A New Printing Revolution? 3D Printing as an Agent of Socio-Political Change

A New Printing Revolution? 3D Printing as an Agent of Socio-Political Change

Yannick Rumpala (Faculté de Droit et de Science politique, Equipe de Recherche sur les Mutations de l'Europe et de ses Sociétés (ERMES), Université de Nice, Nice, France)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/IJT.2016070107


There is a growing interest in 3D printers because of the technical and economic implications they could have. The objective of this paper is to take the analysis further by asking to what extent they could also have a range of socio-political effects, as a consequence of their impact on the material practices of production and consumption. The first part of this contribution re-examines the promises associated with this technology and highlights its prospects for restoring individual and collective capabilities (I). Secondly, the ways in which these machines could destabilize the industrial bases of contemporary societies, and therefore the economic order, are analyzed, along with the political implications of such a shift (II). Finally, the latent constraints and the points of friction that these technological developments may encounter and that might affect future trajectories are clarified (III).
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Today 3D printers (i.e., three-dimensional, since they work by adding layers of material one on top of the other) are generating increased debate. In the perspectives commonly presented, potentially important changes for making a range of everyday objects are signaled. But these are not the only issues they raise. Certainly, there are technical and economic effects (Lipson and Kurman, 2010; Ratto and Ree, 2012), but beyond this, there could also be more structural and far-reaching social and political implications. It is these implications that this contribution aims to explore.

These technical developments, combining digital design and new modes of automated production, open spaces for experimentation, which are for the moment mainly visible in small business niches or in workshops and communities of technophile tinkerers like “fab labs” (“fabrication laboratories”) and “hackerspaces”. But, since a range of these tools is designed to be eventually accessible to the broader public (Gordon, 2011), it is useful to look beyond the still experimental nature of these initiatives. One can indeed make the hypothesis that changes in the social and political realm - potentially profound changes - can also occur by the accumulation of dispersed practices even if they appear merely technical, just as computer connections over the Internet have not only opened up new possibilities of communication, but also catalyzed social and political changes.

Beyond the economic impacts that are increasingly being considered, it is this potential socio-political dimension that also deserves consideration, especially insomuch as the chain of implications for the redistribution of capacities and forms of power could be felt on a large scale. It is not a question of merely affirming the political character of technological change, which is now commonly accepted1, but of signaling that some technologies contain potentialities for change which go beyond the intentions of their designers. The scope of that change will only be revealed in their conditions of actualization. Nor is it a question of returning to naïve technological determinism. This article aims at exploring what might be called a “technological potentialism,” which means thinking in terms of situations where new or evolving technologies may be appropriated, used, adapted, etc., and where their use could therefore find a new meaning for interested individuals and groups. In other words, this potentialism does not stem from an essence, an intrinsic nature or an autonomous power of technology, but from the way actors will be able to find new opportunities in technological developments or in technological solutions that are themselves new.2

3D printing is a technology that seems to open up a range of possibilities. It has all the appearance of a “disruptive technology”3, because it seems capable of prevailing over other established technologies in terms of performance, so as to significantly change the practices of its users, and as a result, the competitive conditions between economic operators. It also has all the appearance of a “general purpose technology”, because its uses and applications could affect the entire economic system and bring about profound and structural changes, from the work world to the domestic sphere (Helpman, 1998; Jovanovic and Rousseau, 2005).

In retrospect, another type of printing, printing on paper, shows the cumulative influences that a material technique can have on human activity, thus justifying its analysis as an “agent of change” (Eisenstein, 1979). But a still-developing innovation may be more difficult to grasp. What is also at stake in this case is to know how to assess the potential effects of a technology that is not yet developed, in other words, how to understand in what ways this technology can be used, the resources that become available as a result and the changes that may result from it. It is even more difficult to analyze this type of technology since it captures and feeds a whole sphere of imagination (which is sometimes close to the science fiction genre4). To avoid drifting into pure speculation, it is essential to keep in proper perspective the different types of discourse, both emphatic and critical, that may surround new technological developments.5 These various accompanying discourses could justify a separate study, but the drawback would be no longer being able to comprehend these technological developments themselves and their potential impact.

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