Sunday, April 14, 2013

3D Printing and the Double-Edged Sword of Technology

In today's world there is an overwhelming amount of talk about the potential of new technologies - most notably 3D printing. In radical leftist circles there is talk of how this new technology will have the potential to kill or mortally wound the wage system. The argument usually goes something like this: in a decade or two, 3D printing will become widespread and more advanced to the point where individuals will be able to 3D print most of their basic needs, and as such we will see more individuals leaving the wage system. The argument is also used by free market libertarians, who envision a cluster of self-employed persons out-competing state-supported corporations with 3D printed commodities. Others have claimed that 3D printing will end mass-manufacturing; some claim it will make the need for a market obsolete. All of these notions are based on pure speculation.

The attitude of contemporary society towards technological advancement remains contradictory. For centuries Western Society held the belief that humankind in a "state of nature" was evil (see Hobbes), that the "natural world" needed to be progressed away from, and that enlightenment (including the creation of a "benevolent" state) held the key to ridding humanity of its so-called "primitive" nature. Today, this notion has allegedly been reversed: human evolution has fascinated the general public and has become its new guide to life. Trends like the Paleo diet are an example of this. Evolutionary psychology, despite the controversy as to whether or not it is a legitimate science, is frequently referenced by academic institutions and publications as a means of rationalizing sporadic human behaviors. In an image reminiscent of the "noble savage", primitive human societies are often thought of as happier, healthier, cleaner, and otherwise better off than human societies corrupted by civilization; as such, all future human progress must coincide with what humans evolved to be. But the fascination with the "natural" existence of humanity is not about a genuine return to nature. Paleo dieters, for example, seek to model their diets after hunter-gatherers while remaining dependent on industrial agriculture. Very rarely do individuals living off-the-grid give up on modern technology all together. Whatever the response, it is quite clear that technological development will inevitably push human society further into a state where technology becomes far more interwoven in daily life. The techno-fetishists welcome such change and continue to promote the idea that new technology will solve social problems, thus ending the need for political activism or a global paradigm shift.

In The Technological Society (first published in English in 1964), Jacques Ellul writes of the destructive aspects of technology, factors which are often overlooked in a world increasingly fascinated by new inventions. The book sums up the relations of humans to technology as such: in those "primitive" human societies, nature was considered sacred, as it was thought of as the giver of life; with the advent of civilization and the gradual moving away from nature, technology is now considered sacred, as it is designated as the giver of life and the giver of all that is good. As a result, modern society has become subordinated to technology. While technology may liberate us in some ways, it enslaves us in other ways. Throughout the book, Ellul argues that the technology itself cannot be separated from its effects on society, and that a society based on technology will always create this subordination regardless of the society's political or economic makeup (in other words, it's not just capitalism or the state which should take the blame). Technology maintains its own autonomy regardless of what ends it's used for. It's not enough to reduce the destructive aspects of technology to how it's used, but that it's used at all, says Ellul. What makes this even more disturbing is how the long-term effects of new technology are rarely seen right away. When new technology is developed, individuals are far more concerned with the amount of comfort this new machine will create rather than its effects on the greater picture.

The invention of 3D printing is not immune from Ellul's critique of technology and technophilia. In fact, if it becomes more advanced and ends up functioning in the way its proponents hope for, it will fit the critique perfectly. 3D printing is currently being propped up as a means of freeing human society from"big society". Allegedly, it will allow small producers to compete with big corporations and the state in terms of production in the market, thereby destroying scale economies. Mom and pop stores will be able to print commodities which once needed giant factories in order to produce. Individuals could print the parts for new cars, thus ending the demand for large auto companies. 3D printing could also eliminate the use for a market, since individuals would be producing what they need in their own homes instead of relying on external producers to do it for them. It could even end environmental destruction (a serious issue to which capitalism cannot solve) by creating less waste. Some go further and suggest that 3D printing will bring about a revolution all on its own. Unregulated, untaxed black and gray markets will flourish, leaving the state drained of revenue. There will no longer be a need for a giant anti-capitalist anti-state movement, since the problems caused by such a system will die out on their own thanks to 3D printing. How amazing!

Of course, there is always the possibility that new technology will reinforce old social relations as much as it enables individuals to transcend them. If 3D printing becomes more advanced to the point where it can compete with large-scale production, it may very well create a crisis of overproduction. Large companies will not halt or cease production as soon as they realize they're competing with small producers (assuming that these small producers would be selling home-produced printed commodities cheaper than sweatshop-made corporate commodities). In fact, it can be assumed that these larger companies would want to harness the new technology themselves, especially if it's cheaper than their current production methods. This would keep scale economies in-place: a large, state-subsidized corporation with hundreds of 3D printers would still out-compete an individual with one printer, as it would be more efficient under the current state-capitalist system. Giving every individual a printer would not cause state-granted privileges to corporations to end, after all, nor would it create land reforms needed to break corporate-control of lands and resources.

Within this comes the question of the division of labor, and whether or not 3D printers in themselves would greatly lessen it. Again, the assumption relies on the notion that 3D printing will make large, complex workplaces obsolete as every individual would now have the ability to print their own cars, computers, cell phones, TVs, and whatnot. This argument leaves out some crucial facts, namely the need for expertise. Throughout history, technology has improved the ways in which we produce things, but in most cases it hasn't made the need for basic knowledge obsolete. In the case of metal production, the move from workshops to factories did not lessen the need for knowledge of chemistry. Now let's apply this to 3D printing. Take a television as an example (any TV, flat-screen or whatever). In order for a self-employed person to create a TV in their garage with a 3D printer, they'd have to have extensive knowledge of how to assemble the TV and which elements to print each part out of (since the exterior of the TV is made from a completely different material than the wiring, which is made out of a completely different material than the chips and so on). Not only does the individual have to be an expert in engineering and assembly, but they must also be an expert in chemistry as well. Even an item as mundane as a can of spray paint requires knowledge of different elements.

Rather than fading away capitalism, the advent of 3D printing could very well enhance the power of capitalists. Such is the case with unemployment: whether or not 3D printing would truly cause a loss of jobs (and if so, further the crisis of overproduction as a result) it will undoubtedly be used as an excuse by capitalists to lay-off workers, claiming that they no longer need as many workers to operate printers as they would need to operate larger machinery. A huge red herring used by proponents of free(d) markets is the assumption that unemployment wouldn't exist in their ideal market form, as there would always be a capitalist or cooperative willing to hire someone for anything. Along the same lines, the 3D printer-dominated workplace would demand scientific management. Instead of a post-work scenario where 3D printers are producing for us, we could have a scenario of extreme taylorism. Labor under capitalism is often alienating, but automation makes it even more so. As Ellul argues in his book, the technology-dominated workplaces reduces the jobs and skills of workers to that of overseers of machines, thus turning these individuals into even more lifeless cogs in the greater machine. While proponents of 3D printing may envision the technology creating a more decentralized market, it is often the case that automation centralizes production even more so by enabling the wealthier companies to have more of a competitive edge (again, a large state-subsidized corporation that is able to afford thousands of more advanced printers would be able to produce far more than an average person with a single printer). As previously stated, these printers will not change the fundamental structure of society where large capitalists (whether managerial, merchant, or money capitalists) have far more power. Relationships with those who rule over us would not become democratized solely due to technology. To add, all of these 3D printers will require raw materials, thereby preserving the demand for large-scale mining operations (old materials from discarded commodities can't be recycled  in all cases, after all). In all, the notion that technology will decentralize the economy simply by existing is dubious: it could enable some individuals to be more self-sufficient, but it could very well allow the larger companies to keep their control.

I've been seeing a lot of internet hype over 3D printed-guns. Again, it's an extreme red herring. What needs to be emphasized in this particular scenario is how Wilson did not print a gun, but rather gun parts which he later assembled. It's also the case that his printed gun fell apart after a handfull of shots (at least, according to the Vice article). But let's ask ourselves: if 3D printing can be used by anyone to create a gun, would a more advanced 3D printer not also be used by the US government to create more advanced weaponry for its imperialist and tyrannical purposes? Again, this is an example of how technology preserves old power structures as much as it attacks them.

As our world becomes increasingly dominated by technology, we always need to ask ourselves who is benefiting the most from these creations. There is zero doubt that new technology has made our lives much easier; it is only a mistake to view technology from the perspective that it is always beneficial to society as a whole. Today, we are increasingly exposed to the absolutist nature of the technophiles who insist technologies (such as 3D printing or open source software) will be the key to the creation of a new society without questioning the social price of this new technology. There is a chance that we will become controlled by technology as our existence becomes dependent on it. There will be no room for other forms of human progress; all progress will be dictated by technological advancement. And who is going to benefit from this?

I am not against the creation of new technology. In no way is this supposed to be some kind of anti-tech or anti-civ rant. I just feel that people are not looking at technology critically enough and are projecting bullshit expectations on it. Bottom line is, we can't expect technology to liberate us by itself, and need to take the negative aspects of technology into consideration. If technological progress is inevitable, we need to be asking ourselves how we can use it for a purpose that's more just. If not, we might as well work ourselves into the techno-dystopia that Ellul warned us about decades ago.


  1. Human beings produce new technology. The problem is that they don't control the production of wealth within the social division of labour necessary to maintain an industrialised society. The rapid scientific/technological pace is based on maintaining a fully industrialised society. Most creators are hired by the people who do control production and importantly, own the collective product of their hirelings, their employees, their workers, their wage-slaves. This dependency structure, this social relation was called Capital by Karl Marx.

    1. Since we're living under capitalism - and capitalists and the capitalist state have the monopoly on most technological development - it's very much the case that the majority of technology is going to be created and used for capitalist interests. That's what I always ask whenever I see new gadgets and machines: for whom is this new tech serving?

      However, I do think there is something to Ellul's argument that some new tech will be far more destructive than productive under any system, capitalist or socialist. I think of how dependent we are on technology today: we can't even envision our lives without tech. No one "needed" the internet 30 years ago; now we've built most of our lives around the internet and freak out every time our internet service crashes.

      What I find upsetting is how the technological society has created its ideologues (technophiles) who tend to hold a very absolutist mindset in regards to development. To them, the main indicator of progress is the creation and domination of more technology, even if this new tech requires an authoritarian state and tons of capitalist money to create (in other words, they would rather keep authoritarian social relations inherent to capitalism and the state for the sake of developing more tech). I'm in no way an anarcho-primitivist or an all-out luddite, but I do find some of their arguments against the domination of technology and the moving away from the "natural world" to be fascinating. I see no solution though. I'm convinced the only thing we can do is find a balance between "domination by tech" and "domination by nature".

    2. Being a user of a business broadband in Australia, I know that technology has really evolved into something that can bring a lot of disadvantages if used irresponsibly. For any businesses, making use of technology is a good thing, being able to use it responsibly is far more important.

    3. I completely agree, Jason. The sad thing is seeing how much of this new technology is being used for destructive means (i.e. the NSA using wiretapping tech in order to spy on people all over the world, or the problems caused with all these new prescription drugs the medical industry is giving us). More proof that an understanding of ethics is important, especially today.

  2. Hello Julia, sorry to be a random stranger disagreeing with you on your own blog, so I will have to agree with you.

    3D printing is incredibly overhyped, claiming that 3D printing is going to have any impact on mass manufacturing and efficiencies of scale is like claiming that the printing press is going to destroy mass media and the internet.

    In the time it takes me to print one crappy bit of plastic a factory a hundred thousand identical parts in steel or titanium for lower costs per widget.

    We have had manual lathes and mills for centuries and cnc machines for decades, neither of these technological marvels which are vastly superior to 3D printing have resulted in anything close to the cost effectiveness of mass manufacturing so why do you think that gimmicky 3D printing will change the world?

    Something for you to consider - if you know how you can manufacture a fully functional AK-47 from steel scrap using nothing more than a $100 drill press which is how a lot of the guys in Syria get their arms right now and rebel forces around the world. Compare that to a $20,000 3D printer, 2 years development, expensive substrates and the end result being a plastic receiver that blows up after a few rounds. No barrel or other gun parts, just a bit of plastic that will blow up and kill you.

    Seriously overhyped...

    PS A different problem exists with OSS, most OSS programming commits are done by salaried people working for mega corps. No mega corps, no Linux.

    PPS If you really want to look at tech and societal changes I think you are looking at the wrong area. Robotics is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment thanks to micro controllers and sensors finally getting small enough, powerful enough and energy efficient enough to do useful work.

    Estimates are that between 50% and 80% of all current jobs could be automated right now. Most of the car companies already have driverless cars that are more reliable than humans. Many tractors, combine harvesters and grain trucks already have automated follow the GPS systems and collaborative behaviour. A mine in Australia runs on autonomous rock trucks. The Chinese have made a robot that can make hundreds of different meals and have already sold thousands of robot noodle chefs to restaurants in China. In Britain there is car factory that makes more cars per year than the entire car industry of Italy combined but can run with a skeleton crew of a dozen staff. Oh wait, I almost forgot the drug cartels with their semi-autonomous drug smuggling submarines.

    So basically it is technologically possible right now to create supply chains for most of the things you eat or buy with zero human intervention between the farm/factory and your house. Other than making robots, repairing robots and prostitution I'm not sure what the world needs puny human meat puppets for anymore?