Scientific and technological innovations have the power to fundamentally transform human civilization as new possibilities previously deemed impossible are made realities. However, it is not the technologies themselves that dictate the nature of the political, economic or social evolution. Rather, it is control over, and access to, technology that has the truly profound impact. While advanced medicines, new methods of energy production and biotechnology breakthroughs are in themselves important, when monopolized by a select few, the implications for the majority of people can be dire.
So it is with the emerging revolution in 3D printing, a technology that manufactures (or “prints”), layer by layer, physical objects from computer models using a variety of materials. While 3D printing has existed in concept since the early 1980s, only in recent years has the technology been brought to the desktop level, allowing individuals and small groups of hobbyists to print a wide variety of objects, from plastic coasters to medical equipment. Having started in the traditional industrial and fabrication setting, it was the application of 3D printing by independent, technologically inclined “hackers” (individuals who manipulate and/or customize computer and electronic equipment to fit their needs) that helped mainstream this technology.
Today, there is a consensus among those in the know – from the most ruthless capitalist profit-seekers to anarcho-communist hackers – that the 3D printing revolution is coming, and the world will not be the same once it arrives. So the struggle is not whether there will be 3D printers, but rather how that technology will be used, how it will be dispersed in society, who will have access to it, and who will control and/or steer its development.
The central question will not be whether a working-class person can 3D print some household object in his garage; this is a foregone conclusion. Instead, it will be whether or not the ability to 3D print the elemental parts of modern and future society (computer processors, nanobots, telecommunications equipment etc.) will be open to all, or controlled by the few.