People sometimes mistakenly think that I’m an abject pessimist or even someone who actively finds joy in our oft-decrepit society. This could not be further from the truth. Despite America’s imperial overreach, a stagnant global economy and the encroaching police state (among other things that I indeed detest and fear), there are still myriad wonders all around us that point towards a future society that is more remarkable and liberating than anything the world has ever seen. The latest new technology that has got me all in a tizzy is one with near-boundless potential: 3D printing.
This fantastic development is a relatively new technological process that allows users to design objects that can then be “printed” into tangible, three-dimensional objects. Existing entities can also be scanned into a computer and replicated at will. These printers can make solid objects out of either composite plastic or metal (other mediums are also being explored), but the complexity of the fabrications are limited only by the imagination of the designer. (Size is also obviously a factor but that’s merely a problem of not having a big enough printer, rather than a limitation in the technology itself.)
Here is one of these amazing machines in action. I chose this vid because it’s short and very easy to see the process in action. As much as I love Yoda, this bust doesn’t begin to demonstrate the true potential of this technology.
The complexity of some of the objects people have created is astonishing, as is the originality in their design. One of the more exciting things about these creations is how functional they can be. They can contain multiple moving parts that are printed in a fully completed state, with no assembly required. They can also be made strong enough to function as tools. In this NatGeo clip, a crescent wrench is scanned and recreated in a matter of hours. The pony-tailed host then uses it to tighten a bolt just as you would with a ‘standard’ wrench.
These creations can be as precisely intricate or as simple as the creator desires. This astonishing machine harnesses the wind and can walk along like some futuristic, 12-legged space spider.
The designs can also be exceptionally subdued, such as Cobb’s totem from Inception. As happens naturally when the creative potential of humans is allowed to flourish, experimentation abounds and there truly is something for everyone in this frontier market.
Personally, I am quite drawn to this Möbius strip of the first level of Mario Bros., despite my being raised exclusively on Sega Genesis.
The creative process on display is a perfect example of how individualization and customization enhance our lives. Everywhere around us, our lives are constantly improving due to innovation and free markets. Amazon and Netflix have revolutionized how we consume media. Stem cells and other medical research are prolonging our lives. Smartphones, the ultimate all-in-one device, are constantly becoming cheaper, faster and more intelligent. There is plenty to be optimistic about when looking at these fantastic developments and the future fruits they will yield.
The spoilsport in me focuses on the most illiberal facets of society. The innovation and incredible experimentation in a field like 3D printing helps to illustrate how the worst aspects of our lives are things and institutions devoid of customization and individual control. Public education, health care systems, political and police corruption, military overreach, etc., are all failing institutions that are heavily centralized and largely outside public purview.
These institutions fail precisely because they are antiquated, top-down systems. They simply cannot compete in our largely liberal and diffuse world of information and talent. They only way they can compete with the spontaneous order of markets and collaborative efforts like Wikipedia is through brute force.
This technological movement is expanding into fields the government is fearful of. A chemist named Lee Cronin from the University of Glasgow has been able to print ibuprofen and wants to replicate other drugs. A group from Texas called Defense Distributed is attempting to design a printable firearm and has succeeded in producing gun components, most notably high-capacity magazines.
Predictably, the government is wary of such developments that would fundamentally undermine its presumed authority in controlling firearms and illicit substances. Congressman Steve Israel (NY-D) wants to include 3D-printed gun components in the Undetectable Firearms Act, which is up for reauthorization in December 2013. And although it’s fun to imagine the collective brains of Washington imploding from the shock, it’s difficult to fathom how severely the hammer of government retribution would strike if people could get around onerous drug laws with a simple ctrl+p command.
It is almost impossible to see how 3D printing won’t completely transform human society. Among its other sci-fi credentials, it has legitimate potential to fundamentally change the concept of scarcity, and in the future might eliminate the term entirely. It’s also eminently foreseeable that the government will attempt to control and curtail this technology, which politicians fear will make obsolete the type of authority they’ve grown accustomed to wielding.
The world is better off with individuals free to utilize technology to their benefit. Let’s just hope Washington realizes the detriments and futility of attempting to neuter such an impressive revolution in the way we live our lives. However, if history is any guide, I certainly wouldn’t bet on their quietly acquiescing to such dynamic transformational change.
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