Thursday, February 26, 2015

The End of Poverty Will Be Downloaded at 14kbps

Meet the Ghost Gunner, a home milling machine. Billed as your one-stop shop to craft AR-15 lower receivers, it's a lump of metal and code that turns raw metal into machines of killing. From the site:
Ghost Gunner is a general purpose CNC mill, built upon a large body of open source work, including the gshield 3 axis motion hardware, the grbl g-code parser and motion controller, and popular microcontrollers. All GhostGunner schematics and design files will be published into the public domain, and anyone can program anything for the machine.
FedEx and UPS have elected to decline shipping the device. I understand why. It doesn't take particularly sophisticated game theory to pick out the implied threat posed by the ATF. "Nice shipping company you got there, pal. It'd be a real shame if we found contraband in your trucks."

But think of what the Ghost Gunner really is: an amateur, with no knowledge whatsoever of metallurgy, engineering, design, or gunsmithing can take a pile of scrap and make something useful out of it. Tech like this eliminates the highest barrier for the home manufacturer: expertise. The machine knows the proper milling technique. The machine runs the lathe. The machine knows the proper annealing soak temperature gradients.

Imagine that you're a farmer in rural Uganda. There's an antique tractor rusting at the corner of a field that you haven't been able to get replacement parts for thanks to supply route disruptions courtesy of the local tinpot warlord. Luckily for you, a foreign rogue piloting a nighttime zeppelin airdropped a repurposed Ghost Gunner into the center of the village complete with software to crank out all the pump/compressor/belt wheel/alternator casings you'll need to get your tractor running again. All you have to do is feed in the scrap metal and Bob's your uncle.

Yes, yes. I'm simplifying of course. But a big part of what leads to economic development is what economists call "capital deepening." Airlifting a two million dollar John Deere combine into rural Africa is a waste of perfectly good machinery because to get to the point where such a device can be used properly, farmers need extensive supply chains, commercial infrastructure (roads, rails, &c), and the expertise to use and maintain the thing properly. To get to that point, folks need to be able to start small, to be able to cheaply get their existing gear into working order and to upgrade appropriately (recall your Smithian sympathy & Hayekian humility: "appropriate" in this instance cannot be dictated from afar, as the local residents know best the constraints of their particular situation). Ghost Gunner and similar devices drastically reduce the cost of capital improvements. Demand curves still slope down, people.

Code for new blueprints can be published cheaply and easily by the many, many, many civic-minded engineers throughout the world. These plans can be downloaded cheaply and easily even at throttled rates by bargain-basement ISPs.

It's easy enough for me to be a scold to do-gooder, affluent Westerners who seek to ban sweatshop labor, it's much harder to actually improve the BATNA of the world's poorest. Open source hackers building cottage manufactoriums are doing just that. Instead of hobbling them by refusing to ship their wares, we should be buying them up and giving them away to the world's disenfranchised.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?