Robo-machines grading students: the end of authentic assessment

“Pity the poor Luddites! No movement in history has done more underserved service as an ideological whipping boy.  For nearly two centuries, this small contingent of the doomed and desperate men who struggled across the pages of English history in a few brief outbursts between 1811 and 1816 has been a favorite target for the contempt of fanatical futurists and technological enthusiasts.  The Luddites are indeed held in such contempt that their critics have never felt the least need to find out who they really were and what they wanted.  Recall the famous Groucho Marx quip: “I’d never join a club that admitted people like me.”  I suspect that many of those who are out to bash the Luddites would invoke the same paradox: “I wouldn’t waste my time studying people as crazy as that.”  As “crazy” as what?  It doesn’t really matter.  If the Luddites had never existed, their critics would have to invent them.  Those who favor indiscriminate industrial growth need an opposition that is just as indiscriminate in its hostility to industrialism – the better to score easy points.

Today, the inhumanity and destructiveness of industrialism take different and subtler forms and have reached global proportions.  One has to be on the far side of the industrial revolution to see such issues clearly.  And what those issues illuminate is the problem of ‘scale’ in human affairs. ‘Bigness’: That is the devil that lies waiting in the details of every good thing we invent or merchandise.  A program, a project, an invention may seem benign and constructive.  But build it on too big a scale – as is bound to be the case where profit is the measure of progress – and it will turn on you like Frankenstein’s monster.”

Theodore Roszak

“In the Defense of the Living Earth” a forward to:  ‘Turning Away from Technology: A New Vision for the 21st Century, 1997 edited by Stephanie Mills

Alas, Theodore Roszak’s attack, along with his colleagues, on “indiscriminate industrialism” has been abandoned both in theory and practice as we have entered a new phase of enchantment with “cyber development”.  People are now so attracted to the new wave of cybernetic development that they have receded into a form of ‘scientism’, where everything that is technological and computerized is good and represents in their minds — ‘progress’.  This view of ‘progress’ as the development of new, exciting machines has led to the breakdown of any semblance of what it means to be human and threatens the very natural world we live in.

The following article, from ( a digitally native news outlet, says it all.

Under capitalism, as the ‘forces of production’, technology, moves further and further ahead of the ‘relations of production’, people and their class relations, what is being created is a world without jobs – the end of the “thumb” – the homo- fabian.

Does this have to happen?  Is this really the marvelous world of the cartoon from the 60’s and 70’s, the Jetsons ( that many of us were told would happen, or is this a dystopic, Brave New World that Aldous Huxley imagined, only this time under the panoptic, Foucaultian eye of repression?

History is abound with technological transitions that have made much work redundant.  Many of these transitions threatened mass unemployment of one type of worker or another.  This was true whether it was buggy whip makers or, more recently, travel agents and secretaries.  Yet what’s different about cybernetic information-processing jobs is that the transitions owed to technology are happening much faster than changes in class structures — the relations of production.

One thing is for sure: unless we change the way we produce and reproduce our lives, we will be forever in debt, enslaved by the new cyber technology that remains in the hands of the one percent who seek greater and greater profits by removing human labor as the ‘cost of production’.  No more teachers, no more industrial workers, no more service industry workers, no more knowledge workers, no more construction workers — i.e. the replacement of knowledge workers with software — no more ‘nuttin’!

“Wake up everybody”!  Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes

Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of a recent book about cyber disruption, Race Against the Machine, states that:

“Sixty percent of the jobs in the US are information-processing jobs, notes. It’s safe to assume that almost all of these jobs are aided by machines that perform routine tasks. These machines make some workers more productive. They make others less essential.

The turn of the new millennium is when the automation of middle-class information processing tasks really got under way, according to an analysis by the Associated Press based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between 2000 and 2010, the jobs of 1.1 million secretaries were eliminated, replaced by internet services that made everything from maintaining a calendar to planning trips easier than ever. In the same period, the number of telephone operators dropped by 64%, travel agents by 46% and bookkeepers by 26%. And the US was not a special case. As the AP notes, “Two-thirds of the 7.6 million middle-class jobs that vanished in Europe were the victims of technology, estimates economist Maarten Goos at Belgium’s University of Leuven.”

Economist Andrew McAfee, Brynjolfsson’s co-author, has called these displaced people “routine cognitive workers.” Technology, he says, is now smart enough to automate their often repetitive, programmatic tasks. ”We are in a desperate, serious competition with these machines,” concurs Larry Kotlikoff, a professor of economics at Boston University. “It seems like the machines are taking over all possible jobs” (

So then just who will consume the products of the new cyber technology if there are no jobs for people to produce incomes so they can consume – if surplus labor becomes the norm?  Is the Internet making us poor?  Will we soon see the rise of a new, neo-Luddite movement or will we imagine and create meaningful social change that assures technology belongs to the public commons and not to the one percent?  Or, will we see accelerating social inequality as ‘all jobs’ are replaced with cybernetics?

You be the judge. 

Architects are starting to 3D print houses—but without a house-sized printer

By Leo Mirani




Students at MIT’s Media Lab are going to 3D print a building, and when they do, it may look something like this. MIT Media Lab

A couple of months ago, Dutch architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars announced that he was building a curvy, loopy and for some reason, largely see-through building, to be made with the help of Enrico Dini’s D-Shape 3D printer. The project would cost up to 5 million euros ($6.4 million) and be completed in 2014.

Another group quickly piped up, declaring that a similar project they were working on would be done even faster and cheaper. London-based Softkill Design intends to fabricate a web-like building and what’s more, it says it will need just three weeks to print the structure—and only a single day to assemble it, which it plans to do at some point later this year.

This month, another Dutch company jumped into the fray. DUS Architects plans to use a 20-ft-tall 3D printer to build a house along an Amsterdam canal. It’s also going to do it by the end of the year. Take that, Ruijssenaars.

DUS Architects plan to use non-traditional 3D printing methods to build a traditional house along a canal in Amsterdam.DUS Architects

3d house-printing—it certainly sounds like a brilliant idea. Why bother hiring masons and carpenters and plumbers when you can buy a machine and print out your own abode? Goodbye, apartment blocks. Hello, homemade homes.

But what does this 3d house-printing actually mean? And if it’s so groovy, how come no one has done it yet?

How it works

First, the basics:  Simply put, 3D printing works through a process of layering. The printer reads a file, much as a deskjet would read an image, and then translates that into a physical object the way your printer spits out ink on a page—one strip at a time.

The “ink” in a 3D printer is a material—often plastic—that shoots out of a nozzle and onto a platform. If a printer is making a coffee mug, for instance, it will gradually layer up a ring until it reaches the top. You could call it a bottom-up process.

But you would never want to print a coffee mug, not even a silly one. For the moment, the cool thing about the technology is that it’s better suited to protoyping shapes rather than reproducing existing ones. Plus, gift shops the world over have shown us that novelty mugs are always a bad idea.

Say you were a design enthusiast, though, and wanted to make a chair in an unconventional form. With a 3D printer, that would cost the same to produce as the sort of vanilla chairs you pick up at Ikea. That’s because 3D printers don’t constrain the imagination with mundane restrictions like molds, human labor or cost. If you can dream it—and get a design for it—you can print it. It gives designers the freedom to imagine all sorts of kooky things in much the same way that advances in printing equipment freed graphic artists from the tyranny of movable type.

3D printing big things is a challenge

Things get tricky when it comes to large-scale projects, such as houses. The most obvious problem is one of scale. Just as you cannot print a billboard on a laserjet that can, at most, accept A3 sheets, you can’t print an entire house on existing 3D printers.

Building a bigger printer is not the answer. A skyscraper would require a machine that is bigger than it. And as printers get bigger, there is a trade-off between resolution and speed, says Steven Keating, a graduate student who works on large-scale 3D printing with Neri Oxman, an architect, designer and academic in the Mediated Matter group of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.

“You’re printing in finite-size layers,” Keating tells Quartz. “Imagine doing it with toothpaste. The thickness of that toothpaste is basically the resolution of your product. Every time you make that layer smaller, thinner, you increase the time it takes.”

Ruijssenaars is getting around these problems by building in bits and then putting them together on-site. Keating and Oxman have something similar in mind for their own 3D-printed building project. Like Ruijssenaars, they will print shells to later be filled in with concrete on the inside and be sanded down to look finished on the outside.

Softkill disapproves of these methods, dismissing concrete-filled structures as impure applications of 3D printing. While its house will also be printed in parts and assembled later, the company says it will be entirely 3D-printed with a light, plastic material. Its web-like configuration will make it strong enough to bear loads.

Printing with swarms

There are other ideas too. The MIT group is experimenting with fitting its printer on a truck to increase its footprint. It is also looking into using “swarms” of 3D printers to work on different bits of a structure.

But if it’s so much trouble, why bother printing houses when building them with lumber or bricks and mortar has served humanity’s needs for hundreds of years? There are three key benefits. The first is that 3D printing is cheaper.  As a design becomes more complex the cost of 3D printing drops substantially relative to traditional building methods.

It is also safer for both the people building the houses and for those living in them. Structures with curves are stronger. Pillars with greater density towards their edges are sturdier. And fewer construction workers means fewer injuries and deaths (though it also means fewer jobs).

But perhaps the best part about 3D-printing houses is that it lets architects dream up all sorts of fantastic structures that would be either too difficult or too expensive to make with conventional methods. A 3D-printed house wouldn’t need to conform to our traditional ideas of what a home looks like (which makes DUS Architects’ design look rather unadventurous). Indeed, that would be to miss the point.

It’s what architects like Frank Gehry and Le Corbusier first imagined possible with concrete, except that 3D printing has the potential to be several orders of magnitude cheaper, easier and more efficient.

Thus, the end of labor, the disappearance of the thumb!