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Archive for May, 2014

The recent ‘hype’ around the technology of 3D-printing is remarkably different from many of the technology ‘hypes’ of the past few decades, because discourses that circumscribe, if not even constitute technology hypes seem to be characterized by a polarity of red-hot glowing proponents and a fiercely out-spoken opposition of skeptics, Cassandras (that infamous figure from Greek mythology gifted with the power of prophecy and yet cursed so that no one does ever believe her, an her name is, thus, invoked to describe people who often warn of dire consequences of some event or other), and nay-sayers. While 3-D printing certainly has its fair number of believers, propagandists, and prophets, the 3D hype is less pervasive and glorifying than one would expect, and that is mirrored, and perhaps owed to the lack of a world-wide call to oppositional banners. If one were a follower of a theory, like myself, that argues from a history of science point of view that technologies that ‘make it’ are usually preceded by decades (if not at times a century or two) of dissemination of some of its basic ideas, figurations, cognitive patterns (for example, I argue, that if it were not for certain developments in the late 18th and throughout the 19th century, there would not have been no internet and computer age [in the West] today, because these technologies would simply not be ‘acceptable’ to the majority of [Western] society), one would come to the conclusion that 3D printing is doomed, because the idea just doesn’t catch enough attention (including, quite constitutionally, oppositional attention). This is, perhaps the case, but I would also like to point out a few other aspects of the technology and its pseudo-hype, besides some obvious ambiguities (such as printing a chair and printing a human kidney, besides sharing a few very basic technological ideas,  would be two entirely different processes),  that are problematic.

One critical aspect, that a few skeptical voices bring to bear, is the possibility of printing dangerous objects such as guns without any form of supervision and control (Yes, yes, I know, guns don’t kill people, and so and so on, and you’re right guns don’t kill people, it’s those little metal projectiles that do [and obviously people who are idiots, because they kill themselves or their children while cleaning the weapons or showing them off]… So, here is one suggestion: Why don’t we only sell rubber bullets in, for example, the US???? Enough to defend yourself, not enough to kill people under normal circumstances, and btw. we could have a discussion whether 3D printers can even produce materials that can be deadly – we get back to that).

Now, even if 3D printing is not getting enough traction yet – in terms of personal use, industrial-scale 3D printing is another matter, although, arguably, it is just another layer of automated production here -, in terms that the normal evolution of technological would suggest in order for it to become successful (although what is normal but an ideal that we use to try and grasp disparate processes a bit better), there may be a push from certain industries at some point, to continue development of the technology against the ‘normal’ current. And the interesting thing about this push may be that it would, metaphorically speaking, spit in the face of those people who carry the actual hype, namely those kinds a people who loosely called members of ‘Maker Culture’, who think that 3D printing holds the promise to establish a way to freedom and prosperity, as a recent news outlet proclaimed (see: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/5/3d-printing-politics.html). Sure, you will say, there is all this talk about open source software and blueprints and so on – which is also where the question about printing guns (or worse) comes from.  But to some degree, this can be controlled and – if the technology became generally viable – it would be. Oh sure,it’s ‘open source’, no?  And, oh sure, you can always ‘hack the tech’, no? But let’s be realistic for a moment, making these early versions directed by open source software is a smart  move, and one that you can always take back once you hit a genuine mass-market version, or with future software updates, and so on and so on. Even on (once) freely accessible websites, you now get certain pay-wall content  or can access only a limited number of items or get only a limited number of access events – plus, freely never meant for free, for you were paying with a valuable capital (attention) by looking at advertisements, as well as providing valuable information about yourself in return. So, if we fast forward a  bit and consider a society where an increasing number of households as a 3D printer at home, just like having an ink-jet printer for printing  your IRS forms, birthday cards, and the holiday pictures you send to grandma who doesn’t have any social media  accounts because she is ‘oh, soooo last century’, we will probably find that, like with ink-jet printers,  they have to buy the equivalent of printing cartridges. Now, remember when they introduced ink cartridges with little computer chips, so you couldn’t just refill them with cheap ink and had to buy the original ones for ridiculously inflated prices, i.e. they were more expensive than the printer itself, which even came with a cartridge? Well, guess what will likely happen in our little future scenario? Sophisticated, future everyday household versions of 3D printers will come with parts and cartridges that will need regular updating and refilling, and the updates and refilling devices will have mechanisms of control. In the language of scholars and scientists who study that stuff (like myself in the field called STS or science studies), they come with surveillance technologies, techno-scientific practices of control, and inbuilt regimes of governance. And yes you can ‘hack all that’, but let’s be honest, how many people ‘hack’ their ink cartridges? There will always be (and have always been) people who ‘hack’ everything from their toaster-oven to life itself (which for some people means to use paper clips to organize their cables for others it means to try an figure out how they can tamper with their own genetic makeup or install computer chips under their skin in their garage), and they used to be called tinkerers before they were hacktivistsm but they are not the majority of people and the majority of people doesn’t get access to what their doing – once they do, these tinkerers/hacktivists/whatev… have decided to market and profit from their ideas (remember Steve Jobs or Bill Gates anyone? Yeah, they too started out pretty much in a garage), because that still is how you get technology to a large number of people the fastest and people still tend to think that buying, i.e. paying for something, establishes some form of trust, and so on (yes, yes, we’d need to expand this into a full-fledged sociological discussion here, because you have some anecdata that says otherwise, blah blah: look, [a] this a blog, so I needn’t substantiate everything in super-detail or I would bore you and you wouldn’t read it, and [b] I happen to have a degree in sociology, among other things, so I learned a bit about that stuff, so give me the benefit of the doubt that even when I gloss over something, it is not entirely unreasonable and there is at least a minimal point to it that sticks, ok?).

So, besides a small number of hacktivists and, yes, terrorist organizations rogue governments, and so on, the majority of people will not be ‘free’ to to print what they please, but they will pay license fees for blueprints and hefty prices for raw materials (not to mention, that these raw materials will not be metal or glass or organic but quite likely some form of cheap plastic (at least for the majority of applications, so the material can be easily manipulated) and adding to the myriads of tons of plastic trash we continue to produce and dump, clogging the capillaries of the ecological system that sustains us (well, it will sustain humanity for probably not that much longer, but hey who am I to pick a fight with climate change deniers… on second thought, they are idiots, why beat around the bush).  But if that is what were to happen, well, wouldn’t that be great for some of those corporations who basically make their money by coming up with great ideas on how to reduce the number of people who work in production, i.e. corporations who increase profit by a structural policy of producing unemployment, a policy of letting go people? Ahh, you catching on. A lot of stuff that you buy in stores you just print, no labor involved – likely the labor involved would have been your labor and your salary to begin with, so I have really no idea how you are going to pay for your 3D printer and the raw materials, and so on, but that is your problem not mine, since I can be a happily unemployed academic who has been replaced by an automated online lecturer who is probably teaching not a class of flesh-and-blood students and group of bots or something.

By the way, if you think you can print your own organs at home, to replace that liver you drank into oblivion or avoid that lung cancer that you smoked up during your teens, well, let me be brief, the success of printing organs is greatly exaggerated. We are decades away from creating custom-made organs by way of 3D printing, and besides one or two analogical basic ideas 3D printing tissues and 3D printing funny little, half-melted figurines or, one day, actual chairs and tables in(!) your home, these two areas of application share very little.

3D printing, the fabled ‘culture of makers’ will tell you is creating freedom and democracy or at least promoting it. But the ‘Makers’ include not only free spirits and anarchistic hacktivists, but many of the ‘Makers’ are (Silicon Valley-type) neo-liberal/capitalist/MBA-folks who compare 3D-printing to the advent of the printing press, using words like ‘disruptive technology’ by which they mean ‘creative destruction’ (bless the Schumpeter-Hayek-Drucker econo-politics, and so on, again some STS-er shop talk that I am happy to go into on request), that the Mitt Romneys of this ‘very disrupted’ world are so fond of. In those terms, oh yes, the printing caused the end of the scriptoria, you know those places where monks were sitting together and copying manuscripts, but hey look at all the great things that came after and because of printing, so creative destruction means here, a technology destroys other technologies or jobs but what it creates in turn is so much better, bigger, bolder in social, political, economic terms.

Of course, that depends on what the terms are. For example: more profit or more jobs? Some people think that those are part of an equation or of a causal nexus: more profit = more jobs or more profit -> more growth -> more jobs (-> more profit, again, never ending-uroboric circle, and so on).

But here is the point, we already know that more profit doesn’t always transfer along these lines, having to do with a few fundamental problems and collective amnesia among people who wring up economic theories and principles underlying the theory of the profit-(growth-)-job relation: Jean-Baptiste Say, anyone? (Yes, precisely, money ain’t what it used to be.)

So, disruptive technologies, in the way that they are classically understood, come in two flavors, I argue: Destructive (and destrcution always means at the same time opportunities for creation) or Annihiliative. 3D printing, as it will be deployed, if it is deployed at all, as a mass-marketable technology, it will most likely be an annihilational technology in economic terms (not necessarily in capitalist ones).

In the end and in the possible ‘dark tale’, 3D printing represents nothing short of importing automated production industry into your home, like a tentacle or a rhizomatic-mould growth of capitalist industry into your life, imputing also predator-capitalist annihilative and surveillance power into your house. You thought it be may perhaps, possibly-maybe a tiny bit scary that web-corporations and (euphemistically, perhaps oxymoronically so-called) social media ‘know’ what information you are looking at? Wait until they know what you are printing for dinner.

 

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The ‘truth’ about media articles that propose to tell you ‘the truth about XYZ’ is…. they don’t. 

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