Inside The Mystery Box. (Essay on Technology)

Your home is a box. Your car is a box on wheels. You drive to work in it. You drive home in it. You sit in your home, staring into a box. It erodes your soul, while the box that is your body inevitably withers… then dies. Whereupon it is placed in the ultimate box, to slowly decompose. – Arlington Steward, “The Box.”

There’s a Ted Talk given by JJ. Abrams. It’s one my all time favourites, even though it’s quite a short one. The gist of the talk is discovering the joy of imagination, a fitting focus for a man that has recently directed the latest Star Wars movie.

Humankind has invented it’s very own mystery box recently. First referred to as the tongue twister “stereolithography” when Colorado inventor Chuck Hall first filed a patent for it way back in 1983, we now simply refer to it as a 3D printer. The first time I had heard of one I immediately thought of the replicator device featured on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a series that would not arrive to television sets for a full four years after Chuck first filed his papers for an invention that would alter the trajectory of our species. An invention often touted as the birth of a third industrial revolution. Suddenly “Tea, earl grey, hot” at a moment’s notice was within our grasp. Yet another science fiction fantasy had arrived to our present day reality.

mark_bern2 3D Pixel Artist Mark Bern goes to work on one of his pieces.

What a world of possibilities this mystery box can hold. And yet, one of the first inventors to harness the power of 3D printing used it to make a gun. This, I think, says a lot about our species. Our capacity for invention and progress is often crippled by our capacity for self-destruction. Last night, at a Christmas office party, the discussion centered on how doomed we are as a species. The barometer this conversation was based on, as it normally is, was our current media cycle. ISIS, climate change, mass shootings. These are all happening, it seems, on an almost daily basis.

With a news cycle generated to tickle our ancient reptilian brain into thinking there is danger lurking around every corner, it’s easy to fall into thinking we are a doomed experiment. Our capacity to create has always been closely aligned with our capacity to destroy. The GPS system we employ on our phones to locate the closest place to grab a slice of pizza was originally intended to guide missiles to destroy bunkers where fellow humans might also be eating pizza, or at least, discussing where to order the next pizza, or debating about how great pizza really is.

A recent experiment documented that there is a good chance that we are not, in fact, living inside a giant hologram. So that means it’s probably a good time to finally roll up our sleeves and start tackling our self-destructive habits.

We certainly have a propensity to hurt ourselves. But there is a flip side to that coin. Although we may have used our latest, greatest invention to print a gun, we also found a way to create musical instruments, clothing, cars, art and grow organs with the very same device.

I started this post with a quote from “The Box“. Central to the film’s plot is a puzzling device that has the power to financially compensate a user, but only at the expense of harming a fellow human. The box functions as a test to see how far we’ve come as a species from caveman days. For better or worse, our very own mystery box is now open. Let’s hope we find something good inside. Our future may depend on it.

Top & middle graphic courtesy of Mark Bern, a 3d Printer Pixel Artist.

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