3D printers (ie, three-dimensional, since they work by adding layers of material one on top of the other) are beginning to generate a lot of comments. They suggest potentially important changes in the way of making a range of everyday objects. But this is not the only possibility. Certainly, there are technical and economic implications, but beyond this, there could also be more structural and far-reaching political effects. It is these effects that this contribution aims to explore.
These technical developments, combining digital design and new modes of automated production, open spaces for experimentation, which are for the moment mainly visible in communities of technophile tinkerers like “fab labs” (“fabrication laboratories”) and “hackerspaces”. But, since these tools are designed to be eventually accessible to the broader public, it would be useful to look beyond the still experimental nature of these initiatives. One can indeed make the hypothesis that changes in the political realm, and potentially profound changes, can also occur by the accumulation of dispersed practices even if they appear merely technical (just as computer connections over the Internet have not only opened up new possibilities of communication, but also catalyzed political changes).
Beyond the economic impacts that are beginning to be studied more often, it is this potential to transform the political order that also deserves consideration, especially insomuch as such an evolution could be even felt on a global scale. It is not a question of merely saying that there are political elements in technologies, which is now commonly accepted, but that some contain potentialities for change which go beyond their designers and the importance of which will be revealed in their conditions of actualization. It is precisely a question of identifying these potentialities and analyzing them, specifically as material factors that can also have political effects.
The register in which 3D printing has developed is not really one of frontal resistance against the dominant terms of the economic system, but the latter could nevertheless find itself destabilized. This type of new technology seems to offer renewed capacities (control and mastery of the techniques used, unlocking of desires of creativity, etc.) for individuals or communities, especially the possibility of putting these capacities in social spaces that appeared to have been dispossessed of them. Could this be seen as a new form of empowerment by technology?
If each person can make, rather than buy, many of the objects he or she needs, then these new tools can bring current ways of life out of a massive industrial model dependent on large production units. They seem to reveal new patterns of production and consumption, and therefore potentially different relationships between individuals and commodities. For individuals, such a technology could thus represent a way of reducing their dependence on the industrial system. In addition, this technology, which is also designed so that some machines can become self-replicating, makes the presence of certain intermediaries almost unnecessary, including commercial intermediaries or logistics services.
If we examine them from Ivan Illich’s inspiration, these additive manufacturing technologies appear to provide autonomization possibilities, or at least they can give margins of autonomy. This method of personalized manufacturing allows the passivity to which the consumer has often been subjected to be circumvented, by reopening or broadening of spaces for creativity. The anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin, who, as part of his project of “social ecology” sought to show that some technologies can have a “liberatory potential”, may have seen there an example of those machines allowing to bring the production away from increasingly imposing industrial apparatuses and to free up individuals to do or complete other tasks than stultifying and binding work. With this decentralized mode of production, which is a priori suited to individual needs, we can also assume that the utility value could tend to prevail over the exchange value, since anyone can make the desired object and that the exchange becomes superfluous (except perhaps when special characteristics must be added).
The potentialities of this type of technology are also linked to the social bases on which it grows. A large part of its development is indeed favoured by collaborations in networks, which allow individuals, again thanks to the Internet, to exchange and share ideas, and compare experiences. It thus has a strong rhizomatic potential, in the way it can spread (thanks to advances in the digital world), but also in the way it can challenge installed hierarchies and subordinations. The change would be possible not by an impetus from economic or political hierarchies, but diffusely, with a technology enabling new practices which, when generalized, could themselves have systemic effects. Thanks to the techniques developed, capacities seem to be given back to communities, like those that have qualified themselves as “makers”.
It is possible to imagine that the scope of these transformations can be global. Indeed, the space of flows (to use the notion of Manuel Castells) and the organization of these flows, both for materials and productions made possible, can be upset by the generalization of such tools, all the more so if they are accompanied by premises like fab labs becoming commonplace in everyday environments. If 3D printing tools bring the productions of objects back on more decentralized bases, it is likely to become difficult to speak of international division of labor. This type of technology, whose cost seems in fact to be decreasing, may make industrial infrastructures obsolete and can help redistribute economic power. It is obviously too early to say whether such tools can bring a halt to economic globalization, but at least we can assume they can contribute to dynamics of relocalization and reduction in the volume of international trade. From this point of view, one could compare this technology to an innovation such as the container, but with almost opposite effects. Additive manufacturing can contribute to further destabilization of hierarchies of scale, but in distinct forms, even adverse to those that could have occurred with globalization.
In order not to yield to technological messianism, we should however be aware of the obstacles that the diffusion of these technologies is likely to meet, starting with those posed by the various actors who have opposite interests to their development, and those resulting from ecological constraints and the availability of resources. Of course, this technology is not yet fully developed, but it would not be judicious to neglect it on the grounds of its uncertain future, for it could have a larger impact than the current experiments and techy craft projects that its designers and users are for the moment producing and trying to make work. These conceivable potentialities are all the more challenging to analyze that they revive questions about interrelationships between what is technical and what is political, including how technical advances can expand political capacities, possibly on a worldwide scale.
 In line with the reflections of Langdon Winner, “Do artifacts have politics?”,Daedalus, vol. 109, n° 1, 1980, pp. 121-136, reprinted in The Whale and the Reactor. A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986. See also Geoffrey L. Herrera, “Technology and International Systems”, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, vol. 32, n° 3, December 2003, pp. 559-593.
 See Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, London, Marion Boyars, 2001.
 See “Towards a liberatory technology”, in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Montreal/Buffalo, Black Rose Books, 1986.
 See “The Space of Flows”, in The Rise of the Network Society, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
 See Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2008.
 For a comparison with dynamics that can be relaled to globalization, see Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2006.
Yannick Rumpala is Maître de conférences in Political Science at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, where he teaches public policy. He has written books and articles on various aspects of environmental policies and sustainable development. In line with his exploration of the political potentialities of network thinking (see “Knowledge and praxis of networks as a political project,” 21st Century Society, Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences, 4(3), November 2009), he is now working on ways to rebuild alternative solutions outside market and state regulation.
The themes of this post were included in a longer presentation at the Millenium annual conference, “Materialism and World Politics” (London School of Economics and Political Science, October 20-21, 2012). The text can be downloaded here.
Want to dig deeper? Read Yannick’s paper “Knowledge and praxis of networks as a political project”