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3D Printers: We can’t print our way to freedom under capitalism

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Issue 2367
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Every few weeks there’s a new story about the miracles of 3D printers. 

They can print firing guns and cars, albeit with a little assembly required. They can print prosthetic limbs and metal plates to replace damaged skull tissue.

3D printing is supposed to unleash a new technological revolution where every product has a customised design and decentralised production.

Perhaps the height of the hype is in a new exhibition at London’s Design Museum, titled The Future Is Here. It’s funded by the Technology Strategy Board—a state-backed body that subsidises research and development for some of Britain’s biggest manufacturing firms. Yet it paints a picture of a rosy future where production is dominated by empowered individuals.

It marshalls buzzwords —from the “hacktivists” who will bring us our furniture to the “wikihouses” we’ll put it in—to do this.

Appropriately enough one of the models churned out by the working printers at the exhibition is a toy of TV’s starship Voyager. 

It looked forward to an imagined future where money is replaced with technology that can conjure up anything the user can think of. These kind of utopias are understandably compelling for people used to the horrors of production under capitalism.

And on the surface 3D printers are a promising technology. Traditional injection moulding can produce plastic products cheaply only in vast bulk. Yet 3D printers can make one unit as efficiently as a million.

The smaller units now cost around £2,000 and costs are falling. That opens up the possibility of people downloading, customising and sharing designs for a variety of products. 

No doubt it will be an incredible tool for skilled, dedicated designers with time and resources to devote to it.

But it would be wrong to see 3D printers as opening up a new mode of production. We can’t simply produce everything we need from a printer. And 3D printing hasn’t done away with the power relationships and inequality that exists under capitalism.

But we’ve been here before.

Open source programming has helped drive innovations in software. But huge computing firms still dominate the market and reap the benefit—even if some have had to merge to survive.

Online music sharing was supposed to put independent musicians on a level playing field with those backed by big record companies. But in practice it takes a lot of resources and connections to make the most of websites like Spotify or Youtube. And the big music labels are as powerful as ever.

Every new technology has the potential to help unlock more human creativity. 

But under capitalism it often does the opposite. Bosses can use new inventions to de-skill work and cut costs. For workers this means unemployment or the drudgery of being mere cogs in a machine for others. And for the bosses it means a race to adapt quickly or be driven out of business by those who do.

Today’s economic crisis looks set to drag on despite the fanfare over a “recovery”. And there will be more crises in the future as long as capitalism exists. Unless we overthrow a system that reduces everything to the needs of profit, no technology will let us print our way to freedom.


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