Liam Young, 17 04 13

Like industrialization and mass production before it 3d printing has the ability to transform our world beyond recognition. But, with a backlash against the nascent technology already underway, it remains to be seen whether the future will be wondrous or dystopic. For ICON Magazine’s issue 118 on 3d Printing Liam Young has speculated on the consequences of this technology  from the scale of the cell to the scale of the planet. An extract of the article is below.

In September 2003 a single grain of sand was sucked up from the bottom of the ocean and shot out of the nozzle of a GPS controlled dredging barge. This particle changed state, from a nonspecific sand bar drifting endlessly with the currents of the Persian Gulf to the foundation layer of a terraformed island that would become a part of The World Dubai. It is a 3d printed artificial archipelago formed, grain by grain, into a scaled facsimile of the globe. The original world it is modelled after consists of such immense quantities of matter that make it possible to form an endless constellations of artefacts. The story of a particle of material laid down, accreting, aggregating, fusing and assembling is the story of these structures and their altered states. When we can print such structures, layer by layer, particle by particle we can reorder the world, from the very small to the very large.

The new world of 3d printing is not here yet. The hype however has already arrived. Some are swept up in what the new world could be, others are sceptical and look on with caution or disinterest. It is a technology upon which we project all our wonder and anxiety and the debates say more about ourselves than they do about the technology. In his state of the union address President Obama placed his hopes for new American jobs on 3d printing technology which “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything”. Vast repositories of TED talks present the same lampshades, customized shoes, iphone cases, Stradivarius violins, ball point pens, key rings and plastic models of the statue of David.

It is a technology in transition. It is a before the laws technology, developed without regulation, without big corporate, in the wilds of garage hack shops and maker fares and we still don’t really know what it will all mean. It is an impossible question to answer but it is just as seductive as it was when it was asked of the personal computer in 1977. The role of the PC was not understood until across time people found unexpected uses for it, like email, word processing video games and the internet. Architects once speculated on the impacts of industrialisation and then mass production. It is not until you push back against the systems of control that they reveal themselves. From the very small to the very large, from the banal to the fantastic, micrometre by micrometre we can remake the world.

Down the fibre are beamed bootleg files filled with glitches, 3d spam and junk mail. We awake in the morning to the whirring, buzzing sounds of our kitchen desktop printer spitting out late night porn ‘physible’s (Pirate Bay defines ‘physibles’ as data objects that are able and feasible to become physical), unwanted object ads and 3d pizza delivery flyers. Objects are laser scanned and printed, shared, scanned, printed, over and over and resolution slowly erodes, not from thousands of years of wind and rain but from minor imperfections, discrepancies and data decay multiplied with each cycle. They are fuzzy objects, slightly out of focus, like Chinese whispers, forever distanced from the original. Luxury is resolution. We find decadence in smoothness, delivered by expensive clean data and long, time consuming prints. The man who stands to make the most money from 3d printing is notorious patent troll and future master of the universe Nathan Myhrvold and his company Intellectual Ventures. They own the patent for a Digital Rights Management (DRM) system for 3d objects. 3d printing began with maker hobbyists but that may not prevent it from being co opted by a small number of very large entities. Walter Benjamin’s aura of the original may become nothing more than patent documentation or DRM protection. Just like Metallica’s Napster attacks we will see Zaha file claims against Shapeways for publishing pirate vases and counterfeit couches.

The house and in turn the city may be a dense mashup of google earth models and Grand Design house proud scanners. Fragments of a favourite window can be cut up, recomposed and reprinted in situ. We could grow an architecture superstar Chimera. Someone turns down the polygon count on a digital model of Zaha’s double curvature Guangzhou Opera House to give it a bit of the circa 1980’s faceted and angular Vitra Fire Station look. Her Wangjing Soho Towers already have a pirated clone in Chongqing that is outpacing the construction of the original.   Architourists will pilgrimage across the new world with their laser scanners to scavenge the point cloud of iconic structures and bring them back to an architectural salvage yard of millimetre perfect pieces of plastic history. Last season’s suburbs are melted down and reprinted as the city endlessly remakes itself in an accelerated history. Something between Kowloon Walled City and a Rio favela the 3d printed city is a seething reprogrammable urban mass of recontextualised fragments and geological material processes.

Huge expanses of landscape will be given over to recycle yards where material will be ground up and processed ready to be reprinted. Just as we smelted cutlery for the war effort, nothing is precious anymore and everything is a new object in waiting. Shape and form is just a temporary moment in the life of a material. The lifespan of any object shrinks to zero across a long enough timeline but in the 3d printed world this is an accelerated process of obsolescence and reclamation. We used to understand a product because it was made in specific place. It came from a site with the appropriate raw materials, a viable labour market or the necessary technology. In the new world the line between production and supply essentially disappears and anything can be made in everywhere.

We see accelerated geologies where GPS controlled landscape printers drift across the earth crafting in a morning what rivers and wind completed in a millennia. Laser scanned reproductions of iconic landscapes are terraformed in extreme resolution off the coast of Dubai. Boutique hotels and gated communities line the inside of their 1/3rd scale Grand Canyon. It is a theme park of synthetic copies, a reordered landscape at the scale of Google earth. Famous reefs are scanned and duplicated to reproduce perfect point break surf spots. Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii, Fiji’s Cloudbreak are printed along dead coastlines to spark tourist development and engineer resort growth. Like the planet engineers of Magrathea in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy we will remake our own planet and then begin to print other worlds spinning off into orbit.

United States Patent Application 20100281850 is for a rocket that prints its own solid fuel. We can launch our assembly line into space to drift like satellites, always on call, printing the night sky. Hubble could have been fabricating multiple versions of itself. Programmed to reproduce, this hurtling fleet of fab labs could build our space stations in advance of our arrival. A moonbase, printed autonomously from the recomposed material of its own surface would lie in wait. From this vantage point we can see that the recombination of matter in micrometres can have consequences at the scale of the globe.

Like any technology 3d printing is open to misuse, exploitative regulations and tedious banality but it also holds the possibility of something wondrous, profound and unexpected. The future scenarios’ being debated are no more than evidence of the collective fears and anxieties, hopes and desires that we all carry with us through the everyday. It is a technology that is both exceedingly strange and achingly familiar. As we look down from this 3d printed satellite hurtling through space we can see a technology that is beginning to reorder our world but it us that are remaining the same.

All images by Daniel Dociu and developed for Under Tomorrows Sky

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