"We can't draft a new world and print it out"


"We can't draft a new world and print it out"

Opinion: in this week's column, Sam Jacob argues that instead of liberating us, 3D printing will merely "bind us even more closely to fewer and fewer corporations".

If this is the year of anything, it’s the year of 3D-printing boosterism (even more than last year was). The overarching narrative surrounding 3D printing presents it as a liberating technology. It argues that the technology will free us from organised, centralised production of the industrial era. And it suggests that this radical break will in turn transform the political, economic and social structures that industrialisation precipitated.

There is a latent dream somewhere in this rhetoric, something like an electrified version of William Morris’ strange rural-futurist novel News From Nowhere. Morris’ protagonist goes to bed in the industrial 1890’s but mysteriously wakes into a post-revolutionary, proto-socialist nu-medievalist London.

It’s a London whose citizens craft themselves beautiful things in fulfilling equality. We imagine now, perhaps, our own sci-fi version of this utopia. A future where digital production technologies set us free. Where we are surrounded by sequentially layered self expression and customisation. Where we return, thanks to electronics and robotics, to an idealised folk-art state.

Yet of course, we’ve been on the cusp of techno-liberation before. Remember those wild, free years when the internet was young? Limitless fields of freedoms seemed to open up through the window of a squawking dialup modem. The information enclosures of Facebook, Google, Apple et al have long put paid to that sensation.

Let’s face it: 3D printing might give us a million new ways to make objects, but it is unlikely to undo our late capitalist relationship with objects. If the history of the internet is a lesson, then technology only accelerates us further towards the horizon of consumerism, deeper into the depths of digital modernity.

Think, for example, of the labour politics of 3D printing. There is something undeniably appealing (to designers) in the removal of the production process between the designer and their artifact, a shortening of the distance between their imagination and its physical product. But part of this appeal is that it shifts the value of the object toward the designer rather than the labour of production. It’s the total realisation of Ruskin’s critique of industrial capital’s division of labour, where ‘thought’ and ‘work’ are entirely estranged, where personality and invention are ringfenced by design rather than shared with production.

Inevitably it won’t be a democratic, distributed version of the technology that takes hold. It’ll be an iTuned, DRMified ecology that will bind us even more closely to fewer and fewer corporations. If we’re lucky enough to escape that fate, it will only be into the arms of a Pirate Bay of objects where we’ll find the 3D equivalents of screener films, dodgy 3D scans and partially ripped bootlegs.

Here’s another scenario, another possible version of a 3D-printed world. This one is a world that physically resembles the contents of your hard drive (if you are anything like me, that is). A world of half-completed files, a thousand drafts, weird duplicates, super high-res and hyper-compressed versions of the same file and lost aliases. A world made in the image of the detritus around the outlet of a photocopier. A world of copies with no originals. A world of undifferentiated, undetailed substance, endless landscapes of half-finished Sketchup models as though Google’s 3D warehouse had dumped itself back into the physical world. In other words, a super-proliferated Junkspace that would make even Junkspace blush.

Technology itself will not rescue us from our circumstance. We can’t draft a new world and print it out. In fact, the focus that digital design places on the object itself as an autonomous object, floating in its electronic amniotic sac, is itself a mirage of technology; a non-verbal argument about the nature of objects and society as much as a Fordist production line ever was.

If there is any hope of resurrecting Morris-esque resistance or Ruskinian ideology in a digital age, it is to recognise, as they did, that objects are not simply form but intrinsically politicised artifacts. And so are the technologies we use to produce them.

But 3D printing propels the idea of design-as-form to an extreme conclusion. It makes a persuasive argument for design as the production of autonomous techno-formalist objects. 3D printing might change how we make the world, but it won’t change the world itself.

  • Paper Mesa

    This is a good article opposing the standard view of 3D printing as a saving-grace technology. Perhaps our enthusiasm for the technology is clouding our critical faculties when looking at the potential in it.

    However, I don’t think the ‘iTunes, DRMified ecology’ is a viable model. The DRM, if it were installed on the printer, would have to be so specific that the slightest change in the model would bypass it or so vague so as to apply to almost anything. If it is installed on the file itself, the internet has proven perfectly competent at bypassing DRM on other files, so I don’t see this as an effective method.

    DRM, wherever it is installed, rarely survives a dedicated effort to bypass it. Maybe it will happen that only the few tech-savvy users will bypass it, but I would hope that a greater familiarity and understanding of technology and the implications of digital fabrication will promote a change in attitudes towards the restrictive measures companies level at their customers.

    The next 10 years will be very interesting.

  • rorystott

    I first realised that 3D printing was not a revolution on this website, for the same reasons Sam Jacob lists. Its history and the internet’s history are already starting to look the same. Observe:

    Scientist: “Good people, we bequeath to you the internet, the most efficient and revolutionary form of communication the world has ever seen!”

    People: PORN! Mountains and mountains of porn!

    Scientist: “These printers will change how we create objects forever! No longer will we rely on industry to…”

    People: OMG let’s make dildos!

    • e. thomas fuller


  • Phil

    “A world of half-completed files, a thousand drafts, weird duplicates, super high-res and hyper-compressed versions of the same file and lost aliases. A world made in the image of the detritus around the outlet of a photocopier. A world of copies with no originals. A world of undifferentiated, undetailed substance, endless landscapes of half-finished Sketchup models as though Google’s 3D warehouse had dumped itself back into the physical world. In other words, a super-proliferated Junkspace that would make even Junkspace blush.” http://i.imgur.com/JhpizRf.jpg

    We already live in that world. The only difference is that the new junkspace will be consumer created rather than consumer purchased. The potential recycling of such created objects, by the consumers themselves, to re-print new objects from the same material without the same demand on labour is where the true potential lies. Of course, there will still be a need for the compositing with non-3D-printed components but there will also be a limit either on the extent of its capabilities due to resource or finance.

    While I’m all for debate and having the foresight for the potential outcome(s) or future of 3D printing, it is still in its infancy and thus I am skeptical of such grandiose predictions. It may be a fad or a trend, it may be a game-changer, or it may become a distant memory. Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.

  • carl

    First thought: 3D printing has been around for longer than the corporations who are pushing it hard this year. There is already a creative, grassroots population of makers and they are the ones who set the golden standard that the marketing people are trying to sell everyone else on. If non-creatives buy these it will be a parlour trick for them; another ‘as seen on tv’ device that will be gathering dust in their garage before the month is out.

    Second thought: I think this will break down much like your internet analogy, kind of. The Facebook, Google etc of 3D printing corporations will supply the ready-made, mid-tier quality, parts and schematics but there is, and always will be, the Reddit, 4Chan etc, start-ups. And those little, user created content-oriented sites that will be home to the die-hard makers and where new advances in 3D printing come from.

    I agree with you that 3D printing will not usher in a new era of robotic paradise. That is simply a misrepresentation of how this technology is meant to be used. But I disagree with your defeatist sentiment and thinly veiled contempt for anything ‘corporate’.

  • bill

    Three articles in, I have to say I was hoping for less of a whinging tone in these opinion pieces. So far they have been quite negative and reactionary.

    • rorystott

      I honestly don’t know what you mean. Like, I know it SOUNDS like a simple concept, but I can’t square the idea of critical, intelligent writing with the gushing optimism you seem like you’re after.

    • niloufar

      The article is anything but reactionary and negative. There is generally quite a superficial enthusiasm about 3D printing, and the article tries to give it a context (e.g. the comparison with the internet). It’s actually quite progressive to question the market-enhanced enthusiasm for the different tools that are being hyped just to boost the prospective sales and profits of companies.

      • Josef

        “Reactionary!” “Progressive!”

        Guys, it’s not the early 1900s anymore and none of you are members of Comintern. Please find (or create, better yet) a philosophy that’s relevant to the world today. Warning: this may require thinking for yourself.

  • stephan

    Some people have unreasonably high expectations of the future.

  • bonsaiman

    I think a better parallel to all this 3D fuss is 2D printing itself. I remember looking at a very poor inkjet printer in the 1990s and thinking “OMG this is the future! Everybody will be graphic designers and books are done!”. Now I am still printing layouts for my clients approvals, Blurb isn’t exactly the norm for making books and Taschen and the like are doing better than ever. My shelves are full of shiny books I still buy on real world stores. Now make this scenario 3D.

  • god

    Sam Jacob articles throughout time:

    – Sure broadband gives internet users easy access to anything and everything but shouldn’t they be forced to only download the essential?

    – Wright Brothers’ plane heralds new dawn for man but don’t expect flights for everyone within the next century

    – Age of Enlightenment? There’s some things we should stay in the dark about

    – Printing Press will put hardworking scribes out of work

    – Creation of rudimentary stone tools gives unfair advantage to skilled craftsman

    – Fire may bring warmth and security to man but will put an end their free-spirited nomadic nature

    – Cambrian explosion: too much for diversity for one planet

    • blau

      Right on – nothing wrong with cautionary tones when faced with any potentially new game-changing paradigms, but constructive criticisism this article ain't.

  • Prole

    God should know, he’s the ultimate RepRap machine.

  • Funny that we published this the same day that a 3D printer arrived in the Dezeen office to much excitement.

  • Kinda pessimistic. My response is on the Shapeways blog: http://www.shapeways.com/blog/archives/1913-A-Pes

  • I won’t feel so sceptic like the croaker above – you might be a little bit more assured of the future and progression mate ;). I can picture that the IT-giant will try to profit from the third industrial revolution, but I don’t care until I can get a desktop 3D printer for a price of a notebook and I can 3D print my own ideas with some organic bioplastic which is environmentally friendly as well. I think 3D printing is pretty cool and there is no problem that there are already some big companies that offer a professional 3D printing service like Shapeways and Materialise.

  • “An iTunes, DRM-ified ecology” – has Mr. Jacob not heard that the iTunes Store dropped DRM some time ago? It failed for all the reasons the techno-utopians claimed it would. And it’s important to note that the nerds behind the 3D printing revolution lived through that same era and are of the same mind.

    As for a landscape littered with poorly crafted goods, perhaps akin to Pirate Bay (already a silly notion; movies downloaded from the torrents are typically of higher quality and more convenient than their DRMed counterparts): the nature of designing objects (both for 3D and more traditional methods) is more akin to software engineering than the creation of music or film. Thus, a more apt destiny would be Github.

    And guess what? The software on Github is often of impeccable quality. I won’t bother to rehash the virtues of open source here, but rest assured that 3D can, and already does, reap the benefits of the model.

  • Adam

    What gets me is how often the younger architecture and design students will fumble with a computer for hours and days creating a model that will be printed out in plastic. When they can truly do it by hand, and learn a skill and technique to the wonders of other materials such as metal and wood.

    • bonsaiman

      Considering plastics lesser materials in the face of natural ones is SO twentieth century. Besides, 3D printers offer so much more than plastics – even metals and ceramics. I also doubt you are painting presentations of your projects with gouache.

  • OMG, so much point-missing. The key criticisms of 3D printer boosterism here are:

    A. “Where we return … to an idealised folk-art state.” ie, the Romanticism of do-it-yourself, hipster culture.

    B. “There is something undeniably appealing … in the removal of the production process between the designer and their artifact.” ie, hooray we can finally rid ourselves of all that third-world factory pollution messiness and the global working-class because I have this magic machine.

    3D printing, as the internet wants you to think it is, just seems too much to be true. Which probably means that it is.

  • Dean

    There is definitely an element of Luddite-ism in the article. There is no assessment of what the parameters could be, but an assumption that it is only good for creating wilful form.

    With the observation about SketchUp, it is not the technology but the accessibility of the technology that creates that issue, so for every one genius there are 1000 people who have created half-finished SketchUp models who wouldn’t have been able to in the past.

    Also, the comment regarding the importance of the Ruskin/Morris object feels quite insincere when so many of their projects are based around the surface application of a style and not about materiality. I wonder if he feels the same about Photoshop?

  • Totally agree with this article. The worst of 3D printing is that is misses a creative approach to design. When you are making an object by hand every step of the making process is open to changes, open to mistakes. These can bring to new ideas and different and unpredictable results. The design step is creative, but the making is creative as well.

    In 3D printing there’s nothing creative about the making. It’s just a matter of waiting for the printer to get the job done, exactly as you planned. No room for mistake, just a perfect shape.

    • Oh dear, oh dear. Nulla completely misunderstands that 3D printers are just tools like any other. There is no magic to the creation of the perfect shape. It takes time, practice, skills and previous experience – in other words craft – to use and apply the technology creatively. Your comments about making an object by hand completely apply to what I do when I’m creatively employing these new tools and having spent 25 years making ceramics by hand, I should know the similarities and the differences.

  • I partially agree with this article. However, it does seem to have a very negative attitude towards the great potential 3D printers may bring.

    3D printers may prevent people from chucking things away. If you have broken something it will be easier to make the part that is broken and fix things.

    It could also help people be creative. However, looking at Youtube, it may make the divide bigger between those that can do and those that can’t, which could ultimately help people appreciate the skills that designers have.

  • Yeah, I remember hearing Malcolm Gladwell make the same kind of argument about social media. The author apparently believes that since he can’t imagine how 3D printing will drastically change the world, no one else could either. Smart people often let their arrogance blind them; it’s an all-too-common affliction. And the older generation often have difficulty embracing change and recognising the future. We make allowances for them.

  • CAP

    There are other arguments about the political potentialities of 3D printing: http://millenniumjournal.files.wordpress.com/2012

  • longarche

    Ummm… yeah. Disruptive technology 3D printing, meet disruptive technology Graphene.

    A disruptive technology creates an unpredictable path of change, a synergy of materials and imagination that can be a juggernaut launching society into another age. The printing press created the renaissance (or directly enabled it) and the 3D press will create a new paradigm as well, whether it’s in the hands of a few or the many.

    It seems that since the maker community (and the internet that enlivens and informs it) is continually coming up with newer and better versions of 3D printers, there is no “putting it back in the box”. It’s here to stay and the the details of the construction is available to anyone with a connection to the internet and the will to learn.

    3D printing is not macrame, decoupage or CB Radio. We’ve gone from stonemasons to on-demand manufacturing in less than 150 years. With the manifold advances in materials science, there is no way of predicting where this goes in the next 30 years.