Saturday, January 21, 2012

Additive Manufacturing and Anarchist Political Economy

For me, anarchism and transhumanism have always blended together nicely, ever since I first found out about the two, when I was a junior in high school.  It's surprised me, then, that the two seem to be quite a bit at odds with one another in the public arena.  Few anarchists are transhumanists, and even fewer transhumanists seem to be anarchists.  One area where I think the two blend nicely will be explicated in this post.

Transhumanism is, broadly, about improving the human conditions through such rational methods as science and technology.  While this is usually thought of in terms of genetic engineering and cybernetics, transhumanism isn't exclusively about these technologies.  Transhumanists have written about many technologies; one major one being additive manufacturing, colloquially known as 3-D printing.

Perhaps the best way to understand additive manufacturing is by analogy with subtractive manufacturing, which is how we've been building objects for most of our history.  Subtractive manufacturing is simple:  take a big lump of whatever material you're using, then cut away pieces of it until it's in the shape you want.  Michelangelo, for example, took a lump of marble, and chiseled away until it looked like David.  This method, however, has its problems.  One such problem lies in its expense.  First, since you need a (relatively) big lump of material, some of which is going to be wasted, massive resources are needed to make it work.  Now, one of the achievements of the industrial revolution has been to pool these massive resources into these great centers of production called factories, but this doesn't change the fact that massive resources are needed.  Second, it requires huge, expensive assembly lines.  Again, we have centers of production dedicated to making and using these assembly lines, so it doesn't seem so expensive, but the cost is still enough to stifle innovation.  Nobody's going to pay for an assembly line to manufacture something that will only sell a few thousand copies; the expense is simply too much to be competitive.  As a result, people are less willing to invest in innovation, for fear that it doesn't sell very well.

The other major problem is that only one material can be worked with at a time, by definition.  This problem has become particularly annoying since the application of electronics, and especially today, where many things we use have some form of electronics integrated into them.  If we can build stuff using only one material at a time, then what if we want to incorporate electronics (made of silicon) into another material (usually some sort of plastic or ceramic)?  Well, the solution that we've come up with is to build separate pieces, so that we can make areas to enclose the electronics in.  But, for many modern objects, this set-up can be incredibly complicated, especially since every piece needs to be made separately, by a different process!  Of course, this is the reason that the assembly lines mentioned earlier are required.

So, given these downsides, the question remains:  is there a way to circumvent these problems, and create a new, more efficient way to build things?  Of course there is—there always is—but it requires switching gears, and abandoning subtractive manufacturing.

Enter additive manufacturing.  Whereas subtractive manufacturing takes a single large lump of material and takes pieces away from it (it subtracts them), additive manufacturing takes a bunch of small lumps of material and puts them together (or adds them).  This gives it certain advantages over its competitor, as we'll see later.  Now, additive manufacturing, in practice as well as in principle, isn't all that new—your Inkjet printer uses it all the time.  After all, it takes a bunch of tiny ink droplets, and puts them together in a meaningful pattern on a piece of paper to get you the printed page you want.  But these ink patterns are two-dimensional; we can certainly do better than that.

This is the theory behind the 3-D printer.  Just like a computer can send instructions to an Inkjet printer to recreate a two-dimensional pattern, that same computer could, in principle, send instructions to a different type of machine in order to recreate a three-dimensional pattern.  As astounding as the concept sounds, these printers already exist.  Admittedly, they are still in their infancy, but they do exist, and they've made much progress since their inception.  In 2000, the best "3-D printers" couldn't actually print in 3-D; they worked by creating several sheets of paper which were then glued together (later models could do the gluing themselves).  Now, however, they're at the state where they can take bits of material, and place them down, piece by piece and layer by layer, in the desired shape; adding whatever sort of adhesive is required.  It's a common misconception that the number of materials that 3-D printers can currently use is limited; on the contrary, the sum total of 3-D printers out there can print a wide range of materials, such as titanium, a wide range of different plastics, several metals, wood, etc. (see here for a list of materials usable by the RepRap alone).  However, the coming of two materials in particular will likely make the utility of 3-D printers skyrocket.

The first such material is silicon.  Although, to my knowledge, nobody has made a 3-D printer use silicon (finding such things is difficult given the popular confusion between silicon and silicone), there seems to be no a priori reason they couldn't (especially given that certain metals are already useable for 3-D printing).  If a 3-D printer can print using silicon, however, then integrated circuits can be made.  3-D printers can already make wires out of copper, but integrated circuits require the use of a semiconductor such as silicon.  As integrated circuits are used in computer microchips, it seems that the use of this material will be a huge step towards being able to print entire computers.  Another material, which has similar conductive properties to silicone, is graphene.  Since the RepRap list of materials already contains carbon fiber (which is somewhat similar to graphene), this isn't completely out of the question, either.  Since computers are so ubiquitous in our lives nowadays, the usage of either of material will make additive manufacturing much more useful.

The second material is stem cells.  That's right, stem cells.  Although Organovo doesn't actually refer to their device as a 3-D printer (instead preferring to call it a "bioprinter"), the device performs the same function as any 3-D printer, but using stem cells as their material; the correct 3-D shape of the configuration desired is achieved using a form of scaffolding.  The stem cells can then be "told" to become the correct kind of cell (or they could stay stem cells).  The most obvious application of this technology is the ability to "print" organs for people or animals, thus eliminating the need for transplants.  Many surgeries could, indeed, benefit from this technology, from sex reassignment surgery to ear shaping, since you could print the required tissue and implant that, thus allowing for a more complete surgery.

Yet, that isn't the end of the usefulness of bioprinters.  After all, if you can print out any organ, what's stopping anyone from printing many foods?  Many types of food that we consume are based off certain organs from other species.  Not only would this make food a lot cheaper, it would be a much more humane way of getting meat than raising animals for slaughter.  So, if these printers can be made affordable, then this could go a long way to helping with world hunger.

But that's just the problem, isn't it?  Wouldn't these printers have to be expensive, for all the power that they have?  Even if they weren't, wouldn't the corporations that get their hands on these things charge insane prices for them?  Surprisingly, the answer is probably no.  Yes, every corporation is going to try to get their hands on them; and yes, they will do whatever they can to squeeze the most profit they can get, and to prevent the working class from getting their hands on any real power over these devices.  Yet, they have another factor to contend with.

Enter the RepRap.  Now, this isn't the only do-it-yourself or open source printer, by any stretch of the imagination.  It is unique, however, in aspiring to be a self-replicating printer.  Now, it hasn't quite gotten to the point where it can print every single one of its parts, but it does advance that number with each new model (the current version is at about 50%, not counting simple things like nuts and bolts).  When this model does manage it, the price of making it will implode.  Think about it:  not only can you print the parts of one for yourself, you can also print and build one for your friends, who might not be quite as good at building stuff as you are.  It's this desire to share with each other that has led to the music industry pulling their hair out, and in the future, it'll do the same with many more people.

After all, the 3-D printer is basically a factory.  A common analogy with regular printers is that they basically represent an entire printing press and photo lab, which you can basically run in your own home.  Likewise, the 3-D printer is similar to running a factory in your own home.  Another thing to keep in mind is that this renders the concept of a "store" obsolete.  Now, you do need the materials that the printer will use to make the goods, and you need energy to power them.  These things, among others, will have to be supplied by other means than by do-it-yourself additive manufacturing.

This leads into how anarchist political economy will be affected by these developments.  My contention is that it will, to some extent, render obsolete all the current theories, i.e. individualism, collectivism, communism, syndicalism, and mutualism.  Remember that differences in economic conditions are not trivial; the difference between 19th-century France and early 20th-century United States was the difference between Proudhon and Tucker, and therefore between mutualism and individualism.  Similar for mutualism vs. collectivism.  Likewise, the changes in economic conditions created by additive manufacturing will likely see the rise of new theories, and possibly the death of old ones.

For example, collectivism, syndicalism and communism advocate that the means of production be owned by the community.  However, when we have machines that can mass-produce goods that can be owned by individual people, then that idea seems rather silly; if individuals can own the means of production, without any chance of exploitation, then there's really no need to collectivize them.  Yet, the contention of market anarchists that these goods are exchanged through a market seem equally unnecessary, at least in the realm of physical goods:  if each person can produce anything that their materials can make, then there's no need to exchange them.

Economies of scale—that is, the principle that firms can cut costs by expanding—will also be undermined by additive manufacturing, since it is no longer true.  If goods can be produced on your desktop, then a firm wouldn't gain anything more by expanding.

But then, what will follow from this?  Before I give my answer, I should give the disclaimer that I'm almost certainly going to be wrong; such a revolutionary idea as this will probably have implications that I'm missing, here.  The Economist puts it pretty well, here.

Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did [...] Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches.

So, predicting exactly what future anarchist economic theories will look like will be difficult, just like it would've been difficult to predict the then-future capitalist economic theories before the industrial revolution.  With that in mind, what do I think?  Well, the first thing to realize is that while physical goods can be made via additive manufacturing, intellectual ones cannot.  In order for a 3D printer to work, it needs information telling it how to build the good in question, just like an inkjet printer needs instructions for how to create a given pattern.  This means that the economy should shift from one focused on goods to one focused on ideas—indeed, we can already see this shift into an economy based on services and ideas, at least in the United states.  This happened even without widespread additive manufacturing, and its rise should shift the economy even more radically.  In other words, the anarchist economist will need to base his analysis of how an anarchist society would work more on ideas than on physical goods.  Of course, most anarchists are advocates of open source, so there's certainly a lot of common ground for such economists to build on.

However, it's not the case that all physical goods will be able to be kept on the individual level.  Examples of goods that cannot be so reduced are the raw materials and most forms of transportation.  Energy probably also falls into this category, but I won't completely dismiss the possibility of technologies such as nanogenerators being able to help with this.  The raw materials cannot be produced by additive manufacturing at all, because they are required for additive manufacturing in the first place.  Transportation might be able to be printed, but its nature probably makes it more practical for some forms; such as buses, airplanes, metro systems, and roads (lmao); to be produced outside the home.  This raises a question for the anarchist economist to answer:  who, or what institutions, will own and supervise the manufacturing of these goods?

This is where it gets particularly speculative, but I think that co-operative organizations (that is, firms run by its members rather than some controlling hierarchy of bosses and shareholders) are better suited for this purpose than collective ownership (as advocated by communists and collectivists) or more private firms (as advocated by many individualist anarchists).  It's already well-established in economics that they function more efficiently than other firms, and so they can be used to produce what can't be produced by individuals.  So, though the economy is based on ideas, the physical goods are mostly produced on an individual scale, but those that cannot be are produced by co-ops.  Where have we heard this before?  Well, Proudhon wanted "[...] the mines, canals, [and] railways handed over to democratically organised workers' associations," i.e., co-operatives.  This is exactly what I've been saying here.

This is partially why I place my own views on political economy as "closest to mutualism."  Although mutualism, like other theories, may not survive the new technology, its tenets are closest to my own view on what will survive it, and what a truly post-capitalist economy will look like.  But, there's another anarchist who had views that seem relevant here; namely William Godwin.  In his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, he argued that while the economic system would be that of a free market, the people would give it away, at least if they were rational (this charity would be based on how useful the person in question is to society, but that's not really relevant here), to those in need.  This is perfectly consistent with what I've been saying here, since RepRap printers can be given away easily to those who cannot build them, and also since intellectual goods are generally assumed to be free (as in free speech, not necessarily as in free lunch).

~Ian