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Pandora's (self-made) Box: The Uncertain Future of 3D Printing


Over the past several years there have been a myriad of business and academic articles extolling the potential boons of 3D printing. A new world appears to be just around the corner: 3D printing will decentralize manufacturing, reduce overconsumption, empower a new gig economy of “makers,” revolutionize medicine, and so much more. [1] [2]

However, as we’ve come to realize about the so-called “gig economy” enabled by Uber, Airbnb, and other technologies touted as liberatory or “disruptive,” these services have more often than not become further mechanisms of oppression rather than catalysts for upward mobility or overall social wellbeing. The question then becomes, how can we learn from the mistakes of other recent “disruptive” technologies and take advantage of 3D printing’s nascence and guide its blooming towards something more positive for all people?

Uber: Better for Who?

Even putting aside the comically long list of Uber’s ethical and legal violations, [3] a recent article by a member of Cambridge’s Transit Advisory Committee describes how the company is actively attempting to deracinate Cambridge’s jewel of a public transportation system, Kendall Square. [4] As government money for public transportation has dwindled in even tech and cash-rich Cambridge, private investment has stepped in to create a new class of bourgeoisie employee/ers who can afford to skirt the stretched-thin public transit systems and its laws. Uber unashamedly violated Cambridge’s dense transit laws aimed at encouraging public transportation, and contributed to a major gridlock the city had invested millions of dollars and years of planning to prevent. Simultaneously, in this free market narrative equivalent of “shoot first, ask questions later,” the company won the ensuing legal battle for access to Cambridge’s roadways after the state overturned a local decision. As the article’s author Saul Tennenbaum points out, “Whether Uber improved the transportation system wasn’t part of the decision.”


Uber’s predatory practices are a glimpse at what could happen should current capitalist tendencies guide the emerging 3D printing market. Tennenbaum’s ponderings are the type of questions we need to be continually asking ourselves as the latest “disruptive” technology of 3D printing becomes more ubiquitous. For who or for what does Uber improve things? We’ve seen how Uber and Airbnb contribute to gentrification and the further exploitation and atomization of the underclass’s already precarious standard of living, so as we read about the exciting new potentials of 3D printing revolutionizing the world economy let’s consider, what are the ways 3D printing could end up putting more pressure on the people? [5]

Uber undercuts public services in the name of “empowering” individual users who use their app, if they can afford it. It’s not difficult to imagine something similar happening should 3D printing become widespread, where the very thing promised to free people from capitalist tendencies becomes yet another pressure on those individuals to now self-produce something that was once provided for them. The way Kickstarter is frequently used to desperately crowdsource medical bills the state could quite easily be covering might soon be paralleled by say, a landlord refusing to fix a leaky pipe because a 3D printer is capable of printing the replacement part. Perhaps this is a facile example, but I don’t think it is out of the question. As with any new innovation under capitalism, we must always ask, who is benefitting from these technologies— whether they’re Uber, Airbnb, or 3D printing—and who is being exploited? What is the value of a new technology that further stratifies existence? Since we are still many years away from 3D printers and their related materials becoming truly affordable for most people, the rich are going to have the first crack at using this technology (and one would have to assume, writing the laws that regulate them).

The Way Forward?

As Gregory Unruh points out in his forthcoming paper in California Management Review, the upcoming proliferation of 3D printing offers an opportunity for a new approach to conceptualizing the economy. Not only could 3D printing help enable a shift of self-conception from people seeing themselves as consumers of things to producers of things, but 3D printing could encourage a more connected and sustainable economy. Unruh adumbrates how 3D printing technology can be solar-powered, build things entirely out of recycled materials, and produce things closer to the place they’re consumed. Here we get a glimpse at how a proliferation of affordable 3D printers could reduce waste, mitigate climate change, and potentially empower an interconnected network of worker-owned 3D printing cooperatives. However, Unruh is quick to emphasize that this will only be possible so long as the 3D printing market is guided by the principles of the circular economy, one in which each piece of an economic process is considered holistically.

If we want 3D printing to be something the entire world can benefit from, people, politicians, and even private entities need to work together to make sure 3D printing is guided by sustainability and liberatory principles. (The future of these terms need to be contested in the day-to-day just as much as the future of 3D printing technology should be—when even the notoriously wasteful Nike proffers itself as a brand of “sustainable innovation,” we must remember to remain suspicious of how these value-heavy terms are used.) [6] [7] Now is the time to speak up and write the regulations and emphasize the opportunity to create a more interconnected, horizontal economy through this technology so that private entities don’t get to write the laws, squeeze people out, and control the narrative, the way Uber and Airbnb have. Without these necessary steps to ensure the democratic spirit of 3D printing, the technology is almost beside the point.

Wealth redistribution: the ultimate circle

We have to change our models of reality as we change our models of ourselves, both conceptually and literally. We cannot have empowered individuals under capitalism. Under capitalism our choices are edged further and further towards foreclosure; they exist within a very limited and highly orchestrated spectrum of power. Additionally, I know of no circles where one percent of the circle gets all the say and sway over the other 99% of the circle. Just eight men own more wealth than over half of the world. [9] What kind of a circle is that? A dissolution of vertiginous management and leadership practices in an effort toward truly democratic worker-owned cooperatives is an essential element of the CE. Though the literature on the Circular Economy is reticent about this elephant in the room, the transition must be a thorough, holistic one. The dismantling of hierarchical leadership structures, prior profit motives, and metastasized growth in the name of shareholder value must be part of the new economies of the world, along with a concentrated effort to forsake wealth in the effort of making life better for all. We cannot allow capitalism to subsume the Circular Economy because it can and it will. In order to create a better future we must create a better system in harmony with each other and the earth.