And just like that, as the North American Science Fiction Convention felt like it was only beginning, it was drawing to its end. To my misfortune, I had to miss the events of Saturday, including a number of panels and the ’80s dance DJ’d by sci-fi writer John Scalzi.
Nevertheless, I was determined to get as much out of the weekend as possible, and so early on Sunday morning, I made my way back to Detroit to catch the tail end of the convention. Heading towards the Renaissance Center, I was going against the flow of people with suitcases heading to the parking lot to pack up before catching the last few panels. I didn’t let this deter me, though, and, consulting my handy schedule, cheerfully went on my way to the panels I had chosen ahead of time.
The first of these panels, with the attractive name The Personal Replicator, focused on the possibilities and consequences of the development and spread of 3D printing. I’d encountered a few mentions of the possibilities these printers might open up – for example, the Designing Fictional Spaceships panel mentioned the possibility of printing replacement engine parts for spaceships on long voyages.
This panel, though, was a much more in-depth examination of the effects that 3D printing might have on the economy and society and human civilization in general.
The panel began with a discussion of intellectual property and the effects that 3D printing might have on it. After all, “replicating” means that the infrastructure we have in place today for the manufacture of goods could be replaced by the selling of plans and schematics (that is, of intellectual property) that allow someone to print any invention in their own home. This raises a number of issues: for example, how can creators retain their rights and be compensated for their work? If anything you need can just be printed according to schematics, which may very well end up being shared illegally, how do creators, inventors, manufacturers, and society deal with an industry that is so focused on intellectual property? Or will intellectual property as a concept simply disappear?
On the brighter side, human ingenuity will likely find ways to deal with these problems. Perhaps we’ll find new ways of compensating creators, or see an increase in things like crowdfunding. In today’s world, there are quite a few measures taken to prevent software and music, for example, from being shared illegally, and if 3D printers become commonplace, such measures will likely be developed and perfected around that too.
If they aren’t, the alternative is the risk of a significant decrease in creativity and invention. That’d be a huge disappointment, because 3D printing provides creators and inventors with unprecedented possibilities: no longer will a new invention require a huge investment of capital and the manufacturing of dozens of models. Startups and individuals will instead have many more possibilities for getting their inventions out there, maybe even tailor-made to a client’s specifications.
And what will this do for industry? If anything can be printed in one’s own home, then much of today’s shipping and manufacturing industries will become obsolete. Will that affect the world economy? Perhaps, but it’s more likely that, instead of shipping and manufacturing things, this industry will center around shipping and manufacturing materials for the 3D printers (because you need to print with something).
Finally, how do you deal with the issue of safety? If anyone can print anything, what’s there to stop people from printing guns in their own homes? How do we regulate the safety of anything we create if it’s all just information on the internet? Could we get away with just regulating the materials that might be needed to create dangerous things like guns?
Still, we shouldn’t get too excited. 3D printing is still in its early stages, with the cost of these printers and their materials extremely high, while the time it takes to print an item is still quite lengthy. As with much technology, perhaps one day it’ll be cheap and accessible – but those days are still far away. Still, this wouldn’t be a science fiction convention if we didn’t wonder about the possibilities.
My next panel – and the last one of the day – was on Science and Magic, a topic that harkened back to the panel on Science Fiction, Fantasy and Religion that I attended on Friday and wrote about. Many of the topics brought up were the same – for example, the idea that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and that in many ways, technology is magic if you look at it the right way.
Fittingly, the panelists quoted scientist Michio Kaku, who once said “it is our destiny to become like the gods we once worshipped and feared.” Those things we once considered magic we may one day very well possess through the wonders of technology, and some magic will (or has) become so commonplace as to no longer be magical – such as access to the majority of human knowledge in the palm of one’s hand. Most important, magic is a matter of perspective – and does not have to be antithetical to science and technology, precisely because science and technology have the potential to be magical from the right point of view.
At the same time, a handful of panelists pointed to the distinctions they believed did exist between science and magic. Science, one panelist claimed, is about finding out more about reality, while magic is about manipulating perception. This allowed the discussion to veer in another interesting direction, as speakers pointed to the ways that technology does manipulate our perception. From GPS and other navigational apps, which change how we look at the world around us as we travel through it, to augmented and virtual reality, which immerse us in illusion, technology, like magic, can transform the world around us.
The panel ended on a fitting note, both for the final panel of the day and for the end of the convention, with the thought that you don’t need science or technology to manipulate people or their reality, because storytelling has been doing that since the dawn of time. Stories change how we view the world, affect the way we make decisions, and influence our moods and emotions – thus affecting the way we interact with the world. It’s been often said that stories and storytelling are magic, but perhaps that phrase has more meaning than it appears to on the surface. Stories, just like navigational apps, change the way we see the world and the way we travel through it.
This entire convention had been about a variety of topics: science fiction, fantasy, science, technology, storytelling, and fandom. With these links between science and magic, between storytelling and technology, between science and fiction, the myriad topics are brought and tied together in meaningful ways. It’s all magic, the stories and the reality underlying them – and that’s why we have conventions.
It wasn’t quite the end, though; the panels might be over, but the convention was open for another hour, giving me time to wander and explore all the usual things that come with any convention. I checked out the fan tables for various upcoming conventions and location bids for the upcoming 2017 and 2018 World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention (the location for the World Con is selected by voting, with numerous cities campaigning to be selected).
I wandered through the vendors’ room, without which any convention would be incomplete, where I bought a few sci-fi books, pins, and bumper stickers, admired (admittedly pricey) jewelry, and tried on a pretty awesome leather warrior outfit. I checked out the various announcements posted, and entered into a drawing for a free subscription to the fanzine Amazing Stories. I visited the fanzine lounge, where fans could gather between panels to read fanzines as well as take some home; I personally ended up with a couple pieces of fandom history, including the famous fanzine The Enchanted Duplicatorand its sequel – a fantastical allegory for a journey through fandom. I stuffed my bag full of advertisements for conventions, books, and sci-fi publishers also in the vendors’ room. And, last, I wandered through the art show, which boasted creations in all sorts of media, but which, sadly, was rather lacking in bids – but which did allow me to acquire a gorgeous piece of art by artist Jeff Sturgeon.
Finally, I checked out the “Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator,” where fans gathered for a multi-player, networked interactive simulation of a starship bridge. Fans filled the posts of science officer, weapons officer, communications officer, captain, and first officer as they manipulated a fictional ship through space, destroyed enemies, and fulfilled missions. Though I didn’t play myself, I stood back and watched, admiring the interaction and camaraderie between a number of fans who likely did not know each other, but whose teamwork kept the starship running and safe. It was like watching an actual Starfleet ship (from Star Trek) in action, admittedly with laptops rather than fancy consoles, with a combination of both gaming and interpersonal interaction and the excitement and tension that hung over the room as it would over the bridge of a starship in action. Artemis, as the software is called, is available for fans to purchase and play on its website.
Then, as the con was finishing up, I stowed all my heavy purchases in the car and wandered about Detroit a bit. I mentioned a bit in my previous post about how fitting Detroit is for a science fiction convention, and walking around, I got that feeling more than ever. Wandering on the promenade along the Detroit River, gazing at Canada on the far side, I breathed in the smell of water, enjoyed the sunlight, and though of Stargate: Atlantis. Wandering a bit further, I chanced upon a number of futuristic sculptures set against a backdrop of skyscrapers, one of them a huge, metallic ring that I like to call Detroit’s own Stargate. I looked upon the Renaissance Center from afar, once again admiring its glassy towers sparkling in the sun against the bright blue sky.
Yeah, Detroit’s a pretty good place for a science fiction convention.