All Power to the Makerspaces

3-D printing in its current form could be a return to “small is beautiful” drudgery, but it has the potential to do much more.

Beneath the labs and offices of the materials building at Michigan Tech, in a sprawling basement, a young physicist named Josh Pearce is making a five-cent water filter. Or rather, it’s being made for him, a 3-D printer whirring back and forth across a heated bed, a laptop telling the nozzle which way to move back and across.

Pearce’s research team is gathered round, watching to see if the machine can handle the tiny latticework in the filter’s core. Around the room behind them, among cluttered shelves and workbenches, there are half a dozen other printers, large flatbeds, and narrower, taller delta ones moving up and down.

On the other side of the basement, a technician is working on a shredder that will make it possible to recycle plastic waste into the “filament” polymer that the printers use as raw material. She occasionally glances at a smaller machine nearby turning out a new creation. “Oh, that’s a DVD tower,” she says, distracted. “I’m doing it for home.”

On the big machine, the filter appears to be a success. “Looks like we’re off to the races,” Pearce says, beaming. He will say it several more times over the course of the afternoon.

The Pearce Research Group, set in a range of offices and labs in the old mining school of Michigan’s frozen Upper Peninsula, has a hokey, ready-made air, but it also has a deadly serious mission: to accelerate the development of 3-D printing and other replication technologies — to create technologies capable of transforming life for people across the world.

The place was on the way to becoming the sort of production center it aspired to spread across the globe: a space where people worked in fluid interaction with scalable technology, applicable to every part of their lives.

That’s the vision of this new technology at its best. For a while, it was popularly accepted, with a new 3-D printing story daily. These stories touted a wildly optimistic future in which all goods would be effortlessly produced.

The bubble burst when people saw actually existing 3-D printing, especially in its nascent commercial versions in the new so-called “maker” shops in major cities: small machines slowly turning out toys in tacky plastic polymer filament. There was also a reaction to some of the utopian celebrations of the new technologies in the “makerspaces” that were springing up.

The maker movement arose from diverse sources — hackers moving from soldering to welding and beyond, hipsters crossing from steampunk fantasies into realities, counterculturalists exploring new possibilities — but they all had in common a carryover of the New Left idea that any revolution in production had to include a commitment to a production process that offered authenticity and meaning through a renewed engagement with the physical world.

This is a fine thing for people to pursue in their lives, but to generalize it as a precondition for a transformed production system would mean a different sort of misery. That would simply reinstall another form of obligated labor in place of wage labor. The rhetoric suggesting that instead of buying household implements, people should weld their own Burning Man–styled toasters in a converted warehouse in Bushwick is exactly the sort of nightmarish vision that will have people running back to neoliberal capitalism in a heartbeat.

For many, it rightly looked like a return to the “small is beautiful” celebrations of the 1970s, and the drudgery that came with them. And when the 3-D-printed gun, made by a Southern libertarian, hit the top of the news, many had an excuse to move past the new technology altogether.

In the mainstream, 3-D printing was now another source of fear. Among the Left, it was another foolish technological quick fix, diverting people from the hard slog of real politics.

Given the public image of 3-D printing, the dismissiveness is understandable, but it’s an error nonetheless. 3-D printing — properly called replication — has been around for no more than thirty years. It was designed as an industrial prototyping process in the early 1980s.

Patenting and high unit costs kept the technology within the industrial sphere, but in 2005, the British engineer Adrian Bowyer began a project known as the “reprap” (replicating rapid prototyper) to collectively design an open-source 3-D printer that was not only affordable but could also print out the parts to assemble a copy of itself, thus setting up an endless chain of replication.

The first reprap, called Darwin, was produced in 2007. It’s a Meccano type, steel-framed cubes with whirring, moving nozzles. All the numerous commercial models of 3-D printers now on the market are some version of repraps.

Development of the open-source model continued in parallel, with impressive results. Versions capable of printing out objects more than a meter and a half in each dimension, such as the Gigabot, are now available for a few thousand dollars, and the materials available for use have expanded from the familiar tacky polymer to include synthetic wood, ceramics, and eventually, the holy grail, metal.

As the speed of deposition increases, and robotic feedback loops make the reprap into a genuinely autonomous machine, the possibilities of everyday replication expand exponentially. Machine design is a global open-source project, and so too are product designs, uploaded to Thingiverse and similar websites.

Quietly, after the news buzz subsided, modular, scalable replication started heading toward a convergence point, a moment at which all the sub-technologies cross a certain point of development, and replication enters a new stage wherein its products are radically competitive with industrial, privately controlled processes.

This is what makes replication different from the “alternative” movements that came before it. Those movements tried to turn away from industrial production and toward more meaningful but less efficient ways of making things. Replication has the potential to be both more meaningful and more efficient.

The reprap principle is, quite simply, that for all the products that can be produced, the unit cost approaches zero over time (maybe a considerable time). That is, if the reprap machines themselves become more efficient and work effectively, with supervision time approaching zero, their energy supply will be renewable technology, itself printed out, and recycled materials will provide much of its raw materials.

Such a transformation of production of common objects should defeat capitalist strategies to recuperate and re-enclose, because it inherently undermines the preconditions of capitalist value relations. Simply advancing and extending the uses of such technology for real-life production becomes a political act (though merely a necessary, not a sufficient one).

It is less important whether such services are extended as free collective activity, or on some sort of minimal-fee basis, than that they are extended into everyday life — thus drawing us closer to the point at which a change in quantity becomes a change in quality, and overall value systems start to be transformed.

Replication is thus a new force of production, but it is also the root of a new mode of production, capable of grounding more liberated social relations.

The promise and possibility of replication is not that of the robotic technological dystopias, which occupy mainstream fantasies and which implicitly involve a surrender of human autonomy.

Replication does not offer an end to necessary activity, but it does offer the possibility of a layer of life that approaches an everyday communism, one in which many of the necessities of life can be produced either in a home-based replicator, or (for more complex objects) a locally based production hub, an entity which would be both a collective locus of free activity and a client-based service.

When replicators are combined with other technologies such as CNC routers (cutting tools), most of the products now purchased within the global capitalist circuit can be produced for a vastly reduced cost at a comparable level of quality. Furniture, large equipment, and entire houses — currently underway in China, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom — can be produced. The latter can be printed with plumbing and electrical and fiber-optic cabling built in.

Sketching out possible futures in detail is an old bad habit of the Left. But refusing to say anything about concrete possibilities is a more recent, equally self-defeating one, so let me say a few words about one possible trajectory associated with the increasing spread of replication.

“Hubs” activated within existing economic frameworks could appeal to three groups:

  1. The politically self-motivated, many of them pursuing autonomous, creative lives, who want to radically reduce their cost of living without pursuing the old bohemian path of virtuous penury;
  2. The poor, with varying degrees of self-conscious political awareness, for whom such near-zero-cost production may become a necessity;
  3. So-called makers, who want a specific degree of involvement in production for a variety of reasons.

Much attention has been focused on the latter group, but it is the two other, larger groups that offer the promise of a new production movement that combines individual interest with collective advantage and that offers the promise of autonomous expansion; a movement that is inherently political and transformative.

Even within a capitalist economy, production hubs could offer various possibilities of connection, from allowing people to actively use them and produce their own stuff virtually for free, to having them pay a regular fee for unlimited production — similar to a gym membership. Such a process could create a countervailing movement of post-capitalist relations within the existing framework, and thus become a political force in its own right, with its own interests.

Such a movement would face great opposition, but much of the power of that opposition is overstated, even or especially by sections of the Left. Intellectual property and knowledge enclosure have been cited, but the replication movement is now so massively open-source, and has such a variety of methods, that re-enclosure is impossible. Recuperation and recommodification by capitalism have been cited, with the examples of the “free” internet and cultural sharing. But the point of the replication movement is to create a production process that does not yield the possibility of profit, except at a vanishingly small degree.

The “free culture” of the Internet never eventuated because valued cultural products remained scarce enough to be commodified. There is no shortage of free music, film, or writing on the net, but Taylor Swift and The Wire remain proprietorial. The aim of this “material revolution” is to apply production that approaches no cost to common objects, not specific ones.

Legal regimes like oppressive regulation could also be applied. Resistance to attempts to wipe out competition against capitalism would then become an explicitly political struggle — with the advantage of being conducted as a fight for something already established, rather than for a future potentiality.

This is analogous to the role of mass squatting in urban struggles, which occupy territory prior to making a more articulated claim of right to it.

A movement that takes seriously the idea that replication represents a new and liberating mode of production is one that takes seriously the determinist dimension of Marx, present in both his notification that the mill wheel gives you the feudal lord and the steam engine the capitalist, and in his “Fragment on Machines,” which reflected on the shift in value form that would accompany the shift to largely autonomous machines.

Refocusing on the transformation of production as a political act also involves some reflection on the long history of revolutionary politics. One of the great contributions of Marxism to such politics has been the insistence that radical possibilities come not merely from collective will, but from an understanding of the external situation, particularly its economic aspects.

It seems very possible that replication is part of a new technological stage of development that brings the capitalist mode into crisis at the level of the base, while also offering a system of equal and liberating production that is neither bureaucratic nor reliant on wage labor.

But it is crucial to separate a transformational and liberating political-technological movement from one that becomes embedded within a quasi-spiritual framework, reoriented to the existential act of production. This conception, central to the maker movement, has become entangled in the public understanding, with disastrous results.

The idea that any liberation of production must involve an intimate re-engagement with all aspects of it is not liberation, but simply a restoration of an earlier stage of compulsion, with a strong dose of moralism included. Such an emphasis would repeat all the errors of the counterculture movement of the 1960s, particularly the idea that human alienation can be substantially overcome through an act of will on the part of individuals and small groups.

This idea led to the creation of societies based on earlier modes of production, with the hope that a free human essence — no longer buckling under the weight of oppressive capitalism — might spring forth fully formed.

Though relatively few people made the break and actually began to live on self-sustaining communes, the idea that sustained them — that any post-capitalist society would demand a mass re-involvement in production and a preservation of its repetitive and dull aspects — came to dominate conceptions of a new world.

The implicit proposal was that the authenticity of the act would not only compensate for the renounced pleasures of modernity, but that those pleasures would cease to be meaningful at all. Countercultural people would be willingly stripped of their commodified desires, and their humanity would re-emerge whole and entire.

The reality, of course, was that initial good feelings quickly developed into drudgery, the tastes and desires of modern human beings never left them, and the movement collapsed within half a dozen years. The counterculture was the last, or latest, gasp of the pastoral urge that runs through civilizations from the first beginnings of cities, and inhabits notions of the “noble savage” — the contradictory idea that we might take our modern subjectivity and decant it whole into a prior form.

The proposition that through the sheer force of ethical will, humans formed in modernity could overcome their contradictory desires, individualist and collective, in a fusion of both, set the movement up for rapid failure, and a collapse into the reverse pseudo-ethic of the Reagan-Thatcher years. A revolution in production must be a liberation of time and life activity, not an addition of new obligations.

This is not to say that, once the costs of the mass-production of life start trending toward zero, people will not choose areas of life to sensualize with particularity, whether by physical production, or by using liberated time for renewed life activity. But that can only come as a choice rather than an imposed necessity, and it is that possibility that gives replication a communistic orientation.

The possibilities of the technology also serve to reunite the fate of the relatively prosperous and relatively poor with the wretched of the earth. Thus, while the Pearce Research Institute works on a plan to put two complete repraps in a suitcase that could be taken anywhere to make water filters, machine parts, implements, and more repraps, the objects of the present world can be fashioned at the same time.

If there’s a vision of what a genuinely transformed life might look like, the labs of the Pearce Research Institute are a first approximation — a core of people at home with technology, using it in a protean and flexible way, with ever-widening circles around them, able to access production and innovation without needing to be dominated by it.

What can we know for sure about its possibilities? Only that it they will not unfold in the manner precisely foretold. Things never do. But it is necessary to imagine the wildest possibilities of these new technologies, and an expanded idea of what their revolutionary politics might be.