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The Maker Movement, 3D Printing, and the Decentralization of the Means of Production

By Stuart C.

In our culture we often think about “technology” and how it will make our lives easier, more fun, or even longer. But rarely do we think about how it will shift and change our cultural structure itself. This post is going to be about how technology, if allowed to advance and permeate through society unhindered, will change societal organization. Whether that is a good or a bad change is up to you.

The maker movement has always been a hotbed of innovation, stemming largely from the necessity of individuals to both create meaning in their lives and to provide for themselves in the most economical way possible. While huge corporations with giant R&D budgets and high-tech testing facilities, or powerful governments with their secretive government contracts, are often credited with inventing amazing new gadgets, they are not the true innovators, but rather rely on artificial monopolies on information granted from patent laws or claims of “top-secret”-ness in the interest of “national security” to be able to innovate faster than individuals in their basements. The meaningful innovation of the maker movement is fueled not by huge budgets, but rather by the same passion and curiosity that drove Orville and Wilbur Wright to Kitty Hawk.

Now the significance of this motivation may seem irrelevant; who cares why someone made your climbing gear so long as it works well, or your new entertainment system as long as it is bigger and better than your neighbors? But this motivation effects much more than just the end product, but also its dissemination into society. If you built a new product because you were passionate about it and didn’t care about making profits on patent-protected goods; you are going to both build a better product, and you are going to want as many people to have access to it, regardless of profit. You also are not going to develop things that offer little to no societal good, such as nuclear weapons or computers that need to be replaced every year. This passion shows through in some larger companies, such as Patagonia, but it is most visible in the maker community where members freely share their plans and processes openly, often taking time to provide detailed tutorials to strangers with no expectation of monetary reward. Rather they are intrinsically motivated by knowing that their knowledge is serving to help other people in the world.

The maker community has long been sharing knowledge within itself, but it is with the advent of cheap communications technology, namely the internet, that the dissemination of useful information has become incredibly prolific. This dissemination of information made many successful small businesses possible, and yet did little to change the structure of manufacturing. But that is soon going to change.

Check out the following video on 3D printing:

 

3D printing is the next step in this expansion of knowledge and possibility, and the keystone for the next paradigm of social structure. Coupled with the internet, 3D printing has the potential to make every home a production plant; effectively decentralizing the means of production, and really putting it into the hands of the people (something Karl Marx dreamt of, although likely in not such a form as 3D printing). As home 3D printing technology advances, driven by the passion and the economic constraints of the maker community, environmentally-friendly and economical solutions to everyday problems will be created and built upon by other, passionately involved individuals. Consequentially these individually motivated solutions will act to improve the community as a whole.

By empowering individuals to produce their own goods, while accessing the entirety of human knowledge and capabilities (through open source designs and the internet), we will cut down on transportation and transaction costs, disincentivize the pollution of communities through production (as production will happen in the same place as living) and make a better world for ourselves and our children (and their children). Centralized power will crumble and decentralized methods of community organization will replace the current top-down paradigm of organization. Giant stockpiles of capital (which tend to create large negative externalities) will become useless, inefficient, and unable to adapt to a rapidly changing production landscape.

But, it is not all sunshine and rainbows; the empowerment of individuals comes with responsibilities, and risks. Individuals will be given more choices about what they produce and consume. While most may agree that 3D printing an environmentally friendly pair of shoes is a great thing, what about 3D printing of firearms?

 

Do the positives of personal empowerment and strengthened communities through the decentralization of the means of production outweigh the potential for misuse of this power? What if the current power structure is ineffective at preventing this misuse? What if the current structure is propagating this misuse?

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