MakerBot: Trying (in vain) to Centralize Decentralization

MakerBot is an American-based 3D printer company that gained prominence among the maker community with its originally opensource, consumer-friendly machines. Makerspaces, schools, institutions, and individuals around the world enthusiastically adopted MakerBot’s hardware and joined its online 3D model library, Thingiverse.

While MakerBot and the 3D printing industry it was a part of represented a paradigm shift in localizing manufacturing and liberating the masses from consumerism, the popularity MakerBot gained tempted its founders into a more traditional course of action; selling their company out to profit-driven investors who sought to turn the company into the “Apple of 3D printing.”

In reality, there can be no “Apple of 3D printing.” There can be no centralized monopoly of 3D printing because 3D printing itself is a function of decentralization.

3D printers are machines that can make virtually anything out of a wide and ever-growing variety of materials. For now, virtually anything you may buy made of plastic can be fabricated with 3D printing. In the future, everything including ceramics, glass, and even metal will be 3D printed as well with large, expensive machines already doing so, used by automotive, aerospace, and other heavy industrial companies.

With a 3D printer, you have what is essentially a miniature factory on your tabletop. With 3D design software, you are able to create your own designs. With an internet connection, you have access to one of many online 3D model libraries, many of which offer models for downloading for free. With a 3D scanner, you can capture the physical characteristics of real world objects and print them.

3D printing, thus represents the decentralization of manufacturing. 3D printers themselves are subject to their own disruptive nature, with printers being used to turn out the next generation of components for future 3D printer designs.

In such an industry, the notion of monopolizing and dominating the market is irrational, and not just theoretically, but tangibly. in a February 2017 article titled, “Makerbot announces restructuring and layoffs,” would report:

Makerbot’s new CEO Nadav Goshen announced a significant restructuring of the company in order to meet with growing challenges in the desktop 3D printing market.

The Stratasys subsidiary will be cutting 30% of its workforce in an effort to reorganize the staff into small groups around specific product offerings.

The announcement is only the most recent in a series of setbacks for the company. It has suffered similar “restructurings” in years past.

MakerBot, which began as an opensource hardware and software company, quickly switched over to a proprietary business model, much like Apple. The move was highly unpopular among mainstream 3D printing enthusiasts, and many of MakerBot’s users now are schools and individuals with little to no experience in 3D printing who are attracted to the supposedly consumer-friendly, albeit expensive, user experience MakerBot users receive.

In reality, virtually everything MakerBot does as a company and its printers do as personal manufacturing platforms can be done better by smaller niche 3D printing companies who, as an added bonus, use opensource software and hardware.

Companies like the Netherlands-based Ultimaker have inspired start-ups around the world building machines based on Ultimaker’s opensource designs. While Ultimaker will never become the “Apple of 3D printing,” it has secured its place within the 3D printing community as a valuable cornerstone.

The result of this opensource model is a distribution of wealth through localized entrepreneurship. There is no single “Apple” making billions off of 3D printing. Instead, there is a network of smaller companies filling niches and serving local communities, glued together by more prominent names and platforms globally.

MakerBot attempts in vain to dominate and monopolize what is essentially an indomitable market and it is visibly suffering because of it.

One can only hope that one of the “smaller groups” MakerBot has broken itself down into, considers its roots as an opensource hardware and software company which brought it to prominence in the first place; roots that when forsaken, began MakerBot’s slow and painful slide into the abyss.

How Long Will We Play Games With ATM Security?

It’s funny how we make assumptions without the slightest bit of evidence to back them up. Maybe those preconceptions were placed in our minds through mass culture that dominates the world today, or it’s just an inherent part of human psychology. Perhaps there’s no definite answer and it’s unlikely that there will ever be one. However, we continue doing so, like assuming that the most competent military leaders must command an advance in order to minimize the loss of human life. However, as military history shows, this is rarely the case, since any armed force is composed of people that build complex relations that may involve personal preferences, trickery as well as corruption. People are bound to die due to the utter and complete incompetence of their commanders who themselves will escape any sort of retribution.

At this point, one can safely state that such assumptions don’t work in the world of IT security either, unless you believe that basic incompetence and ignorance are often the reason behind security breaches that cost millions of dollars. Wouldn’t it be just as logical to assume that the rich and powerful would put at least some form of protection in the way of criminals trying to steal their money? It seems so, but in reality it simply isn’t.

It’s amazing how cash dispensers remain the most vulnerable devices for hackers, with a regular computer possessing anti-virus protection installed being a sort of impregnable fortress in comparison with these cash-stuffed dispensers. Behind closed doors, this matter has been discussed for decades by all sorts of IT security experts, however, nothing has been done to address this situation. You see, any IT security department resembles a small army that is only concerned with one matter – getting more funding than they did last year. Now, if you have a 100% secure cash dispensers, how would you ever persuade your boss to pay you more? All this leads us to a situation where most cash dispensers being used today are operated using Windows XP, a terribly outdated system even for regular PCs, let alone a device that must withstand all sorts of hacker attacks. Even banks that are fully aware of this immense vulnerability are often unable to replace them due to a number of reasons, including tough competition in this sphere.

So, one can’t help but get the impression that there’s many computer experts in every country, knocking over one cash dispenser after another with relative ease, while IT security experts appear unable to explain how this is continuously done. For instance, just recently an article from ZeroHedge stated:

Russian daily Kommersant reports that the Bank of Russia detected malware that hides inside ATM’s operating memory which “forces” them to dispense cash to anyone who enters certain code on its keyboard. The paper cites the deputy head of information security Artem Sychev, and adds that cash machines made by NCR were among the ATMs mostly attacked.

Kommersant also writes that according to sources who received the Bank of Russia FinCert newsletter with a description of the virus, the virus in question is the so-called “Disembodied” or Bespalova virus that “lives” in ATM RAM. According to FinCert, the ATM virus was first noticed in Russia for the first time. Since the virus does not have a file body, it can not be removed by anti-virus programs and can live in infected ATM indefinitely, according to sources.

Even though it’s a far cry to call this recent virus “untrackable,” like any other form of defense in human history, anti-virus protection is only capable of tracking those viruses that have already been used before. Additionally, cyber criminals are capable of dissecting an algorithm used to track certain malicious programs, thus obtaining the knowledge necessary to bypass these algorithms. However, cash dispenser hacks can lead to considerable financial losses suffered even by the most powerful states.

For instance, last year it was announced that hackers stole 12.29 million baht (around 300 thousand dollars) from cash dispensers from all across Thailand. As it was reported by Thai PBS, this theft resulted in the costly suspension of about 4,000 potentially compromised ATMs.

With such reports appearing virtually every month, it’s funny that anti-virus software is being presented as the only viable option for defending cash dispensers. However, small companies have been developing a different option for protecting all sorts of devices and they have been fairly successful. This option is usually described as a domed principle, creating a fingerprint of a system, with every file and process being documented and set in a virtually unchangeable environment. No matter what sort of clever trick cyber criminals decide to use, there’s no way for them to inject their code under the dome. The problem with this technology is that modern computers are making changes in the way their OS works on an almost daily basis, so a PC protected by a domed system would find itself falling behind others that receive const ant updates, however, this technology makes even the most outdated cash dispenser a major challenge for cyber criminals. The only question is why are only a small fraction of all cash dispensers in the world being protected by this system?

Automation Threatens Jobs But Offers Financial Freedom

Despite sensational headlines and opportunistic politicking regarding the threat automation poses to socioeconomic stability, with a fully informed, properly educated population, more opportunities than threats lie ahead of us in the near future.

Automation has since the Industrial Revolution replaced human jobs with machines. As technology advances and automation evolves, the socioeconomic landscape of human civilization has evolved with it.

For instance, the initial Industrial Revolution disrupted centuries of multidisciplinary crafts and trades where cottage industry consisting of individuals or small groups of people carried out the entire process of production.  As technology merges information with the physical world, processes like 3D design, personal manufacturing, business administration, marketing, and even logistics are beginning to merge again.  

So are fears that automation will displace human labor and disrupt socioeconomic stability warranted? Yes and no.

In China, according to MIT Technology Review’s article, “China Is Building a Robot Army of Model Workers,” millions of workers face potential unemployment as factories replace thousands of jobs at a time as automation advances and robotics improve.

The article notes that:

Millions of low-skilled migrant workers found employment in gigantic factories, producing an unimaginable range of products, from socks to servers.

And in here lies the problem, a poorly educated, low-skilled workforce. For low-skilled workers, robots are indisputably a threat. Once they lose their job, finding employment elsewhere becomes a necessity. As these workers continue to move away from companies replacing human labor with automation, competition for remaining jobs suitable for low-skilled workers increases.

To solve this problem, social, economic, and political elites have attempted to float the idea of a “universal basic income.” The Guardian in its article, “Universal basic income trials being considered in Scotland,” would report:

The concept of a universal basic income revolves around the idea of offering every individual, regardless of existing welfare benefits or earned income, a non-conditional flat-rate payment, with any income earned above that taxed progressively. The intention is to provide a basic economic platform on which people can build their lives, whether they choose to earn, learn, care or set up a business.

However utopian or empathetic such a concept may seem, it essential seeks to place millions, if not billions of people under the control of highly centralized special interests, many of which will simultaneously monopolize all means of production. Such a scenario invites immense abuse with a population so hopelessly dependent on these centralized special interests, should abuse take place, little or nothing could keep it in check.

A Look at an Alternative Future

However, real solutions to expanding automation and the jobs it threatens do exist, offering an alternative future.

In addition to expanding automation and advancing robotics, another trend should be noted. As advanced manufacturing improves, the cost of automation decreases while utilizing it becomes more accessible. For a properly informed and educated population, automation then offers an opportunity to take highly centralized industries providing a handful of investors immense profits, and decentralize both the industries themselves and the profits made within them.

Instead of the auto industry replacing all jobs with automation and providing unemployed, poorly educated workers with a universal basic income they will be hopelessly dependent for their lives and their children’s lives, properly educated workforces facing unemployment can simply utilize automation themselves to compete with and take a market share from auto monopolies.

Such a scenario was described in a special report published by USA Today titled, “Automation puts jobs in peril.”

It tells the tale of small companies and even individuals leveraging advanced automation technology to create their own businesses, sidestepping both inevitable unemployment working at larger firms and the servile dependence they would face sustaining themselves on a subsidized universal basic income. However, in order to do this, individuals must acquire the skills necessary to successfully adopt and apply automation.

The report states:

Maxi Cifarelli, 25, of Baltimore, peers through safety goggles at a flat screen, her left knee bent and heel resting on her chair.

Two years after earning a fine arts degree from Towson University with a specialty in interdisciplinary object design, she now spends her work days working with a personality-free machine with a name to match: a computer numerical control, or CNC, router.

With automation poised to sweep through the economy, some fear that it will kill more jobs than it creates.

But Cifarelli’s experience is the opposite. She befriended automation, instead of fighting it, and she has a job because of it.

The report highlights industries under threat by robotics and artificial intelligence. Restaurant workers, journalists, bookkeepers, shelf-stockers all face unemployment. However, the means of automating these jobs could just as easily be adopted by individuals or small, local companies to make their own automated restaurants, news platforms, accounting firms, or logistical services.

Instead of a population of laborers toiling under centralized special interests, there lies the possibility of a population of entrepreneurs maintaining a highly decentralized mesh of small businesses leveraging automation, information technology, and other innovations.

But the same special interests floating the concept of a universal basic income are attempting to head this possibility off at the pass as well.

Quartz in an article titled, “The robot that takes your job should pay taxes, says Bill Gates,” would report that:

Robots are taking human jobs. But Bill Gates believes that governments should tax companies’ use of them, as a way to at least temporarily slow the spread of automation and to fund other types of employment.

The article would also note that the money earned from the taxes would go to retraining unemployed laborers for other jobs, and “jobs” that likely exclude the utilization of automation for entrepreneurial enterprises. And like all other taxes, immense corporations heavily dependent on automation will inevitably find ways of influencing legislation and regulations to escape paying their fair share, meaning that those small and medium enterprises will be hit hardest. The consequence of this is an even faster acceleration toward highly centralized industry and a population dangerously dependent on subsidized incomes.

Shifting Our Thinking

Avoiding this dystopian future requires a paradigm shift in current thinking. The employee-employer paradigm is dissolving before our eyes, and what ends up taking its place is entirely up to us.

Makerspaces, hackerspaces, design studios and small companies leveraging automation that provide internships all offer a starting point for establishing a wider effort to prepare the population to be liberated by decentralized automation rather than shackled by centralized automation and universal basic incomes.

Seeing through utopian talking points, and grasping the true implications of concepts like universal basic income and taxing robots is important in developing policy and paradigms that serve the majority’s best interests rather than the small handful of special interests attempting to move their own agenda forward.

Ultimately, self-interest will drive unfolding events. If special interests are able to efficiently implement the centralization of automation, prevent competition through robotic taxes targeting small and medium businesses, and create a population dependent on these interests through subsidized income schemes, it is likely a dystopia will emerge.

Should these schemes be exposed, their implementation delayed, hampered, or otherwise disrupted, self-interest across populations seeking socioeconomic security may begin shifting away from employee-employer paradigms and toward a future of decentralized, balanced entrepreneurship.  

Thailand’s Case Against Uber

People rarely recognize the fact that large problems consist of little details, that, as we assume, don’t affect the grand picture, but little do we know they do. It’s curious that as the Southeast Asian region gradually takes center stage of the international political and economic life, the proud state of Thailand has a real opportunity to become a major driver of a future regional center of power. However, its government is not simply targeted by Western media and politicians for their reluctance to capitulate to Western special interests, they often face the same condescending attitude shown to them by a number of American companies, and it seems that the government has reached its limit.

It’s often being reported that Bangkok is plagued by traffic jams, a natural occurrence for a rapidly developing country attempting to improve the quality of life for its citizens. For instance, BBC would report that:

Once I got into a jam in downtown Bangkok, when I spent almost two hours moving less than a kilometre. Sometimes, my colleagues have arrived at work up to four hours late. I think the city should be more serious about public transport. People have better things to do than sit on the roads for hours every day.

It’s common wisdom that large buses are capable of freeing a lot of space on the streets, replacing up to 80 cars that otherwise choke traffic. Yet, if you cannot get other cars off the streets, then a once comfortable bus is quickly transformed in a smothering tin can stuffed with people that are all thinking about taking cars to work for at least some level of comfort. It doesn’t mean that less people will be able to own cars, it’s just that the government attempts to create clever ways for raising the costs of owning a car versus using public transporation. But if someone has been defying these steps taken by the government to improve the situation, what then?

The Bangkok Post has noted a couple of days ago that:

Eighteen Uber drivers were stopped and each fined 2,000 baht for using their vehicles as public transport without authorisation, and another 2,000 baht for wrongful use of the cars.

Their names and offences had been put into the department’s data base and their driving licences could be revoked if they continue to take passengers, he said. The drivers will be required to undergo a three-hour training course on attitude and legal matters.

Uber has been running rogue in a number of states where its operations are illegal, without making any attempt to obtain approval from local governments. And Thailand is one of such states, applying strict rules to all taxi drivers in order to guarantee the safety of their passengers. It may be legal to be in possession of marijuana in some US states, but no American entrepreneur has ever attempted to sell it, for instance, in Malaysia, where one may face the death penalty for such conduct. But since no serious steps have ever been taken against Uber in the majority of nations it operates beyond the law, its management thinks it is entitled to violate sovereignty and legality whenever and wherever it sees fit.

The only downside to such policies is that a state that is trying to battle traffic jams will witness an ever growing number of cars in the streets, since those so-called car-sharing services are forcing those seeking to profit to cruise the streets in order to get paid. For Uber more traffic means more profit, and it doesn’t care how it affects the quality of life of those living in cities strangled by traffic. And when local authorities attempt affect this situation, Uber happens to have an ace up its sleeve.

The well respected CNET portal would report in its article “Uber devises secret Greyball tool to evade officials”:

Well, Uber has a workaround for that pesky problem. It’s a secretive tool called “Greyball” that Uber has used since 2014 to thwart authorities in cities where the service isn’t yet legal but drivers are still picking up rides.

“This program denies ride requests to fraudulent users who are violating our terms of service — whether that’s people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers,” an Uber spokeswoman wrote in an email.

Now as the Greyball scandal gains steam, we are led to believe that Uber collected data from various sources, including social network and phone books, to establish officials and competitors who were trying to somehow affect their operations. But all of this is nothing but an attempt at damage control in a situation where Uber is beyond redemption. It’s not hard to figure out where and how the taxi giant was getting the information it wanted – from Google. You see, up to 2013, fairly secure Blackberry mobile devices were the go-to choice in Thailand, but then they were overtaken by devices running Android. Google has a track record of collecting all sorts of data about its users and eagerly shares it with fellow tech-giants if the latter is willing to pay a fair price for it. There’s been indications that the two companies have been enjoying special relations as evident by the following article:

Uber has gained two former Google executives to work on the startup’s engineering team, the ride-hailing company has confirmed.

Former Google head of search Amit Singhal is joining Uber as SVP of engineering and former VP of engineering at Google Kevin Thompson will report to Singhal at Uber as VP of marketplace engineering.

So, it’s clear that the Thai government has every reason to crackdown on Uber for its malicious practices, and it would be only wise to put Google and Android in check as well.

The promise of decentralization and distributed wealth through peer-to-peer services like Uber is overshadowed by the company’s abusive practices making it just as bad as the existing monopolies it claims it’s competing against. Uber and the Android devices it is stripping information from represent more of a shift toward another sort of monopoly rather than real decentralization, an important factor to keep in mind when analyzing both Uber and services like it.