Lasercut RepRap Mendel during assembly process, by stevew (2010)
“The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution hits the real world” (Anderson 1). With these words Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine joins Makerbot and RepRap creators and countless breathless bloggers in heralding the dawn of a technology that promises to bring to bear the same force that upturned media industries to manufacturing industries. This technology is at-home desktop 3D printing which uses 3D object files created with computer-aided design (CAD) software to build up a physical object through the deposition of layers of raw material. It works on the same principles as a desktop paper printer, though instead of ink it prints plastic, ceramic slip, and other tactile materials. It is made accessible by the effect of open-source parts, plans and tutorials and priced low enough ($500-$1500) to make at-home factories a possibility for the avid hacker. Object files are shared the way music and other “old media” forms are now shared: as digital information. Given that the object data is easily exchanged, edited and endlessly vast, the potential for revolution seems only logical. The manufacturing industry is destabilized and individuals regain an agency lost since the first industrial revolution.
At this point it would be well to remember that we have heard these claims many times before. An especially interesting corollary can be found in the utopian project of craft-idealist William Morris. A connection between historical utopian-minded maker cultures offers a natural entry point given the language of DIY and craft that often surrounds discussions of at-home prototyping. By looking at this “next industrial revolution” through the lens of historic appeals for a utopian craft we can examine the critical potential of this technology at the outset. It turns out we have a lot to learn from the results of past calls for a new industrial revolution.
Detail of Unfolds l'Artisan Electronique installation (2009). These have been printed using a modified version of the RepRap 3D printer
In “Atoms are the New Bits,” Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson suggests that with the rise of decentralized modes of production “Everybody’s garage is a potential high tech factory” (Anderson 8). For Bre Pettis, the face of Makerbot Industries which fabricates open source 3D printers for purchase, the possibility of toppling paternalistic systems of manufacture with hacker pluck and ingenuity is key. “Its absurd that we need a revolution to bring personally fabricated objects to the marketplace. We are humans with hands…. Somehow the first industrial revolution took that away from us” (Pettis 1). Adrian Bowyer who leads the team that developed RepRap, a self-replicating 3D printer has an equally idealistic end-point in mind for RepRap. He proposes RepRap as “Darwinian Marxism”. “Darwinian” because RepRap is made to self-replicate and rapidly evolve in the open source habitat, “Marxism” because the maker/worker will gain control of the means of production, as Bowyer says, “without all that messy and dangerous revolution stuff” (Bowyer 8). William Morris likewise called for this type of gentleman’s revolution. A prominent Marxist, he posited the “Revival of Handicraft” as the path to the liberation of the worker from dehumanizing divisions of labor in industrial work. He sees the revival of handicraft as a “token of the change which is transforming civilization into socialism” (ed. Adamson 150). This focus on makers shaping culture is no less than what many proponents envision as open source hardware follows the route of open source software. Past maker revolutions relied on state control and violent revolution, but the most profound check to industry now may be open source and decentralized manufacture.
What we have learned from past calls for utopian design should give us pause. Perhaps one of the most instructive lessons of William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement is how easily the force of capitalism subsumed any vestige of revolutionary power. Tanya Harrod, in her article “Paradise Postponed: William Morris in the 20th Century”, describes the irony between Morris as a business man, selling elite handmade goods through his company Morris & Co. and the anti-capitalist rhetoric one finds in his writing. As Harrod describes, “Morris as a sound businessman, kept practice and philosophy separate apparently believing that only after a full-blooded revolution would it be possible for a new art to develop” (Harrod 7). This focus on commodity production before idealistic models has only increased since Morris. Indeed as Harrod points out, “The practitioners of the crafts have gradually shed their utopian ambitions as they have come to occupy a small but acknowledged niche in the world of goods” (Harrod 23). This might be seen to correlate with the subsumption of today’s revolutionary-minded DIY movement into the world of the market via sites like etsy.com. While this decentralization of the marketplace may itself be seen as revolutionary it must be remembered that early proponents of the current DIY ethos saw it as a critique of the capitalist system of which etsy.com plays a part. While the success of Morris & Co. is often cited as evidence of the ultimate failure of Morris’ utopian vision, might it be possible to negotiate a better balance between the force of the market and the force of idealism?
In part 2 of “At-Home 3D Printing and the Return of a Craft Utopia” I’ll consider some ethical and ecological hurdles this technology must navigate in its path to revolution.
Designguide.tv interview from Unfold on Vimeo.
Adamson, Glenn ed. The Craft Reader. Oxford: Berg, 2010
Anderson, Chris. “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits.” Wired 25 January 2010. 28 April 2010 <http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/ff_newrevolution/>.
Bowyer, Adrian. “Philosophy Page.” RepRapWiki 21 July 2006. 5 May 2010 <http://reprap.org/wiki/PhilosophyPage>.
Harrod, Tanya. “Paradise Postponed: William Morris in the 20th Century.” William Morris Revisited. Ed. Jennifer Harris. London: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 1996. 6-32.
Pettis, Bre. “Industrial Revolution 2.” Bre Pettis Blog 24 Sept. 2009. 20 May 2010. <http://www.brepettis.com/blog/2009/9/24/industrial-revolution-2.html>