In order not to yield to technological messianism, we should however be aware of the obstacles that the diffusion of these technologies is likely to meet, starting with those posed by the various actors who have opposite interests to their development, and those resulting from ecological constraints and the availability of resources.
* Article: Additive manufacturing as global remanufacturing of politics? By Yannick Rumpala. Paper for the Millennium Annual Conference 2012 “Materialism and World Politics”. London School of Economics and Political Science – 20-22 October, 2012
From the Abstract:
“There is a growing interest in 3-D printers because of the technical and economic implications they could have. The objective of this paper is to take the analysis even further by wondering if, as they could interfere in the material practices of production and consumption, they could not also have effects in a more political register. The first part of this contribution consists of re-examining the promises associated with this technology and highlights the implications of this technology as a possible way to restoring individual and collective capabilities (I). Secondly, the ways in which these machines could destabilize the industrial bases of contemporary societies, and therefore the economic order, are examined, along with the political implications of such a shift (II). Finally, the points of friction that these technological developments may encounter and that might affect future trajectories are clarified (III).”
Excerpted from Yannick Rumpala, from a blog summary presentation:
“The register in which 3D printing has developed is not really one of frontal resistance against the dominant terms of the economic system, but the latter could nevertheless find itself destabilized. This type of new technology seems to offer renewed capacities (control and mastery of the techniques used, unlocking of desires of creativity, etc.) for individuals or communities, especially the possibility of putting these capacities in social spaces that appeared to have been dispossessed of them. Could this be seen as a new form of empowerment by technology?
If each person can make, rather than buy, many of the objects he or she needs, then these new tools can bring current ways of life out of a massive industrial model dependent on large production units. They seem to reveal new patterns of production and consumption, and therefore potentially different relationships between individuals and commodities. For individuals, such a technology could thus represent a way of reducing their dependence on the industrial system. In addition, this technology, which is also designed so that some machines can become self-replicating, makes the presence of certain intermediaries almost unnecessary, including commercial intermediaries or logistics services.
If we examine them from Ivan Illich’s inspiration, these additive manufacturing technologies appear to provide autonomization possibilities, or at least they can give margins of autonomy. This method of personalized manufacturing allows the passivity to which the consumer has often been subjected to be circumvented, by reopening or broadening of spaces for creativity. The anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin, who, as part of his project of “social ecology” sought to show that some technologies can have a “liberatory potential”, may have seen there an example of those machines allowing to bring the production away from increasingly imposing industrial apparatuses and to free up individuals to do or complete other tasks than stultifying and binding work. With this decentralized mode of production, which is a priori suited to individual needs, we can also assume that the utility value could tend to prevail over the exchange value, since anyone can make the desired object and that the exchange becomes superfluous (except perhaps when special characteristics must be added).
The potentialities of this type of technology are also linked to the social bases on which it grows. A large part of its development is indeed favoured by collaborations in networks, which allow individuals, again thanks to the Internet, to exchange and share ideas, and compare experiences. It thus has a strong rhizomatic potential, in the way it can spread (thanks to advances in the digital world), but also in the way it can challenge installed hierarchies and subordinations. The change would be possible not by an impetus from economic or political hierarchies, but diffusely, with a technology enabling new practices which, when generalized, could themselves have systemic effects. Thanks to the techniques developed, capacities seem to be given back to communities, like those that have qualified themselves as “makers”.
It is possible to imagine that the scope of these transformations can be global. Indeed, the space of flows (to use the notion of Manuel Castells) and the organization of these flows, both for materials and productions made possible, can be upset by the generalization of such tools, all the more so if they are accompanied by premises like fab labs becoming commonplace in everyday environments. If 3D printing tools bring the productions of objects back on more decentralized bases, it is likely to become difficult to speak of international division of labor. This type of technology, whose cost seems in fact to be decreasing, may make industrial infrastructures obsolete and can help redistribute economic power. It is obviously too early to say whether such tools can bring a halt to economic globalization, but at least we can assume they can contribute to dynamics of relocalization and reduction in the volume of international trade. From this point of view, one could compare this technology to an innovation such as the container, but with almost opposite effects. Additive manufacturing can contribute to further destabilization of hierarchies of scale, but in distinct forms, even adverse to those that could have occurred with globalization.
In order not to yield to technological messianism, we should however be aware of the obstacles that the diffusion of these technologies is likely to meet, starting with those posed by the various actors who have opposite interests to their development, and those resulting from ecological constraints and the availability of resources. Of course, this technology is not yet fully developed, but it would not be judicious to neglect it on the grounds of its uncertain future, for it could have a larger impact than the current experiments and techy craft projects that its designers and users are for the moment producing and trying to make work. These conceivable potentialities are all the more challenging to analyze that they revive questions about interrelationships between what is technical and what is political, including how technical advances can expand political capacities, possibly on a worldwide scale.”