If there are two things this blog should've made clear I enjoy, it's Warhammer 40,000 and all things futuristic. So when I learned from Bell of Lost Souls, which learned from the Huffington Post, that Games Workshop had issued Digital Millenium Copyright Act-backed take-down notices over 3D printer models of a Dreadnought, a Leman Russ and a Sentinel, well, we were clearly in Reese Peanut Butter Cup territory, people!
Pictured: My Wheelhouse.
I don't blame Games Workshop for issuing these notices; they have to protect their business interests. And since Games Workshop has routinely defended their somewhat lacklustre rule-sets on the basis of their being 'just' a model company, obviously anything that threatens the income they get from their models is going to be a serious concern for them. And while all manner of commentators went on about how information wants to be free and GW needs to move with the times and it's just fan artwork and the like, at the end of the day this wasn't a 3D printer model of 'stumpy-legged fighting robot', but rather something that is very clearly a Space Marine Dreadnought with a close combat weapon and a multi-melta.
But as much as I understand why Games Workshop is doing what it's doing, and even support them in this particular case, it's the larger issue that really intrigues me. 3D printing isn't at the level of Star Trek's replicator yet, but as the dreadnought shows it's also a lot further along than I think a lot of people believed. In another five or ten years it's entirely probable that there will be 3D printers, available to the average consumer for a few hundred dollars from a reputable source (like Best Buy or Future Shop or the like), that will be able to turn out small items quickly, cheaply and with reasonably good fidelity. And when that happens, something very interesting is going to happen.
Yeah, y'know. 'Interesting'.
The driving force behind current economic reasoning is scarcity, either actually or artificially constructed. If a thing exists in only limited quantities, no matter how high the limit might be, the theory is that you need a price mechanism in place to determine distribution. But we've started to see what happens when there is no limit to the quantities available, thanks to services like iTunes, and even what happens when products can be replicated without ever involving a producer, thanks to torrents and file-sharing services. To date that hasn't been a huge issue, despite what the MPAA/RIAA would have you believe, because the movies and music being copied represent relatively tiny assaults on the overall market, and because physical materials still offer a compelling argument in their favour (such as liner notes for cds or special features and commentary tracks for dvds). But that won't always be true, and as we move away from creative/cultural goods to physical ones being 'pirated', the equation is going to shift more and more heavily in favour of the private citizen and away from the corporate entity.
Which sounds wonderful, right? After all, what's more like The Man than corporations? Down with them, and we'll all somehow be prosperous and happy and we'll never need to work a sixty-hour week for minimum wage again! But for all their flaws, and good gods and goddesses do they have so very, very many, corporations are absolutely central to the current construction of the economy. You can't just do away with them without throwing huge numbers of people out of work, and we saw from the Great Recession that even just throwing relatively small numbers of people out of work can completely wreck things for everyone. But you can't just un-invent something; 3D printers exist, and they're only going to get better and better, putting more and more pressure on the vast number of jobs involved in the production, marketing and distribution of physical goods, whether directly or indirectly. Games Workshop can issue take-down notices to Pirate Bay, but as noted they haven't gone after almost the exact same files on Google, and if a player isn't interested in participating in GW-organized tournaments there's very little that could compel them to buy GW models rather than just print off their own
I think the future is going to run something along these lines. 3D printers will put such a squeeze on physical goods, from models to cookware to clothing, that the traditional 'store' will largely be a thing of the past. Those entities that retain physical spaces will do so because having a communal space available for their customers benefits them. GW stores, for example, will probably do away with most of their stock, but continue to host tournaments, demos, painting classes and the like, because those services complement their overall business plan. Those industries that don't need physical space, however, will turn from selling the finished product to selling the plans for the product (backed up by the strongest, most stringent IP-protection laws imaginable), scaling down from massive organizations to teams of designers, sculptors, market researchers and the like. And new industries will spring up around the production of the 'matter packs' for 3D printers, with groups offering a wide variety of materials backed up by a wide variety of claims to their quality.
It may sound like things basically stay the way they are, but make no mistake, this will be a change on the scale of the Industrial Revolution itself. Indeed, it will likely be something along the lines of the Industrial Revolution in reverse, a transition away from major, centralized production systems and back to 'cottage industries' and individual economic performance. It will be just as jarring, just as upsetting, and quite probably just as violent in its own way, as the Industrial Revolution was. Indeed, I won't be at all surprised to find my children's children learning about the social upheaval and even disintegration that characterized the early decades of the twenty-first century, brought about by things like (but certainly not limited to) 3D printers, file sharing, increasingly powerful telecommunications infrastructure and computer processing power. As a young man I completely expect to live through some of the most wrenching dislocations my society has ever endured, and the fact that I believe that a better tomorrow is waiting on the other side is really the only comfort I can imagine for what I suspect is coming in the not-too-distant future.
Hence my rather particular dream-house.
And really, sixty dollars for a plastic kit that can be assembled with a few bucks worth of materials in a 3D printer? Sometimes, I feel like the revolution can't come fast enough!