Architecture has had a love affair with prefabrication ever since Gropius’ conversion a hundred years ago. It never did become our dominant way of making buildings but the possibility was sufficient to invite him to Harvard and make his career while destroying those of independent craftspersons and carpenters worldwide. Such is the way of venture capitalism. Our expectations of quality were successfully lowered. Nobody aspires to live in a handmade house. Yet, large buildings still require an enormous amount of human labour even if the proportion of skilled labour has become progressively less. Many building components are fabricated offsite and variations can be produced relatively easily by linking design algorithms to the manufacturing process. This removes many more persons from the construction workforce. $$.
3D printing is, more than anything else, a system of production designed to produce maximum profits on low overheads once an upfront investment has been made. Sounds familiar. 3D printers can work non-stop in poor or unsafe conditions and they won’t petition for health insurance or a living wage. Unfortunately, buildings are big things, we still need a lot of them and all that grey goo still has to come from somewhere.
While we’re waiting for 3D printers that look like the real future instead of a flatbed plotter, and that run on practically no energy and an infinite supply of zero-cost goo, work can still go ahead to increase our expectations for the future while lowering them in the present. Materiality as a concept is disappearing. It’s easy to find out what a 3D printed medical implant or prosthetic is made of but try to discover what a 3D printed building is made of and you’ll struggle. It’s taken a hundred years but architecture has successfully detached itself from the grubby business of coordinating people and materials to make shelter. In 99 years’ time when we next celebrate The Bauhaus, I hope we think about its place in history and whose side they were really on. To be fair, buildings are big so maybe they weren’t the best product with which to test drive those things called factories. Nowadays even the idea of industry with smokestacks and sawtooth roofs is quaint.
Food is down there with shelter at the bottom of Maslow’s famous hierarchy and we can easily imagine how having those fundamental needs unsatisfied leaves little hope of satisfying the others. Food and shelter are also linked by competing for the same land. The standard post-industrial response has been for cities to displace agriculture while agri-business separated people from the production of food. We used to think it shocking yet amusing when children believed the source of milk was cartons and not cows but today’s children are encouraged to think of drones as the future source of all food. Under the guise of helping, meals delivery companies kill independent restaurants by squeezing their profits and controlling their customers in much the same way as Amazon killed off independent bookstores way back and many other types of retail store since.
The streets around me still have restaurants but many other types of store simply don’t exist. Usual shops are hairdressers, fruit shops, pharmacies, car-washing/tyre-changing stores, fishmongers and a few others for which online is problematic. Stores I’ve foolishly looked for include a hardware store, an electrical goods store, a paint shop, and a garden center. In something like a hardware or garden store I’d enjoy talking to salespeople if they can assist but we mustn’t romanticize the past. People my mother’s age embraced cake mix, canned fruit and instant puddings and didn’t think it romantic to wait in a queue to have the grocer slice off half a pound of butter. Since the 1950s, innovations in consumer end food supply have been about saving time, implying that even the purchasing and preparation of food is onerous.
Supermarkets were food department stores where many different types of food, both fresh and processed could be purchased in one place, saving time. In the 1970s we had the rise of fast food worldwide and in the 1980s shopping malls with food courts surrounded by fast food options. In the 2000s, delivery services saved us the time we would spend going out to eat fast food. Drone delivery will save us the time to say thank you to deliverers. How fast can food get? Is there a theoretical minimum gap between desire and satisfaction? If the trend is towards less interaction and more isolation [in line with isolated people bureaucratically managed] then what’s next? Trying to think like a venture capitalist, albeit one well behind the curve, I reasoned that, for some investment upfront, Star Trek style food replicators would further isolate people and remove the need to set up even dark kitchens and begrudgingly pay delivery riders. Only when I did some searching did I find that food replication had been a news item back in 2018.
The first item had a video titled Teleporting Sushi showing how a piece of sushi freshly created in Japan could have its component molecules scanned and analyzed into information digitally transmitted to a replicator that could be anywhere. That was the wish. The reality was a flatbed plotter grimly laying down layers of gelatin. The second item reported how some start-up had successfully created a “replicator” that can 3D print anything by using large-scale carbon nanotube (CNT) membranes that separate and combine molecules from CO2 in the air. Let’s not hold our breath. Many questions.
Will the mass teleportation of sushi, Peking duck, hamburgers and channa masala mean the end of global hunger?
No. It will lead to a surfeit of conceptual food art for subscribers.
Will there be end-to-end encryption?
There’d better be. I don’t want my dinner hacked and contaminated by some virus virus, especially as I will have already clicked away any rights to compensation and agreed to people monetizing the data extracted from my order history.
Who gets to eat the piece of sushi the chef makes, scans and transmits?
I hope it’s the chef, for there’s no need to make it again as the code can be resold many times. Think about it. Movies aren’t remade each time someone wants to watch them. Plays are though, as long as there’s enough people to watch them. Such a thing as live music still exists but, once music could be recorded, the history of its reproduction and dissemination became one of technology. Hard copy storage formats evolved only to disappear. Once MP3 files gave us quantity then high-fidelity became a thing of the past. Streaming services store music for us and some them like to predict what we might like. I see replicated food going the same way.
What would being a chef even mean once new dishes can be created by combining code for different ingredients and processes?
This one’s simple. If new products can just be created by messing around with codes and algorithms then chefs and cooks join architects in being out of a job. It gets worse. If food can be replicated from carbon molecules in the air then farmers everywhere are also out of a job. It’s said that more technology is always the answer to problems caused by technology but food replicators won’t arrive in time to help us. Farming will become impossible before it becomes obsolete. Once perfected however, food replicators will destroy what’s left of food chains and cultures. All that will be left are replicator manufacturers and marketers, source code handlers and end consumers consuming. No one will cry for Monsanto.
What would a piece of sushi even mean anymore once it’s making is removed from the growing of rice or the fishing of fish?
Divorced from its location and culture like many other things, and now separated from its means of production, sushi simply becomes something some people once ate. Everything we eat will have this in common. The illusion of choice and diversity limits real choice and diversity. Things become less different. Choosing one over the other has less meaning. The Food Court Syndrome.
For that matter, what would making even mean when something just appears in the replicator and the only two states of matter are existence/non-existence and the only relevant state of human existence is consumption?
This must surely sound like heaven to venture capitalists. To have a product that magicks food into existence (out of a raw material that’s still free), on demand, and at the point of consumption does for food what personal headphones and streaming music did to the music industry. Not only is the means of production owned and controlled elsewhere, it’s invisible.
How can we be sure the air at the other end will have all the nutrients we need?
Our bodies need minerals too. It’s one thing to recombine molecules but not all molecules are carbon based. This suggests serious chemistry as well as some basic nuclear physics involving the splitting and reforming of atoms. You can’t replicate a banana if you can’t replicate potassium.
This may not matter.
Is there a limit to the amount of nutrients the air can hold?
Would heavily populated areas be nutrient vacuums? Would there be seasonal variation? Plus, there’s a lot of things in the air these days and not all of them good. I hope someone will filter out all the elements that don’t go into the making of food. Or maybe they could just use any available air and edit the code after as post-processing? I worry how sushi is going to be replicated on Mars where the air is notoriously thin.
How much energy is all this going to take?
Don’t get me wrong. Replicating food out of a resource that’s still free and abundant is a great idea. We have no idea how much energy all this will take to be done properly but we do have a handle on how much energy it takes to reverse engineer food waste. A lot. The USS Gerald R. Ford is a nuclear powered aircraft carrier with sufficient surplus energy to run a plasma arc gasification system that zaps solid waste back into the Hadean Era when the 28 elements necessary for human life were just being formed. With food replication, the front-end scanning and analysis bit sounds like it’ll be the simple part. Transmitting the data is routine. The replicator technology alone sounds tricky if it has to create and recombine all those elements and molecules on the fly but how it’ll be powered is a big, separate problem. How large these things will be is another. I doubt we’ll be taking a replicator on a picnic anytime soon but if enough people put their minds and money to it, it will happen.
Who’s on the case?
We can expect researchers in research laboratories and universities worldwide have, for the past two years at least, been furiously formulating research proposals in expectation of funding thrown at them by the private sector. Same old. Patents will be awarded in the hope of controlling this technology that will bring new and not necessarily good meanings to the terms disruptive and game changer.
What to do?
Not much for now. I’ve no interest in living off-grid, but I am looking for a dream home where I can grow food to feed me and not the venture capitalist economy.