Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is part of my own personal enigma. I have shown it to people who don’t know me, who don’t know what I think about, who don’t know much about what I study. Nineteen out of twenty such people react in this matter:
A cold stare with underlying anger for wasting their precious time.
I admit that most of this has happened to captive audiences in the classroom, but it has also happened with family members and colleagues.
Then, time goes by. Lectures. Conversations. Blog posts. And suddenly one day, seven out of the nineteen say something like:
Oh … Aha!
The documentary was, in fact, first shown to me by a person who probably knew me as well as anyone ever has (which I would think would not be too hard but apparently is). That was like this:
“Are you coming over to watch the game?”
“Forget the game. I’ve got a DVD. You’ve got to see this, you’re the only person I know who will totally get it. See you in an hour.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is not the most important documentary or movie ever made, nor the best. It is in my top 20 list of “things you should watch,” but not in the top ten. Watch Little Big Man first. Watch The Corporation first. Hell, watch The West Wing first. But when you do watch Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, keep in mind that if you find yourself not seeing deeper meanings, it is not because they are not there. It is, rather, because you and the documentary are not in tune. That can be fixed, or it can be ignored, no big deal.
One of the ideas discussed in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control has to do with robots. The idea is to produce small (cheap) robots that individually are not especially programmable or diverse in their abilities, but that are numerous. Robotic collective intelligence, emerging complexity, or just plain security in redundancy will make up for lack of sophistication. Combined with nano technology, this could make for an interesting future in which much of our infrastructure is collectively intelligent but made up of four or five tiny archetypes individually unimpressive in size, power, or ability. Collectively they will automatically clean dust off surfaces (monitors, windows) cause snow to slide more effectively off the roof (of the Metrodome?), call for help when paint is chipping or mildew is forming, and replace thermostats and all other environmental sensing devices.
NASA is on board with this, to some extent, with their Small Satellite Missions. Mission FASTSAT stands for Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite, and although I am not certain, I’d bet that this terminology and the name of the documentary come from the same source, directly or indirectly. The current news from FASTSAT is both good and bad. A 100 square foot “NanoSail” packed up to be the size of a small breadbox may have deployed improperly or failed to deploy last week. They’re not sure. But the good news is it only cost a few tens of millions of dollars! I’m fairly sure that the failure of the 300 plus million dollar NASA mission in 1999 (two years after Fast, Cheap & Out of Control‘s release) owing to a Metric/English conversion screw-up was also inspiration for FASTSAT and similar ideas.