing that action and it is what he or she “wanted” and it is good in that sense.
GLAUCON.      Fine.
GEWIRTH.       Good. Now, in order for anyone to achieve that good, or at the very least, to attempt to execute any action, that person must have the freedom and well-being to do so.
GLAUCON.       Yes. In order to achieve the objective, they must have freedom and well being. Sounds pretty straightforward but can you give me an example?
GEWIRTH.       Sure. Think of an African man living in early nineteenth century Brazil. If one fine day he decides pack up his things and move to Canada, he will need more than a ticket. He will need the freedom and the well being to leave and board the next boat out of Brazil. He has that right.
GLAUCON.       Not so fast. Chances are he is a slave and someone paid good money for him. I think his master would not like that very much.
GEWIRTH.       Well, his master may not like it at all but he should at the very least not interfere with the man’s freedom and well-being.
GLAUCON.       There’s no chance of that. He belongs to his master.
GEWIRTH.       So you are saying that his master may interfere with his right to leave?
GLAUCON.       Yes. The slave is his property and therefore the slave may not leave.
GEWRITH.      But you said earlier, and I quote, “Yes. In order to achieve the objective they must have the freedom and well being.” You have contradicted yourself.

The dialogue may seem silly to the modern reader but it is an attempt to place Gewirth’s logical deductions in an understandable context.  Gewirth continues his logic to demonstrate five more steps before reaching his “Principle of Generic Consistency” but let us cut to the chase and explore the problems of proof by contradiction and polysemous terminology.

Gewirth is careful to employ contradictory opposition rather than contrary opposition in his argument but it may be the case that unknown scenarios render his argument incorrect. Contradictory opposition is an “absolute opposition between an affirmation and a negation, an opposition which has no intermediate or middle” (Spangler, 40). An example of a contradictory opposition is the relationship between the statements “my rights are limitless” and “my rights are not limitless”. A contrary opposition is one between two extremes. An example of a contrary opposition is the relation between the statements “my rights are limitless” and “my rights are limited”. Through contradictory opposition, Gewirth constructs a logically valid defense but by pursuing his proof via negativa it is not fully convincing. In the case of the statement “my rights are not limitless”, there is room for scenarios such as “my rights are limited” or even “my rights do not exist”. Take the example of slavery in the imaginary dialog. Might there be situations where slavery is admissible? It may be a travesty to suggest that in today’s day and age but consider the controversy surrounding the question of torture. What if the entire future of mankind depended on defusing a time bomb whose location one stubborn terrorist refuses to reveal? By transferring the onus to a negation, we are left wondering whether there may be exemptions or alternative scenarios.

Another objection to Gewirth’s argument is one that centers on the meaning of the word “must”. Gewirth states that he “must have freedom” (Gewirth, 15) because freedoms are “necessary goods” (Gewirth, 15). Harvard Professor Mathias Risse observes that there is an ambiguity in the use of the word “must” which disqualifies the argument. According to Risse, the word “must” may convey one of two meanings: “I cannot help but value” (Risse) or “I can make demands” (Risse). Gewirth may have used the double meaning of the term to forward his case. To see how the use of this term creates a semantic difficulty, let us examine translations of Gewirth into other languages. A paraphrase of Gewirth’s fourth postulate was translated into French as “l’agent doit envisager ses conditions génériques comme des biens necessaries” (Beyleveld). “Must” was translated as doit – the third person present tense of the verb devoir. Interestingly, the English word “duty” is derived from French and possesses the same etymological roots as devoir. Gewirth clearly takes advantage of the relation between “duty” and “right” to suggest the moral requirement of freedom and well-being. The word “must”, however is a convenient segue between “ought to” or “should” and the more necessitative “are required to”.

As a defense of human rights, Gewirth’s “Principle of Generic Consistency” is a strong moral device and valid for anyone willing to make a small leap of faith. As a definitive proof of the existence of human rights however, the argument contains two hairline cracks that render it unusable. Anyone following Gewirth and the Kantian spirit might pursue adding a few steps between postulates four and five and introducing more precise language. The proof by contradiction however, is the cornerstone of this approach and – in my opinion – not as compelling as direct proofs.

Gewirth, Alan. “The Epistemology of Human Rights.” 1985. Human Rights. Ed. Ellen Frankel. Paul, Jeffrey Pall, and Fred D. Miller Jr. Oxford Engl: Basil Blackwell for the Social Philosophy and Policy Center Bowling Green State University, 1984. 1-24. Pdf.

Spangler, Mary Michael., and Pierre Conway. Logic: An Aristotelian Approach. Lanham, MD: University of America, 1986. Print.

Risse, Mathias. “Objecting Kant & Gewirth’s Atttempted Derivation of Rights.” Human Rights: A Philosophical Introduction, Lecture 12. Massachusetts, Cambridge. 5 Mar. 2012. Lecture.

Beyleveld, Deryck, and Roger Bronsword. “Les Implications De La Théorie Du Droit Naturel En Sociologie Du Droit.” Les Implications De La Théorie Du Droit Naturel En Sociologie Du Droit. Trans. Francois Michaut. Réseau Européen Droit & Société, 1989. Web. 25 Mar. 2012. <>.

Perry’s Argument

In order to discuss human rights in any meaningful way it is vital that the very premise that humans are entitled to such rights be defensible in a rational and universal manner.  One defense of this universality of human rights is the claim that human life is “sacred”, that we are all members of the human family in a way that transcends religion or any personal and subjective creed.  This “sacredness” bestows humans with an “inherent dignity” and guarantees them basic rights.  Indeed this very language is used in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself.  The use of this language did not go unnoticed to American scholar Michael J. Perry.  Perry claims that the idea that every human being is ‘sacred’ and therefore entitled to basic rights is – to use his own words – ineliminably religious and cannot be successfully defended through strictly secular arguments.  Perry’s argument is not so much that human rights are God-given but that the defense of human rights by means of the argument that they are sacred – in a nonreligious way – is flawed.  Perry, in his book “Legal Rights – Historical and Philosophical Perspectives,” goes about demonstrating his claim mainly through an ontological approach to the definition of terms such sacred, inherent dignity, religious, and non-religious.

Michael J. Perry

A conversation about human rights, religion, and reason will often end up in a debate about the “meaning of life.”  It is an inescapable existential confrontation that many of us encounter regardless of our declared stance on religion.  Questions surrounding the meaning of life may be as basic as “where do we come from”, or “why are we here”, or “is this life all that there is?”  The inevitable crossroads of this search are two simple possible answers: a religious path and a non-religious one.  The religious path encapsulates a “trust that the world is finally meaningful, meaningful in a way hospitable to our deepest yearnings” (Sarat, 212).  Regardless of which religion, it is a belief in meaning.  This is not a redefinition of the term nor a distortion of its meaning.  The very word “religion” derives from the Latin verb religare, which means to bind together again that which was once bound but has since been torn or broken” (Sarat, 212).  Whether this reconnection is with “God” or with an impersonal cosmological origin, the result is the possibility of making sense of life.  Suddenly, consolation to suffering is possible.  Reconciliation becomes possible.  A sense of happiness, itself, is possible.  Lastly, morality becomes possible, “[i]ndeed, in one or another version the [moral] conviction is embedded in more than one religious cosmology” (Sarat, 215).  Now that we have described and examined “religion” and the religious approach, let us examine the non-religious approach.

If religion is a connection with meaning, would it not follow that non-religion is the absence of such a connection? The fundamentals of the non-religious approach may be best summarized by its – perhaps accidental – proponents: Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Clarence Darrow, and Jürgen Habermas.  Perry, addressing the existence of morality in a Godless universe, quotes German philosopher and nihilist Nietzsche in saying “Naivete: as if morality could survive when the God who sanctions it is missing” (Sarat, 230).  In another passage, Perry quotes Glenn Tinder:
Nietzsche shows that we cannot … give up the Christian God – and the transcendence given other names in other faiths – and go on as before.  We must give up Christian morality too.  (Sarat, 229)
Nietzsche is not alone in this vision.  American attorney and scholar Clarence Darrow, who famously debated Christian author and thinker G.K Chesterton on the topic of religion argued, as an atheist, the nothingness of life.  Again, Perry quotes another author who describes Darrow’s meaning – or lack of meaning – in life as a “ship on the sea, tossed by every wave and by every wind; a ship headed for no port and no harbor, with no rudder, no compass, no pilot; simply floating for a time, then lost in the waves” (Sarat, 231).  Indeed, if this is how atheists themselves describe life, then there seems to be a consensus about what the secular vision professes: a world with no meaning, no purpose, and no objective morality.
Now that religious and non-religious have been properly defined, it is time to address the question of “sacredness” and “inherent dignity.”  If we say that humans have inherent dignity, we are saying that they are born with it, that they did not acquire it by their own merit, and that they cannot be stripped of it.  We say that human beings possess this “intrinsically”.  Perry further argues then that a human being’s intrinsic value assumes that humans are the object of value and therefore some “one” or some “entity” values them in non-ambivalent way.  In Perry’s own words, “[t]o say that something has intrinsic value is to say, not that something has value even if it has no value for anyone … but that something has value for someone (or something) not merely as a means to an end but as an end in itself” (Sarat, 235).  The final part of his quote is important because it distinguishes between “intrinsic” and “instrumental” value and this distinction is central to Perry’s position.  The argument that the intrinsic value of man is sufficient to consider him “sacred” or possessing “inherent dignity” is flawed in Perry’s view.  Consider a world with only a single person.  Could this person possess intrinsic value and therefore be considered sacred and bearer of “inherent dignity” if he were alone in the world?  To whom would he be valuable?  To himself?  This would be a “subjective” evaluation and not an “objective” evaluation.  Semantically it is impossible.  In Perry’s view, the missing link is “God” and religion.  Only through religion would it be possible to reconcile this definition.  Furthermore, only as “beloved child[ren] of God” (Sarat, 235) can we make any sense of the call to “act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” and the claim that we are “all members of the human family” that we read in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In a sense, however, this entire question about “objectivity” in the terms used seems to have taken a somewhat circular turn. After all, these definitions might resonate with anyone who remembers Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. This eleventh century philosopher claimed – in a nutshell – that because we can conceive the concept of God, He must exist. In choosing to define “intrinsic value” as something that must be necessarily the “target” of someone else’s or something else’s value, Perry creates his own need for a “God” and therefore religion.  Many of us would simply define “intrinsic value” as something that is ascribed even if no one attributes it.  If we do not all agree on this definition, then we arrive at a stalemate in the debate.  Moreover, could we not say that even Nietzsche’s attempt to explain the world is a search for meaning and therefore a religion in itself? Arguably, by Perry’s definition, it could since in this case “no meaning” is the ultimate meaning. Finally, the question posed earlier – “would it not follow that non-religion is the absence of such a connection” – contains a logical fallacy: the absence of something does not necessarily prove the existence of something else.
Now, none of this “God talk”, as Perry calls it, precludes an attempt at an intelligent and credible non-religious definition of sacred.  One such attempt by American scholar Ronald Dworkin is exemplified in Perry’s text.  Dworkin claims that “every human being is sacred is not, for me, a religious tenet; [that] it is a secular but deep philosophical belief” (Sarat, 232).  How does Dworkin define “sacred”? Perry quotes Dworkin directly in saying that a singly human life “commands respect and protection” not because the “process that produces[s] new lives from old ones” is awe-inspiring and evokes “our wonder” (Sarat, 237).   Now certainly most of us probably agree with the statement that life is indeed awe-inspiring, but this statement is inescapably subjective and insufficient to be considered a universal tenet.  After all, slavery – in it’s countless historical examples – is an ultimate example of how this tenet fails.  In the end, what is awe-inspiring to one person may not be awe-inspiring to another.

Sarat, Austin, and Thomas R.  Kearns.  “Is the Idea of Human Rights Ineliminably Religious.” 1996.  Legal Rights: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1997.  204-52.  Print.

Timeline of Human Rights Personalities

FAB LAB A Fabricated Revolution?

According to Neil Gershenfeld, ‘Fab Labs’ are to Personal Fabricators what Mainframes are to Personal Computers. If you’ve never heard of Neil Gershenfeld or Fab Labs you are not alone. The Professor and his concept are only famous within a specific circle of interest. That circle widened a little bit to include me a few months ago when Neil Gershenfeld, who is the director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, came to proselytize a small group of students to his vision of the future. You may however have heard of personal fabricators, even if only in Star Trek. These PFs, as I will refer to them, would be compact machines capable of producing anything, including other machines. Just as Mainframes were “expensive machines with limited markets, used by skilled operators working in specialized rooms to perform repetitive industrial tasks” so are fabricators in their current format (Gershenfeld 3). It follows then that these will evolve into devices with analogous accessibility as personal computers today. Is this probable and even possible? The benefits of pursuing the popularization of PFs are plentiful but I would argue that they are diametrically different to Neil’s master plan.
To understand how Fab Labs came about, it is worthwhile to examine the evangelizing spiel Gershenfeld himself preaches on a frequent basis. A quick search on the Internet for Neil Gershenfeld will return many video records of Neil delivering his vision, ipsis verbis, to many different groups in many different settings, often repeating the same witty drolleries with surprising enthusiasm. The idea for a laboratory where anyone could walk in only with an idea and walk out with a functional solution in their hands has its roots, in this case, in Neil’s early frustration of being too smart for ‘shop class’. Working with your hands has been traditionally relegated to the blue collar. This separation undoubtedly stifles invention and creativity. Neil eventually righted this wrong when he became a professor at MIT with sufficient respect and authority to create a class appropriately called “How To Make (almost) Anything”. The purpose of the class was to introduce students to machines that make things, i.e. laser and plasma cutters, milling machines, and injection molders. The results of the first semester were products intended to meet the wants of their creators, exclusively. This experience lead to thought that ordinary people who did not have access to the multi-million dollar machine shops at MIT, might produce some truly revolutionary creations if they too had access to these machines. And so Fab Lab was born, a small scale workshop with tools usually associated with mass production available to ordinary people for fabrication of proto-personal devices. This description is more of a deduction than an official definition of the project. At a question and answer session with Neil a student asked what type of guidance and instruction are fab lab ‘users’ receive. Neil’s response was an immediate ‘the users themselves’, frustrating anyone trying to get a clear picture of the day-to-day operation of a fab lab. This answer exemplifies the fanatical zeal Gershenfeld has for the success of Fab Lab as a tool for ‘personal discovery’ and his efforts to distance his project from the notion of a machine shop. It is obvious someone is providing guidance. It would be illegal to allow children, for example, to operate dangerous machinery without any kind of instruction. Neil was correct in that Fab Lab is a valuable channel for personal realization. The results of Fab Labs as a creative instrument are indeed remarkable and emblematic of it’s efforts to enable ordinary people to turn their ideas into tangible things.
Fab Labs have been set up in several locations around the world and have produced amazing inventions. There are currently Fab Labs in Norway, Costa Rica, India, Ghana, South Africa, and Boston. Each of these labs operate using slightly different rules and approaches. To better understand Fab Labs, let us look at some of the results from these different locations.
Lyngen Alps, Norway
An interesting project that came out of this Lab where a herder by the name of Haakon Karlsen developed, with the help of a team, a short-range radio coupled with a GPS receiver that could be used by sheep to track their position. The obvious limitation was precisely the ‘short-range’ that defeated the purpose of distance monitoring of the animals. The solution was a network of repeaters fabricated with inexpensive, off-the-shelf radios to relay the signal. The placement of these transceivers helped negotiate the twists and turns of the Lyngen Alps and organically extended a network that serviced multiple users.

An important accomplishment was achieved in a Fab Lab in India that reflects the breadth of possibilities Fab Labs offer. A common practice in India among unscrupulous dairy farmers is to dilute milk with water, or worse, bad milk to increase volume. A sensor was developed using a microprocessor that measures a charge rate of milk when a voltage is applied to electrodes placed in a sample of milk. Essentially a device that measures the quality of milk was developed and perfected to help distributors and ultimately consumers.
Boston, USA
The “South End Technology Center” houses the only US based Fab Lab and arguably most clearly exemplifies the social mission that Fab Labs have served. The format at this Fab Lab is that of a class proper where students learn to operate the machines. Students have produced items ranging from a security system that takes a picture of any approaching person to custom game-console controllers. One significant accomplishment has been the transformation of recycled materials into sellable goods that empower inner-city students with an earning potential.
In Ghana, a Fab Lab was able to inexpensively and effectively convert sunlight into usable energy. A contraption was fabricated that creates steam by boiling water using a parabolic reflector. This steam then was used to turn a turbine. One of the things that make this project unique is the turbine. Because the RPM attainable with the steam generated is fairly low, a Tesla turbine was used to maximize efficiency. Tesla turbines are an old design, rarely used today, where closely and precisely spaced discs very economically ‘capture’ the energy generated by the steam.
South Africa
In Soshanguve, South Africa users have assembled batteries from scrap zinc, carbon manganese dioxide and various plastics. In another application a user made a self-directing vacuum cleaner. With heavy governmental funding, the Fab Labs in South Africa have fulfilled an important role in spreading technology to a whole generation by creating centers that put up the Labs.

These centers, and any new Fab Lab, will necessarily obey certain ‘inventory’ principles and standards. All Fab Labs contain basic equipment that perform three basic tasks: subtraction, addition, and formation. Interestingly, the Internet is speckled with web sites and user groups supporting and promoting the creation of fabbers. According to, “a fabber (short for ‘digital fabricator’) is a ‘factory in a box’ that makes things automatically from digital data”. Furthermore, “fabbers generate three-dimensional, solid objects you can hold in your hands, submit to testing, or assemble into working mechanisms.” The emergence of these fabbers is a testament to Gershenfelds prediction that these machines will shrink and become more accessible. The tools used to perform the three basic tasks that Fabbers and Fab Labs perform will evolve and perhaps fuse into hybrid variations but the functions will remain. Today, subtraction is performed by computer controlled cutting tools like laser, plasma, and water jet cutters as well as milling machines. The basic idea of subtractive processes is to remove everything that is not the desired ‘thing’ from a block of material. Additive processes today use tools such as vacuum formers and injection molders. There are currently commercially available machines that used additive and subtractive technologies and are marketed as ‘fabbers’ intended to meet the rapid prototyping needs. One example is a machine sold by a company called Soligen that essentially prints a three-dimensional object using a technique called ‘drop on powder deposition’. Like this machine, there are dozens that were designed specifically as fabbers and not to service any large-scale production need. The third process is the formative process. Just like swordsmith will fold and hammer away at a piece of hot steel to achieve a desired shape, formative tools neither add nor subtract material. Tools of this type would be presses of various types.
All the evidence so far seems to indicate that PFs are on their way to becoming a reality. There is a demand for personal fabrication and the cost of producing machines that fabricate is dropping. Both these forces, the supply and demand, however, have barriers that may steer the future of PFs in a direction and at a rate that perhaps are not expected. Professor Gershenfeld makes a specific reference to the killer apps as the success cornerstones of the personal computer and that a similar catalyst will define the survival and success of PFs. PCs had killer apps with names like Visicalc and WordStar, jobs that they performed that most everybody already did, and more importantly, a viable economic distribution channel and reward that made them commercial successes. This is perhaps where Gershenfeld’s analogy is not perfect. According to Gershenfeld, the killer app of PFs is fulfilling individual desires. There isn’t and will unlikely ever exist, a machine that can fulfill any individual desire. We don’t think much about this, but PCs evolved into something we sit in front of. People used to stand in front of mainframes. The current PC, with a mouse, graphical user interface and LCD inherited its format from an evolutionary process that included killer apps as defining influences. Much the same way, PFs will become machines that we have no business even imagining. Any prediction will most probably be laughable in a few years.

In a few years the Fabbers and Fab Labs will most certainly look a little different. They will still be recognizable in the sense that the there will be automated process fabricating things. Returning to the mainframe analogy, one aspect that contributes favorably to the analogy is the ability to distribute master plans between users. Someone can easily ‘package’ his idea into a digital document that can be shared with other users that have access to PFs. The ability to distribute these documents is what will carve the evolutionary path of PFs. Fabricators will need to operate on a common denominator that will limit their ability to fulfill any desire. They will indeed take much the same path as the PC did in that some type of ‘open source’ projects will surface, consolidating solutions for groups of people. Even the strict separation of hardware and software may not have been foreseen in the early days of mainframes. In the same way, PFs may suffer further sub classifications that we cannot conceive of today. It is helpful to remember also that mainframes still exist and are profitable in a flourish market even today.
Another element that disrupts the mainframe analogy is materials. The materials that are used by Fab Labs and Fabbers are as diverse as the machines themselves. In order to popularize PFs, new elements will need to be created, materials that are easier to manipulate and distribute. Materials may be considered the software of PFs and the emergence of new materials will dictate the direction PFs will take. The discovery of these materials will also define the time it will take to progress from what Fab Labs look like today to what PFs will look like whenever they come to fruition. Comparatively, PCs evolved very quickly. After all, the steps between thinking and doing are quicker and fewer when it comes to programming than it would ever be with personal fabrication. Methodologies and conventions helped PCs, software, and consequently killer apps take shape in an organized and modular way. Object oriented programming for example made it very easy applications to take a distributed development. It is difficult to imagine what the PF equivalent would be since materials and concepts can be so diverse.
Besides materials and other limitations, PFs will face challenges PCs never had. One of these challenges is more of a regulatory nature. In his book FAB, Gershenfeld describes a personal transportation project created by an MIT student. Using laser cutters and polycarbonate plastic, Saul Griffith created a bicycle that assembles with the addition of a few off the shelf parts, like wheels and tires. Conceivably, a PF will be able to fabricate the entire bicycle. Saul can email his bicycle to any friend and they can make a bicycle too. The potential problems with this and any similar project on a larger scale are that of quality and safety. The equivalent problem with the PC counter part is that of application bugs. They are common and many times get fixed but they are not life threatening. A miscalculated bolt can send a user veering off at high speeds on a poorly designed or constructed personal transportation device that came out of an out of tune PF.
Fab Labs are however, and important predecessor to PFs but perhaps more importantly, they currently serve as an equalizing element in the distribution of knowledge. The knowledge is not only concerned with the technologies available at the facilitaties. Learning how to operate machinery is the least of the tasks Fab Labs around the world accomplish. Fab Labs inspire new ideas and solutions. Most areas where Fab Labs were established were in dire need of resources of an intellectual nature, that is, the ability to create solutions and develop more opportunities. Because these labs for the most part rely on state funding or significant private investments, they are usually partnered into larger facilities that provide further community services. In many cases, the real objective is to help people help themselves from an early age. So many of the stories described in the book Fab and in articles that circulate on the Internet are about pre-teens who have tackled and mastered problems that would present a serious challenge to even a highly educated professional or academic. In most cases, it seems these children have understood just enough about each of the necessary element that will make a machine work. But Fab Labs is not about children; it is about making things, things that people (individuals) want. It is also about laying the tracks for the development of the technologies that will make PFs a reality.

In many respects, much of what Fab Lab represents is an effort to bridge a gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. This divide leads us to the final aspect of the analogy, one not explicitly made by Gershenfeld but relevant nevertheless. Much talk was made in the 1990’s about the digital divide and the implications of such an even distribution of resources. The coming digital divide is one of a material nature, where some will have access to personal fabrication while others will not. Fab Labs is preemptively addressing this gap by targeting areas where the need is greater. This almost seems unfair as access to the tools and resources available at Fab Labs is beyond the reach of most people living in first world countries, case and point is the overwhelming response Gershenfeld’s “How To Make (almost) Anything” had. This response is/was symptomatic of the sterile upbringing that ‘haves’ receive vis-à-vis the do-it-yourself culture that surrounds them.
However imperfect the analogy between the advancement of personal computation and the advancement of personal fabrication is, the underlying impact that Fab Labs is having on the future of PFs is undeniable. In summary, Fab Labs are an important predecessor to PFs. PFs may turn out to be almost unrecognizable to a time traveler leaving the present day to visit the far future. The basic principles of subtraction and addition will nevertheless define them and owe their nature to today’s pioneers at the many Fab Labs around the world. Gershenfeld conspicuously left out dates from his book on Fab Labs. Newer editions will certainly be out, transforming it into more of a blog than an ‘old testament’ of personal fabrication. Finally,it is important to recognize Fab Labs as a social equalizer in education and opportunity. The innovations, discoveries, inventions, gadgets, and personal fulfillment that they enable are the legacy that will endure.

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