Desktop Fabrication: Blurring the Distinction Between the Physical and the Virtual

I wrote this essay for a computer ethics class. The main focus of the class was the need for computer ethics. The primary argument for this thesis was the newness of action inherent in the information age. After thinking about this for quite some time I realized that 3D printing could move some of this newness from the strictly virtual world to the physical reality we know.


The information age has greatly changed the way we interact with the world around us, but its greatest effects have so far been relegated to a virtual world. The separation of the digital from the physical is being bridged more everyday. We can already witness some of this change in the abstracted idea of monetary wealth and its benefits finding a thriving ecosystem in the digital landscapes. The mass produced consumer goods we see in a store are replicated to a precision that would not be possible without the existence of computer technology. As the ability to fabricate goods becomes cheaper and the skill level needed to use the technology becomes increasingly lower there will be a shift of the centralized power over the means of production to a more diffused power. With the power in the hands of the many the ability to make and share goods will create a physical equivalent to the digital piracy we see today, but it will have a much greater impact on how westerners view property. As the digital creations begin to acquire physical counterparts so to may the artificial intelligences of today. Like the personal computer desktop fabrication will change the way humanity interacts, and it will call into question many of the long term beliefs that westerners have as to what exactly a physical object is.

In Das Kapital, Karl Marx argues that the power that the capitalists have over the laborers is their access to the means of production. The industrial revolution brought about wondrous advances in technology. The technology that had the greatest benefit was expensive and not attainable by every person that wished to benefit from it. Thus, the power to create new objects and shape the world was in the hands of the few. Marx envisioned a system that would create a more equalized balance of access to the power that production held. Unfortunately, the lack of access would always leave someone wanting, because the machinery was so rare (Marx).

Humanity now has on the horizon ubiquitous access to the means of production. Forty years ago computers were relegated only to large government and academic institutions. Now, computers are in almost every household in the western world. With advances in technology and it’s ever dropping price it is not unreasonable to believe that soon most people will be able to have access to small scale fabrication that produces products like those that come out of factories overseas. In his book, FAB: The Coming Revolution On Your Desktop – From Personal Computer to Personal Fabrication, MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld states, “the essential step between mainframes and PCs was minicomputes, and a similar sequence is happening along the way to personal fabrication (Gershenfeld, 10). Like the personal computer, desktop fabrication will quite suddenly be available to many.

There are many benefits to this new access to technology. The opportunity for individuals to explore and create will greatly enrich many. Just as the digital media on the Internet has provided access to a wealth of information so to will desktop fabrication provide practical experiences with physical objects. If someone wanted to learn how a radio worked they could not only read about it on-line, but also design and fabricate a working radio in the comfort of their home. Instead of relying on second hand accounts individuals would be able to actually experience an object immediately. This increased access has the potential to positively impact many.

The ease of access also can have a negative effect that alienates those that use it. This appears in some users of virtual spaces as they remove themselves from the physical world and spend much time in the virtual world. If many objects can be instantly had in your home there will be less reason for some to go out and interact in more traditional ways. The individual could become divorced from reality living instead in a sort of hyper consumerism where wants and needs are fulfilled by objects instead of people. Of course, we have some of this today in our culture, but desktop fabrication could exaggerate the negative effects of this type of lifestyle.

If we look however to the effects on our society as a whole it becomes clear that desktop fabrication will bring about more ingenuity and eccentricity. The current model for creating consumer goods makes it uneconomical to create an object that few people would have interest in. Desktop fabrication changes this and makes it possible to create high quality items with only a single print. There is no need to order thousands of the item. Instead the individual will be able to create a customized item that perfectly fits their needs. This will allow most people to have items that our tailored for them individually instead of the common denominator of the society at large.

With the power no longer in the hands of the few the means to create will instead be in the hands of the many. The power inherent in the means of production will no longer be as centralized and institutionalized. Instead the means of production will be diffused amongst the populace. While this can cause greater alienation it can also enrich our lives. It is important that a balance is struck between this loss of self and growth of self.

The information age has brought humanity the ability to make near infinite perfect copies of digital information. This has created a division in the concept of property. On the one hand there is intellectual property. The property that is made up of purely ideas. Then there is private property which is a physical object for which someone has ownership. Desktop fabrication will greatly blur the line between the idea and the reality, and it will also therefore adjust what we now define as purely intellectual property and private property.

The first way that desktop fabrication will change the way we interact with objects is the speed at which the good can be produced. Currently when we want an item produced it takes months of planning and communication before one ends up with the final product. Home fabrication will greatly reduce that speed to a limit only restricted by the creativity of the individual and the speed of the technology. The computing power of PCs continues to exponentially grow over time. Professor Gershenfeld addresses this when he says, “a relatively modest facility can be used to create physical forms as fine as microns and program logical functions as fast as microseconds” (Gershenfeld, 11). We can assume then that the growth in speed will be reflected in the speed of desktop fabrication as well. Eventually we will end up with a computer technology that can fabricate a complex object nearly instantly. The value of an object is at least partially dependent on its scarcity. With the ability of instantaneous reproduction that value that we currently ascribe to the effort and time that went into an objects creation will be greatly reduced.

Neil Gershenfeld doesn’t only speak of the speed increasing he also points out the increase in precision. Like the paintings of the artist Andy Warhol, the production of goods that would otherwise be considered unique or authentic could be infinitely reproduced with computer precision. This can be very handy in the case of a tool. However, reproductions could be made of works of art like the Mona Lisa. What would be the difference between the original and the reproduction? One could argue that the difference is in the fact that Leonardo De Vinci physically interacted with one and not the other. At some point however the reproduction could get so exact that it would be impossible to tell the difference.

We see an example of this exact reproduction in the fashion industry. One designer makes a few extremely rare and high priced articles of clothing, and others take the design and mass produce it with a quality that is nearly impossible to distinguish from the original. However, we have already seen that the current means to mass produce goods are in the hands of the few, and desktop fabrication will diffuse this power. So, the only conclusion is that this new ability for many to make near perfect copies will be an act that has no current parallel.

The average westerner will have the ability to obtain a replica of any object that is publicly viewable. Like digital piracy, the information a desktop fabricator would need to make an object can be stored on a computer hard drive. This will allow pirates to not only share the newest pop music album, but also the physical device to play it on. A consumer in a store could see an item for sale, but instead choose to print a replica of the item at their house. Once the information to create that item is sold to one individual that information can be shared infinitely across the Internet.

Many of the issues we currently face with software piracy will be present in the physical object piracy of the near future. Where will the line between intellectual property and physical property be drawn? Does the physical property only exist in ones right to be able to create a physical manifestation of their intellectual property? Perhaps it is the other way around, and one is limited in their intellectual property by what they have the physical manifestations of. Either way, the concept of the authentic physical item will be lost, and instead we will only have ideas and their representations.

Ideas need not only manifest themselves as object. Some ideas are equations or answers to questions. There is not as clear of a link between these ideas and any physical creation that benefits from them as there is with the production of consumer grade items. One such example of the hard to physically manifest idea is artificial intelligence. Confined to the virtual world, artificial intelligence is the “computer player” in video games, the help center on your computer, and the programming that decides what you really meant when you search for something on the world wide web. The fact that any type of intelligence could be printed out at your desk seems quite silly at first, but not so silly when one looks at the possibility of intelligence laden items.

There is some evidence of this laden intelligence in consumer items currently. Targeted advertising uses information about the consumer to intelligently serve ads that they are most likely to react positively to. At the supermarket after a shopper scans their unique shopper ID card the shopper is served with ads based off of their purchases in an attempt to entice them to return at a later date. On-line retailers serve these ads live as the customer shops. When items are fabricated on demand these two worlds meet. The result is a level of artificial intelligence that assists in the design of what is made. As most users of the desktop fabrication tools will not be expert craftsmen theses artificial intelligences will be needed to make some of the design decisions for us.

If the artificial intelligence can create items, and items can be laden with intelligence then items should be able to create items. Case and point a desktop fabricator is an item that creates items. So, can a desktop fabricator create a desktop fabricator? In fabricator hobbyist circles one of the categories of fabricators they build is called a RepRap (Reproducing Rapid Fabricator). These RepRap machines are machines that can fabricate replicas of themselves. In the computer world viruses are a type of malicious information that can replicate itself. It is possible then that a hacker could create a virus that manifests itself in the physical world. While viruses in the virtual reality of the Internet can be very detrimental the impact of a physical manifestation of a similar virus could be much worse.

Good or bad it is quite possible that artificial intelligence will have more of an impact than human intelligence. If we take for a fact that artificial intelligence can make design decisions and that intelligence laden objects can produce objects then it follows that intelligent objects could create new objects. With the speed and precision of computing power growing exponentially the artificially intelligent producers will be able to incrementally improve upon themselves generation after generation with increasing speed. This will result in what many computer scientists and futurists refer to as the technological singularity. A point in time when an artificial intelligence that humans create is able to create a more intelligent machine then itself. The result will be an explosion in the growth of artificial intelligence (Good, 31-88).

This new age of blended idea with realization will greatly change our understanding of what a physical object is. The ability of many to have the means to produce objects will restructure how our society interacts on a fundamental level. The very physicality of an object will no longer be enough to claim that it is authentic. The idea and the physical result of that idea will be extremely blurred. Ideas of ownership will be greatly skewed as anyone can create objects with the help of artificially intelligent fabricators. The artificial intelligence soon may not even need our help as it designs the world that we will live in in the future. A future where the virtual and the physical are no longer distinct.

Works Cited

Gershenfeld, Neil. Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop–from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. New York: Basic Books, 2007. Print.

Good, Irving John. “Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine*.” Internet Archive: Wayback Machine. Trinity College, Oxford. England and Atlas Computer Laboratory, Chilton, Berkshire, England, 1 May 1964. Web. 7 Aug. 2010. <http://web.archive.org/web/20010527181244/http://www.aeiveos.com/~bradbury/Authors/Computing/Good-IJ/SCtFUM.html&gt;.

Marx, Karl. Das Kapital: A Critique of Political Economy. New York: Gateway Edition, 1965. Print.

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