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1984, Orwell’s prophetic year of Big Brother, saw the release of the Mac which broke the idea that centralized control could ever be what it was before. That year also saw the first workable prototype for a 3D printer. Built by Charles Hull, the technology was then known as stereolithography. We know it as 3D printing, and that’s a term that covers a variety of different processes which may revolutionize all stages of the global manufacturing and distributing process. In that very science fictional year, Hull set off a revolution that is only now seeing fruition. 3D printing continues to threaten the social and economic structures which preceded it. When we speak about 3D printing, we’re speaking of a general technique of printing successive layers to form a three dimensional object at the end. From powder to paper to human tissue, these thin membranes are laid down like the construction of a plaster mask. From that simple concept, the 3D printer offers the reverse of Ford’s mass production revolution. Printing one item is now as cost effective in some cases as manufacturing a thousand items in the traditional way.
3D printing is powered by the computer with printable files known as STLs, guiding the printers themselves as they construct, from the ground up, plastic homunculi that would awe medieval alchemists. It’s not quite the replicator from Star Trek, but it’s in the same Galaxy Class Starship.
Our 3D printing future, however, isn’t liable to look like the utopian ideals Gene Roddenberry envisioned. Instead, we will see both positive and negative outcomes from these machines as the world finds ways to employ the emergent technology.
Guerillas in the Powdery Mist
Not all consequences will be planned. As William Gibson has famously opined, “The street finds its own uses for things.” We’ve already seen a concerted effort to print workable guns which cannot be traced. In America, this is a political issue for many. In conflict hotspots in the world, this could become a method of supplying armies. What if we could print, not only guns, but missiles and mobile hardware? What happens when the first commercial airliner is taken down by a 3D printed Stinger missile? Funding and weapons acquisition no longer hamper the 3D printing empowered guerilla. He could become a one-stop shop for both the ideology and means to inflict it upon the world.
Conversely, the very technology that may allow the guerilla greater autonomy may also help obviate the rise of such movements. Economic conditions are a rallying cry for the guerilla or terrorist, but what happens when 3D technology allows printed water filtration systems, printed housing and locally sourced manufacturing opportunities? If you can print that water filtration system, you might not have to print the gun.
Empowerment is key to the outcome of 3D printing technology. By giving smaller communities the ability to be independent from large sections of the global distribution chain, we allow the fostering of new kinds of communities, and not all of these have to be on Earth.
The Final Frontier, Revisited
We lost the dream of manned exploration of space in dollars and cents. Transporting goods off planet earth and into the final frontier is expensive. If we could instead manufacture items in orbit—or on planet—we might regain some of the promise of the heyday of the Space Age. While the robotics revolution may never allow for the kind of human exploration we once envisioned, 3D printing could allow permanent, sustainable colonies on the moon and Mars. We’d still need the raw material, but much of the labor could take place on site with fewer people. Colonies like these, uncoupled from earth, might begin to evolve in their own directions once they aren’t dependent on the home planet. But could this happen back home as well?
When a place becomes autonomous, it is allowed a separate future. 3D printing may one day contribute to the rise of experiential communities at a rate we haven’t previously seen. Our country is rich with experimental and planned alternate communities. Imagine a world of technological enclaves of Amish-scale independence where everything is done on site. Arcologies, actual self-sustaining cities, become possible. As these new human habitations grow, they may undermine the structures in which they were initially fostered. What national laws will apply to a self-sustaining city? Opting-in to the the socio-economic structures of the parent country may no longer be the only choice.
Thomas Frey recently predicted the loss of two billion global jobs by 2030 during a Ted Talk. It was an offhand comment he explained further on his site where he suggests one of the core engines of this job loss will be 3D printing.
Manufacturing has already begun to heavily erode in this country. We’ve moved from a society that makes objects to a society that creates ideas. The manufacturing jobs we have left will likely be threatened by the full implementation of 3D printing. An already fragile economy could be devastated by such effects. We have to prepare for a future where human labor is redefined.
Ironically, the US may be in a better position to make this change than rising powers like China. As we built our wealth and power on production some years ago, China is doing the same now. If that process gets disrupted, China might become a nation in crisis.
It’s not just manufacturing that gets hit though. Transportation would be gutted as well. If objects are made and assembled on site, no one needs to transport them to their point of sale. If manufacturing becomes largely redundant, so does shipping. From the great hulks stacked with Lego-like containers moving across the seas to eighteen-wheelers moving down the nation’s highways, our shipping routes may become ghost lanes. The added benefit is one of a reduced carbon footprint, but that is little comfort to the millions of people who have lost their jobs. Technology has always threatened the economic model to which it was born, and 3D printing is likely to be no different.
Work as we know it is changing. Human labor is no longer the yardstick by which the economic potential of nations will be measured. This means the idea of work needs to change. We cannot ignore the implications of emerging technologies if we hope to support a planet of seven billion people. At the same time, the vectors technology take are inherently unknowable. All of the above or none of it could happen. All we can say is that something will happen. Something IS happening. We see it around us, and it causes a vague excitement mixed with dread we once called future shock.
We’re getting more comfortable in the existential gap between yesterday and tomorrow. This has become the place we inhabit, and we will soon decorate it with tchotchkes designed in Nepal but printed out in our living rooms. 3D printing, like any other technology, will become mundane and commonplace. Today however, it’s still an example of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We’ve begun to realize the dreams of alchemy. We’ve begun to make magic. Soon, it will remake us.