A while back, I mentioned the use of a 3D printer to make Warhammer 40K models. There were plans available, online, for an Imperial Guard Sentinel, a Leman Russ battle tank, and a Space Marine Dreadnought. Obviously Games Workshop, the company that puts out 40K, wasn't happy about this fact. Somewhat ironically, given its name, Games Workshop has always styled itself a producer of models, rather than a developer of game systems, so a mechanism that would enable their player base to cut them out of the loop in terms of creating their own, personalized, fully customized armies would have to be their worst nightmare. In a completely predictable move GW sent in their lawyers, and Wired recently did a piece on the latest from the scuffle, including noting that GW may not actually have much of a legal leg to stand on. And not that I wish GW any specific harm, but it wouldn't pain me to see a company that basically stole the setting of Dune for their earliest iteration of 40K laughed out of court for arguing someone else is violating their 'style'.
Don't even get me started on these guys!
But I don't specifically want to talk about GW, today. What I wanted to talk about was 3D printing, and in particular the more utopian rhetoric that surrounds these devices. While many appear aware of their actual limitations, there's no shortage of those predicting Star Trek's replicators are just around the corner, happily oblivious to the fact that it would take the combination of several different technologies, all currently in relative infancy, in order to even approach the TOS-style replicators, nevermind the more sophisticated ones seen in TNG onwards. I think 3D printers, whether for plastic or food, are a fantastic new innovation that will upend the world just as much as the computer and the cellphone and the internet, but I don't think we're just a few short years away from a post-scarcity world.
See, both at present and for the foreseeable future, the output of 3D printers is going to be pretty limited, both in terms of complexity and scale. Copying a Dreadnought or a Sentinel is easy; they're relatively small, relatively boxy things, which can be made in a single immovable piece that's able to lose a great deal of fine detail and still remain useful. And that's about what these devices are going to be offering for the next few years. Now, look around yourself; what do you have, what do you buy on a regular basis, that could be replaced by something with those limitations? Cutlery, plates and cups, if you don't mind looking a bit shabby; combs and hair-clips, if we can get the detail work down far enough; small toys for children, or models for wargames, though you could never enter the army in any official tournaments; shelves and boxes, perhaps, if you had a sufficiently large printer. But what do most people spend their money on? Housing, bills, clothes, food, services, entertainment. Aside from clothes and food you can't replace any of that even with a fully-realized replicator, nevermind a current 3D printer. Which is why, contrary to what some are hoping for, and some are fearing, the sky is not, in fact, falling.
Star Trek has trained a generation of nerds, and I count myself among them, to believe that once you have replicators, that's it; this whole economy thing can be put behind us, like bartering chickens for a pair of trousers, and we can get on with 'improving ourselves', whatever that may mean to each of us, individually. But a deeper look at the way even a replicator-possessing society would have to be organized shows that's simply not going to be the case. And it's going to be even more prevalent for us, now. Yes, 3D printer technology may well advance to the point where you can make, probably in pieces, whatever small, solid pieces you might require; you could print out pieces of furniture and them assemble them yourself, a sort of hybrid offspring of torrents and Ikea. And yes, the experiments with food-printers may bear fruit, giving us at least the ability to produce strands or sheets of pasta or flavoured pastes or grains or the like, reducing our reliance on the basics of food and making grocery shopping more a case buying the best complementary frills rather than building meals from the ground up. But nobody is going to be printing out a car, or a computer, or a cell phone. Certainly nobody is going to be printing out a house, and even if they did, where would they put it if they didn't own land? And what are you supposed to print with, if you haven't got the appropriate raw materials, and the power to run it on, and the network connection to get the plans for all these things?
Without a heck of a lot of infrastructure supporting it, this is nothing but an ugly shelf.
So long as it isn't strangled in the crib by companies like GW, companies that may quite rightly fear for their future as a viable business in the face of replicator-like capabilities in the hands of the average consumer, it's entirely possible that 3D printing will revolutionize the world. For the first time in human history, it may be possible, both practically and economically, to provide the basics to every human being on the planet. But the infrastructure to support these systems is going to be massive, far beyond what we have in place now. Some jobs, some industries will fall by the wayside, like horse and buggy makers or telegraph operators did in their time. But there will still be jobs. We'll need people to build and run the power plants we'll need for all the computers designing the plans for all the 3D printers. We'll need a hugely expanded power delivery infrastructure, and a better network to handle all these plans zipping back and forth. And we'll still need roads, and sanitation, all the services governments provide to keep cities habitable. We'll need raw materials to put into these printers, since there's exactly no chance everyone will be one hundred percent efficient at recycling everything they use, and we're not yet at the point of being able to turn any element into any other with the push of a button. And we'll still need all sorts of services, be they cosmetic or financial or personal. There will still be hairdressers and barbers, restaurants with chefs and waiters and busboys, bankers and stock brokers, doctors and lawyers and teachers and firefighters and police officers and politicians. Possibly the overall amount of money being made will go down, but that's not a terrible thing; with the economy organized as it is right now, we largely have too little work for too many people. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if a person could earn a living wage with fifteen or twenty hours a week; more jobs to go around, more shifts to share, and of course, more free time. The productivity levels of the average worker have climbed incalculably from the Industrial Revolution to the present day, and there's no reason to assume they won't keep doing so; if we went from ten or twelve hours a day, seven days a week to eight hours a day five days a week, well, where's the harm in going down to six hours a day, three days a week, in the future? Rather than arbitrarily set employment at 'full time' levels, we could force the market to reorient around 'full wage' levels, leaving people capable of meeting their diminished economic needs in a shorter work week. And since so many of the post-3D printer jobs will be service based, rather than production based, the decline in hours-to-sufficiency is even better; a restaurant that's open ten hours, six days a week can employ a heck of a lot of people who only need three six-hour shifts a week to meed their needs.
3D printing, whether plastic or food or some future fabric-based system, is going to change the world. But it's going to do so in the same way, to the same extent, that the telephone, and the internet, and the steam engine changed the world; it's going to reorder the world that exists, not create a wholly new one. I look forward to a future where people work as hard as they want to, not as hard as they possibly can, because our material needs are so much less demanding than they are now. But I don't for a second imagine that this future will be some eternal utopian summer holiday; there will still be people with jobs, making money to buy things. What they buy may be different, and how they make their money may have changed, but the fundamental nature of the present system will not change overnight. There's just too much that goes into it for one alteration, no matter how potentially paradigm shifting, to upend it overnight.
Contrary to what some might think, this is not a synonym for 'new technology'.
Which isn't to say I wouldn't love living in a post-scarcity society. It's just that I'm confronted by the most basic problem of science-fiction, whether utopian or dystopian; I just can't see any way to get there, from here.