Coming on November 14, 2017

About the Book   About the Authors   Advance Praise   Excerpts   Resources

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About the Book

Over the past fifty years, two digital revolutions—in computing and communication—have transformed our world. They have led to unprecedented productivity, generated enormous wealth, and fundamentally altered everyday life. But these revolutions left a great many people behind: today, half of the planet is not connected to the Internet, inequality is on the rise, and threats to privacy and security emerge daily. With more foresight, we could have avoided these pitfalls.

We now have another chance. Neil Gershenfeld, Alan Gershenfeld, and Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld foresee a third and even greater digital revolution in fabrication. The fabrication revolution is about much more than 3D printers and hobbyist makers; it's about the convergence of the digital and physical worlds. Drawing on the history of digitization and exploring the frontiers of research, Designing Reality outlines a vision for a future radically transformed by digital fabrication that takes us from community fab labs to personal fabrication to replicators right out of Star Trek that will allow anyone to make (almost) anything. This fabrication revolution could enable self-sufficient local communities and global sustainability. But it could also reinforce existing inequality and create new, destabilizing "fab" divides. We can—and must—proactively shape our societies so digital fabrication will benefit everyone, rather than just the fortunate few.

The first two digital revolutions caught us flatfooted. We can do better this time. Designing Reality is your guide to not just surviving but thriving in the third digital revolution.

About the Authors

NEIL GERSHENFELD has been called the intellectual father of the maker movement. He leads MIT's pioneering Center for Bits and Atoms and is the founder of the global network of community fab labs that has grown to more than a thousand sites. His earlier books When Things Start to Think and Fab presented what became known as the Internet of Things and the maker movement long before those terms became everyday expressions. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

ALAN GERSHENFELD is a pioneer in harnessing the power of digital media for learning and social impact. As a former studio head at Activision, former chairman of Games for Change, and co-founder/president of E-Line Media, he has helped bring the power of games and digital media to engage and empower millions of youth and young adults. E-Line is currently working with the Center for Bits and Atoms and the Fab Foundation on a game to fire the imagination of a generation around the future of digital fabrication, with research funding from DARPA. Alan lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.

JOEL CUTCHER-GERSHENFELD is a world leader in workplace transformation and institutional change, with a client list ranging from Ford and the United Auto Workers to Australia's Fair Work Commission. He is professor in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and serves as editor of the Negotiation Journal, published by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. Joel is past president of the Labor and Employment Relations Association. He led the first stakeholder alignment map across the US fab lab network and co-founded the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab. He lives in Auburndale, Massachusetts.

Advance Praise

"In Designing Reality, the brothers Gershenfeld have provided a compelling roadmap for how accelerating technology will merge the digital and physical worlds (bits and atoms) and drive the next stage in our evolution as a species." — RAY KURZWEIL, inventor, futurist, and author of The Singularity Is Near and How to Create a Mind

"If the last 70+ years have told the story of atoms converted into bits, then the next will tell the story of bits being turned back into atoms. The members of the Gershenfeld troika arm wrestle their way through alternative future scenarios that highlight the possibilities and the challenges that computer-based fabrication offers. One could not ask for a better pointcounterpoint exploration of the third digital revolution." — VINT CERF, vice president and chief Internet evangelist, Google

"Designing Reality is nothing less than a full-blown manifesto for ushering in the age of digital fabrication, the third leg of the digital revolution. Anchoring the authors' comprehensive vision is the exponential growth of fab labs, a globally extant collection of now over 1,000 digital fabrication test beds. Codifying the lessons learned from more than a decade of success and failure, they powerfully advocate for fab labs as a model for accelerating the growth of and universal access to digital fabrication for all humanity." — JUSTIN RATTNER, chief technology officer (retired), Intel Corporation

"Designing Reality is an invitation and road map for all of us to bring our talent, passion, and communities to proactively shape our shared future. . . . Challenges abound today, as do opportunities; our author-trio invite us all into the mix, because if we include everyone, we can fix (nearly) everything. Opt-in yourself, your family, your community." — MEGAN J. SMITH, third US chief technology officer, founder, and CEO, shift7; and PUNEET KAUR AHIRA, cofounder and chief architect, shift7

"Bhutan's biggest constraint in promoting Gross National Happiness (GNH), our development philosophy, is its heavy reliance on imports at the end of long supply chains. Designing Reality shows that digital fabrication can overcome this constraint by allowing us to fabricate locally while thinking globally and being true to the principles of GNH. We look forward to Bhutan becoming not just a Fab City, but a Fab Country." — TSHERING TOBGAY, prime minister of Bhutan

"Providing universal access to digital fabrication is one of the most important challenges and opportunities of our time. Designing Reality is a manual describing what it is, why it is important, and how to get there." — Congressman BILL FOSTER, PhD

"In this mind-altering book, the Gershenfelds envision a future of making things that’s not dominated by big factories and powerful companies. Instead, it's centered around local innovators using powerful tools to design and build the realities they want. If this sounds good to you, here's the blueprint for making it happen." — ANDREW MCAFEE, scientist, MIT, and coauthor of The Second Machine Age and Machine, Platform, Crowd

"Ordinary people can now create objects with almost arbitrary levels of complexity, in large part because of the Gershenfelds' insights and leadership. Designing Reality is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand this revolution and its implications." — ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and coauthor of The Second Machine Age and Machine, Platform, Crowd

"Designing Reality is more than a deep look into the future of making things, it's a sobering (yet entertaining) reflection on how we will need to design society to accommodate the wholesale changes that these technologies are certain to bring. The Gershenfelds have fused their talents to provide a clear picture of how digital materials will come to pass, while addressing the needed transformation in the social sciences if we are to avoid uneven distribution of the benefits. The book offers a highly probable account of a future where error-correcting self-assembly will allow anyone to make (almost) anything." — JAMES A. WARREN, Physicist and Director of the Materials Genome Program


The Third Digital Revolution: Technology
abridged from Chapter 1 How To Make (almost) Anything (Neil)

The first digital revolution was in communication. Before that, analog telephone calls degraded with distance. We now have a globe-spanning Internet that makes it as easy to talk to someone around the world as it is to chat with someone around the corner.

The second digital revolution was in computation. Analog computers used to fill rooms with gears and pulleys or vacuum tubes and produced answers that accumulated errors the longer that they ran. Today, you can carry in your pocket a computer with the power of what was once a national lab's supercomputer.

We are now living through the third digital revolution, in fabrication. The first two revolutions rapidly expanded access to communication and computation; this one will allow anyone to make (almost) anything. This time around, it's likely to be even more significant than the first two, because it's bringing the programmability of the world of bits out into the world of atoms.

The defining application for digital computing was personal computing, which upended the existing computing industry that initially ignored it. Likewise, the defining application emerging for digital fabrication is personal fabrication, which allows consumers to become creators, locally producing rather than purchasing mass-manufactured products.

Digital fabrication has a decades-old meaning, referring to computers controlling machines that make things. And it has a much deeper meaning that, as we'll see in the coming chapters, is both much newer and much older: the digitization of not just the description but also the actual construction of an object. As was the case with the earlier digital revolutions, we don't need to wait for the technology to reach its final form to recognize or use it.

The third digital revolution can be seen today in the spread of technology for digital fabrication and the impact that it is already having (the subject of this chapter). It can be seen in the historical alignment of all three digital revolutions (Chapter 3). And it can be seen in the coming research roadmap (Chapter 5). Together, these chapters survey the science and technology required to understand the third digital revolution, providing the background needed to be able to shape it.

The Third Digital Revolution: Society
abridged from Chapter 2 How To (almost) Make Anything (Alan and Joel)

Anyone who has visited a thriving fab lab immediately picks up on the incredible energy, joy, and satisfaction that comes from harnessing the power of digital fabrication to design and make things. The early fab pioneers who Neil profiled, and others who we will introduce, are generating new models of highly distributed, personalized fabrication that may indeed transform how we live, learn, work, and play.

But Neil told only part of the story. Not every fab lab is thriving, and not everyone is thriving in a fab lab. Digital fabrication is a complex process involving multiple interdependent and evolving technologies and capabilities. While the potential exists for people to increasingly make what they consume, very few people are currently able to do so. Many of the raw materials used in today's fab labs are not renewable. There are large gaps between the potential for digital fabrication to transform society and the reality of it doing so.

Neil is a classic techno-optimist. His optimism is grounded in a deep understanding of the underlying science, his daily interactions with the pioneering early adopters, and the research roadmap. But he often greatly underestimates how social factors become significant rate limiters to the pace of technology development, as well as how the technology ultimately impacts (or doesn't impact) society.

The first two digital revolutions created great wealth and transformational changes, but they also left much of the planet behind. More than a half century after the publication of Gordon Moore's paper, we still have significant digital divides. Half the planet lacks access to digital technologies. In much of the world, a combination of income and wealth inequality, technological unemployment, and digital echo chambers are deeply dividing society. Many people are struggling with an "always-on" life increasingly mediated by digital technologies.

The third digital revolution could help address these social challenges, or it could make them much worse. The pace at which these technologies emerge from the lab and their impact on society, for good or ill, will not be driven by some invisible hand. Progress will be driven by the decisions we make and the priorities we set, individually and collectively, as the technologies are introduced into society. The best time to shape the trajectory of accelerating technologies is early, when the research priorities are emerging, assumptions are being baked in, and the ecosystem of supporting organizations and institutions is being formed. The time is now for the third digital revolution.

It will not be easy. People also try to detect and correct errors, but the process is more complex and messy. Throughout this book, we look not only at the technology, but also at the less predictable human side of the third digital revolution.

In this chapter, we explore threshold challenges around fab access, fab literacy, the cultivation of an enabling fab ecosystem, and the mitigation of risk as the technology propagates. In Chapter 4, we provide historical context for how the social sciences have been mostly reactive to new technologies and suggest proactive alternatives. We conclude in Chapter 6 with aspirational visions for fab futures that align social and technical systems to create a more self-sufficient, interconnected, and sustainable society along with specific guidance for transforming these aspirational visions into reality.

Three Brothers Writing a Book Together
abridged from Introduction and Epilogue (Joel, Alan and Neil)

Designing Reality brings the perspectives of science, technology, social science, and humanities to the third digital revolution-through three brothers who are not only observers of the revolution but also active participants in helping guide it. Each brother brings a different lens to the book. Like all lenses, each brother's clarifies some things and makes other things less clear. Their disagreements have been even more important than their agreements as they came together to write this book. The same is true any time very different sectors or domains need to collaborate around complex, rapidly changing technology to accomplish collective goals -- collaboration that the third digital revolution demands.

When we would tell people that we were writing a book together, the most common reaction was, "And you didn't kill each other?" Then we'd hear stories of painful and difficult sibling collaborations. Ultimately, though, our different perspectives and our ability to challenge one another enabled us to synthesize our observations from science, social science, and the humanities.


MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms

E-Line Media

The Heller School for Social Policy and Management

Fab Foundation

Fab Academy

Fab Cities

WayMark Systems