3D Printing as an Agent of Socio-Political Change

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* Article: A New Printing Revolution? 3D Printing as an Agent of Socio-Political Change. Yannick Rumpala. International Journal of Technoethics Volume 7 • Issue 2 • July-December 2016

URL = http://www.igi-global.com/article/a-new-printing-revolution-3d-printing-as-an-agent-of-socio-political-change/152808

Abstract

"There is a growing interest in 3D printers because of the technical and economic implications they could have. The objective of this paper is to take the analysis further by asking to what extent they could also have a range of socio-political effects, as a consequence of their impact on the material practices of production and consumption.

The first part of this contribution re-examines the promises associated with this technology and highlights its prospects for 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 analyzed, along with the political implications of such a shift (II).

Finally, the latent constraints and the points of friction that these technological developments may encounter and that might affect future trajectories are clarified (III)."

Excerpt

From the conclusion:

"3D printers seem to have begun to change the representations of production possibilities. They show that it is possible to produce differently, that is, without necessarily resorting to mass, centralized, and standardized production methods. Of course, this technology is not yet fully developed and its future is uncertain, but its expansion could have a larger impact than is suggested by the experiments and techy craft projects currently underway. These potentialities are all the more challenging to analyze as they revive questions about interrelationships between what is technical and what is political, including how technical advances can affect existing social frameworks and expand political capacities.

As it develops, 3D printing technology also tends to transmit values, which can indeed, as we have seen, rally a growing community. These values contribute to emphasizing creativity, freedom of choice and, for domestic applications, the capacity to make something oneself. These new tools suggest alternative modes of production and consumption, and therefore potentially different relationships to goods and to the culture of materialism. In the current phase of development, these possible changes are not driven “from above” by the intervention of powerful and structured interests, but appear in a diffuse and rhizomatic manner. In sum, this technology makes new practices imaginable, which, if generalized, themselves could underlie disruptive, but also systemic effects.

These effects are political, even if they stem from practices of everyday life and changes that are made possible for individuals and populations. Some uses of this type of tool favor greater autonomy. If there is a shift from consumption to self-production, this adaptation may encourage a certain number of users to think differently about their way of life, or even accord less importance to their level of income, a fortiori in an economic context where obtaining a well-paying and stable job is becoming increasingly difficult. Beyond the potential changes of work within the creative industries (Ratto and Ree, 2012), another question is whether 3D printing could go as far as impacting the labor market, since labor needs would shift, especially in mass-market manufacturing, where some industries would lose parts of their markets and thus their raison d’être.

Nevertheless, the spread of this technology will go through experimental phases before being adopted by users. All the potentialities of a technology may not be realized, or not completely (for the case of the Internet and other electronic technologies, see Woolgar, 2002), or may be discovered over time. Just because this technology becomes accessible does not necessarily mean it will be integrated into current practices to the point of being part of everyday banalities (particularly for the lowest income bracket of the population).

Existing fields of economic activity can also show faculties of accommodation. Desktop printers did not make books and publishers disappear. Technology can also be used by powerful economic actors to adapt current evolutions and changing dynamics to their advantage. It is also conceivable that certain businesses would see 3D printing as a way to gain more flexibility in their production process, by establishing new forms of subcontracting.

Alongside the economic repercussions of these technical developments, ethical issues have also emerged about productions that are considered more dangerous, especially in debates about possibilities of “printing” guns (gun components in particular). Although the results of this particular type of production are not very efficient for the time being, concerns have been expressed about the ability to enforce laws governing the possession of firearms in case this type of technology makes it possible to download models of functional weapons and print them in a clandestine manner (see for example Marks, 2012; Jensen-Haxel, 2012).

Finally, the role of this technology will be judged primarily on how it will intervene in the relationship between human life and objects. In a world saturated with objects, what ultimately matters is not only the way to manufacture them, but also the artefacts that are created, as well as their nature, their quantity, the intentions that inspired their creation, and the desires they satisfy. The ultimate question is not then about the machines themselves, but rather about the way in which human beings will appropriate them and use them to transform their relationship to the world of objects in which they live."