Printing Utopia

photography__mike pickles | hong kong__hong kong; words__justin reynolds | london__uk

At the turn of the 19th century the poet, artist, craftsman, philosopher and political activist William Morris imagined the fog shrouded streets and squares of Victorian London transfigured into a radiant garden city.

Morris’s rustic utopia ‘News from Nowhere’ pictures Trafalgar Square as a meadow, flowers growing round the base of Nelson’s Column, and Whitehall transformed into a tree lined avenue leading down the hill to the vine strewn Houses of Parliament – now retained only as a storehouse for manure.

The great metropolis has become a patchwork of fields, hedgerows and trellised lanes interspersed with gabled houses, theatres, meeting halls and workshops – their doors open to the fresh air whilst furniture makers, tailors, shoemakers, embroiderers, bookbinders, typographers, jewellers and other artisans bend over their work in concentration.

Their painstaking work – each item created expressing something of the soul of its maker – is produced in such abundance that it is freely available for all to take as they require. Here, everything is held in common and work is seen as craft; an opportunity for the discernment of harmony, the intelligent synthesis of hand and eye.

Morris summoned his pastoral dreamworld in bitter opposition to the relentless processes of industrialisation he thought the enemy of life, producing choking factories that destroyed the body and monstrous machinery that poisoned the spirit. In Morris’s neo-medieval landscape, art has become such a “necessary part of the labour of every man who produces” that it has no name.

Today’s London, though no longer the soot blackened inferno of late Victorian capitalism, is further removed from Morris’s rural idyll than ever; every horizon a forest of cranes and steel and glass towers, pushing up past the remnants of the ancient city. The Shard looms over Southwark Cathedral, the financial district a sci-fi panorama beyond the dome of St Paul’s.

The city itself is now something of a colossal machine, alive with sensors, cameras and microphones recording the flows of traffic and the footfall of pedestrians. Everything is connected, automated: commuters brandish digital cards to hop on and off buses and subways, ride on taxis guided by satellites and even allow their smartphones to direct their steps.

And yet the 21st century technologies that pulse through the modern city may open possibilities for realising Morris’s dream of a world from which scarcity has been banished and creativity set free, in ways he could never have imagined.

Summon a taxi by clicking a button on your phone and take a trip to the Robots exhibition at the Science Museum, one of Shoreditch’s hack labs or maker spaces, or one of the city’s colleges and you’ll see another modern machine whose advocates claim is helping open possibilities for a Morrisonian age of abundance and idiosyncratic craftsmanship: the 3D printer.

Once confined to research labs and cutting-edge production lines, the latest wave of these digital fabricators is becoming increasingly accessible to a mass audience. The MakerBot Replicator, for example, one of several commercial models, is a neat glass box similar in size and appearance to a standard inkjet printer. Stocked with a spool of plastic polylactic acid (PLA) filament, the MakerBot will render more or less anything, as long as it’s no more than a foot in width or height.

The conceptual foundations for 3D printing were laid in the 1940s by the mathematician John von Neumann, best known for his work in pioneering nuclear physics and the first mainframe computers. von Neumann developed principles for a ‘universal constructor’ capable of organising material into any structure including, significantly, exact copies of itself, that if realised would expand the world’s productive capacity exponentially.

Half a century later British professor Adrian Bowyer pushed von Neumann’s concept towards commercial viability with his model for a ‘replicating rapid prototyper’, the ‘RepRap’, proof-of-concept for a marketable 3D printing device capable of fabricating most of its own components. The RepRap’s unvarnished design and forbidding interface made it inaccessible to non-specialists, but it went on to inspire today’s generation of sleek, usable and affordable fabrication engines.

Standard commercial fabricators like the MakerBot can only work with plastic feedstock, but can produce complex designs with interlocking or moving parts. Others can process materials including high-strength composites, rubber and wood, print basic electronic circuits, food-grade edible materials and even living tissue.

Yet even the most ardent digital fabrication proponents concede that the most sophisticated commercial products seem likely to remain beyond the capacity of the most advanced printers and workshops for the foreseeable future. The manufacture of the state of the art processor and memory chips that power high-end electronic devices requires industrial precision and stringent standards of cleanroom sterility, and even many everyday items are out of bounds: it isn’t possible, for example, to make a decent cast-iron pan without an induction furnace.

Should the seeming promise digital fabrication holds for putting the means of production into the hands of the people – giving a mass constituency of users agency to produce whatever objects they want, when they want – become possible, it follows that the commercial market for those items faces erosion. The assumption of scarcity on which their price depends will be undercut. The possibility of something like the post-capitalist world of abundance that has been the subject of centuries of political speculation suddenly looms into view.

In fact, mass digital fabrication promises to not only undermine the capitalist marketplace but any economic system built on the assumption of scarcity. The market’s classic counterpart, the socialist command economy, assumes the necessity of planning in advance how limited resources should be organised so as to satisfy anticipated demand. 3D printing promises something beyond both systems: an anarchist economy in which individuals and loose federations of neighbourhood workshops produce whatever items they need as and when they are needed. The idea of property itself would become opaque: if it is possible to materialise things more or less out of nothing what need of laws to police ownership?

Digital fabrication is one of the key technologies inspiring a nascent political genre imagining a gleaming future economy transcending scarcity and alienating work. Paul Mason’s bestselling ‘PostCapitalism’ envisages mass 3D printing corroding the price mechanism as the marginal cost of producing the great mass of consumer goods approaches zero. ‘Inventing the Future’ by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams sees digital fabrication, artificial intelligence and machine learning as the building blocks of an economy in which production, logistics and distribution have been automated, making possible a new world of leisure and shared prosperity. And Peter Frase’s ‘Four Futures’ suggests that the “democratisation” of production made possible by mass 3D printing may finally make possible the shift to the nebulous “realm of freedom” envisioned by Karl Marx, away from the “realm of necessity” that has hitherto obliged us to “wrestle with Nature to satisfy our wants, to maintain and reproduce life”.

Frase makes the intriguing observation that visions of communist abundance flowing from digital fabrication technologies have long haunted the imagination of the capitalist world, even if they have not been readily acknowledged.

Star Trek, for example, is not just a colourful space opera but a vision of a post-scarcity society in which all is held in common. The backstory of Gene Roddenberry’s original TV series imagines Vulcan aliens visiting an Earth devastated by a nuclear war and welcoming the survivors into a galactic federation in which scarcity has been abolished. An enigmatic Replicator technology, powered by an unspecified source of free energy, allows the materialisation of any object quite literally out of thin air. In a later Star Trek franchise, The Next Generation, Captain Picard tells a refugee from the 20th century, newly awakened from a state of cryogenic preservation:

A lot has changed in the past 300 years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.

Frase, like Mason, Srnicek, Williams and indeed most commentators who have dabbled in this brand of futurology are well aware that the prospect of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ facilitated by digital fabrication is no more than just that: a prospect, and one whose realisation faces significant obstacles.

Initially, there’s the significant challenge of actually getting access to a 3D printer. Most are concentrated in research institutes or workshops with literal or technical barriers to entry. And though fabricator costs are plummeting, with printers costing £2,000 to £3,000 the ability to materialise new objects remains a privilege for those who already have quite a lot of material.

Then there’s the question of what 3D printers can actually produce. A capacity to fabricate a range of useful products is one thing; the ability to satisfy a restless consumer market, stimulated by the advertising industry’s protean capacity to create new desires, is quite another. Will digital fabrication technologies ever be able to keep pace with the ever more sophisticated products the market generates so inexhaustibly?

And what about the question – notoriously dodged by Gene Roddenberry’s Replicator – of where the raw material for the printers comes from? If digital fabrication is going to allow us to move beyond scarcity the cost of printer feedstock must fall towards nothing. Today a kilogram of PLA costs around £35: not expensive, but still significantly pricier than simply buying a cheap product from China.

And of course designers must be prepared to make available the specification files processed by the printers for little or no fee. Certainly, there are vast online libraries such as the Thingiverse repository, where more than half a million designs can be downloaded under the terms of a Creative Commons or General Public License. Some of the remarkable specifications freely available here and elsewhere include the OpenDesk system, a comprehensive set of designs for a modern workspace including tables, chairs, desks, dividers and storage lockers; and the Global Village Construction Set, an ambitious collection offering specifications for all the objects the package’s creators deem necessary for a viable economic ecosystem, from washing machines to cement mixers.

Following the RepRap, popular 3D printing platforms like MakerBot and Ultimaker were designed to respect open source standards. But as commercial pressures have grown these and others have become closed ecosystems, using intellectual property law to police how their platforms are used. Indeed, intellectual property is a significant weapon available to commercial producers concerned that freewheeling open source digital fabrication might eat into their profit margins.

Perhaps the most grave question for digital fabrication advocates is how the abundance they envisage, allowing anyone to produce anything, anywhere, at anytime, can ever be ecologically sustainable.

For 3D printing offers not only the promise of unlimited production of an infinite variety of bespoke objects, but of multiple versions of each. The digital fabrication philosophy celebrates the opportunities 3D printing opens for iteration of a succession of prototypes en route to the ideal version of an object.

The potential for scandalous waste was recognised from the start by the 3D printing community. PLA was chosen as standard feedstock because, made from cornstarch, tapioca roots or sugarcane, it is purportedly both biodegradable and renewable. And digital fabricators by their nature produce items through a clinical algorithmic process, building up designs with awesome precision. Many 3D printing workshops have robust recycling facilities able to put offcuts and discarded iterations back into the production loop.

In spite of this, there’s no getting away from the fact the digital fabrication ecosystem is dependent on a distinctly lo-tech and ethically problematic component: children paid subsistence wages to sift garbage dumps across the developing world for plastic scrap that can be thrown in a recycling skip.

It is possible to accept that significant questions of access, cost and sustainability swirl around digital fabrication whilst simultaneously recognising that is is already a transformative technology. 3D printing is capable of remarkable things, now.

Digital fabrication makes it possible to generate a wide range of unspectacular but useful household objects for little more than the cost of the materials out of which they are made. It allows for the quick production of a wide range of recipes and experimentation with new ones. It has wide educational applications and is already extensively used as a modelling tool by architectural and medical students; indeed, the emerging field of bio-printing makes it possible to produce experimental human liver and bone tissue using 3D printing material containing human cells, and even to fabricate replacement organs from a patient’s own stem cells.

3D printing is also used extensively in sophisticated manufacturing and construction processes. The aerospace industry uses printers to produce lighter weight components for aircraft and drones, and digital fabrication techniques can produce entire exteriors for buildings with giant printers sitting on rails alongside an assembly space, depositing layers of concrete through a huge printer nozzle.

Perhaps the utopian speculation surrounding digital fabrication should not dwell so much on the possibilities it opens for breaking through to a Morrisonian condition of post-scarcity world as on another element of the great Victorian radical’s vision: his longing for a rediscovery of the ideal of craftsmanship.

Digital fabrication makes possible a 21st century route for the rediscovery of the process of “fashioning”: the practise of making a unique object through patient iteration, probing, testing and shaping. By designing, mixing and matching specifications and materials, 3D printer users participate in the same craft tradition that Morris celebrated, albeit transposed through technology he could never have imagined.

The patient pursuit of originality digital fabrication allows recalls the ideal of labour celebrated by Morris’s near contemporary and kindred spirit John Ruskin, for whom the pinnacle of craftsmanship was attained by the anonymous medieval tradespeople who designed the great cathedrals. For Ruskin, this gothic tradition eclipsed a classical obsession with order, allowing its practitioners to express their wonder at the sheer fact of creation through a riot of traceries, arches, lattice work, angels, saints and gargoyles. A famous passage in “The Stones of Venice” declared:

[I] If you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness; all his dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also.

Perhaps digital fabrication will usher in a new 21st century gothic – a profusion of idiosyncratic objects, blending geometric perfection and the wild imaginations of their designers. And maybe 3D printing will revive another art lost in the age of mass production: the discipline of repair. Digital fabricators promise to make it straightforward to replace missing or broken parts: just download a specification for the part from a repository, or make one yourself by scanning the object requiring repair, and allow the printer to build up the required component.

Digital fabrication, for all the wild hopes it has inspired, doesn’t seem likely to usher in Morris’s overflowing utopia any time soon. But it does open the possibility for combining and recombining the elements of our world in rich, complex new forms that would seem both impossibly strange and yet somehow strangely recognisable to Morris’s artisans.

Further reading