Thursday, August 15, 2013

Social Implications of 3D Printers and Open Source Manufacturing

Factor E Farm, Open Source Ecology, The Maker and Open Manufacturing Movements are moving away from the fringe and coming into mainstream awareness. There are some values that I am sympathetic to, common to all these organizations. They value the resiliency that comes from localizing basic goods and services, the distributist empowerment of individuals and small communities, and the transparency of open sourcing that is encouraged by localism (but possible even without it with open source technology).

But what I want to focus on in this post are values that trouble me. I hesitate to do this because I don't want to harm the open source movement, and hope that this opens up a constructive conversation rather than initiating a cyber war.

First, all these movements are what JMG would call "captive to the religion of Progress", or more precisely to the technological branch of that religion. They have a machine fetish typical of ROP, and I'll refer to them as "the machine fetishists". There are several questions that need to be asked relative to using a high tech machine to do the job that a human plus a tool could do:
1. Can the machine be built, run and maintained on purely local (solar, wind) energy?
2. Can the machine be built, run and maintained on purely local materials?
3.  Would allowing machines to accomplish a task that could be accomplished by humans with simpler tools produce more employment? More creativity? More satisfaction?

I think that the machine fetishists will answer all these questions in the negative if they are honest.

1. The energy from sunlight and wind is too diffuse to get a net gain of energy, once the costs of producing and maintaining solar panels (or wind turbines), batteries (and/or grids) and associated electronics are taken into account. It has been possible so far because petroleum is so energy dense, but it took a long time to store that much sunlight in such a small volume, and petroleum not only is becoming too expensive due to peaking production, but is non-local in most parts and has all the problems associated with importing global materials.
2. Most of these machines are using Computer Numerical Control (CNC) which demands an incredibly complex, capital, materials and energy intensive technology.  I don't see a way to localize the materials necessary to make computers.
3.  If we get beyond the beliefs that newer is always better, that manual labor is degrading and does not involve intelligence, that efficiency is everything (all standard beliefs in the Credo of Progress, see: , then we can begin to see the advantages of agrarian and craft work over machine work. A machine operator has much less creativity than a crafsman in his work. This is more debatable with an engineer or designer, but engineers and designers are not needed in even a minor way in the scenario of the GVCS once the 50 machines are built. Even if there was room for a few engineers, it is a far cry from the full employment available with just farmers and craftspeople using human scale tools.

Perhaps the machine fetishists will say that there will be full employment, but not with making basic needs--that would be left to the machines. They might say that there would be more artists, entertainers and scientists.  I doubt this could happen because of questions 1 and 2, but even if it could, I don't think it is a desireable state of affairs. I think doing the work that connects us with nature and our basic needs, also connects us with our fellow humans and builds character and keeps us humble. Intentional communities where people do not share an economy of basic goods and services, do not become centers of enlightened scholarship and art with strong community bonds. They either become places of boredom and bickering (standard ICs), or cut-throat competition for status and grants (standard academia).

The other problem that is not considered by the machine fetishists is the fact that acquiring land with enough resources to produce one's basic needs is still too prohibitively expensive for most people and this won't be solved by machines.

In effect, what the open source movement is saying is that the only problem with the industrial mode of production is that it concentrates the means of production in the hands of a few wealthy individuals and the way to fix that is to distribute the means of production to everyone. But as I show above, this ignores a bunch of other important problems. The fate of the open source movement is probably the same as that of all other society bettering movements that did not get to root memes: it will be coopted by the present socio-economic system with 3D printers cranking out extravagant consumerist doo-dads, land and resources being concentrated in the hands of a few, community and family no better than they are now.

It would be presumptuous of me to outright condemn this movement, but I think my concerns are addressed better in a return to agrarianism and craftsmanship, perhaps with a few modern technological additions.


  1. (regular reader of the arch druid's report)
    Luval, I appreciate your taking on this topic. A friend sees 3D printing as a break-through technology.

    I ask, will it be able to create my two most valuable gardening tools: broad fork (6 times, 14" long) and the diamond hoe. And could it do so more effectively that Bob and Rita Denman at Red Pig Tools?

    I ask the worshiper at the altar of Progress just what he intends to do with his 3D printer. His fanatical enthusiasm for creating name tags and signs truly floors me!

    It seems that sometimes people use the novelty of a tool to overlook that fact that it provides no truly useful capability. Attaching a valuable concept such as localization to an ineffective tool provides little benefit to the valuable concept nor to the faddish tool.

    I appreciate your observations. Keep up the writing.

    1. Yes, you nailed it with a metaphorical hammer that could probably not be built with a 3D printer any better or cheaper than a blacksmith