3D Printing is no longer Utopian – in more ways than one

This post offers some expanded thoughts from the short piece I recently had published in The New York Times‘ Room for Debate.

To understand how the claims of 3-D printing technologies are utopian, the past myth of the “paperless office” is instructive. The paperless office was reported as a digital revolution in waiting by Business Week in 1975.

Interestingly, the questions that were being asked in 1975 of what digital, paperless work world would look like, are quite similar to questions now being asked about 3D printing.

From 1975:

Can desktop terminals be made “friendly” enough so that executives will use them? Should a lot of powerful machines be moved together with central libraries and thus break up traditional working relationships?

Today, relevant questions include:

Can desktop 3D printer software and hardware be made ‘friendly’ enough so that most people will use them? Should a lot of powerful printers be decentralised out to libraries, or even personal homes, and thus break up traditional working & manufacturing relationships?

When thinking about the answers to those questions, remember that the paperless office was a flop, and still hasn’t turned out as hoped. Sellen and Harper’s book on the myth of the paperless office shows that, back in 2000 at least, email use actually causes an average 40 percent increase in paper consumption within an organisation.

Today, U.S. businesses continue to consume more paper than they did in 1975, while an average office worker must also now deal with over 100 emails per day.


It seems the purported benefits of the paperless office were indefinitely delayed via accelerating flows of information and the birth of desktop publishing.

Three-dimensional printing’s utopian claims of benefit are more grandiose than the paperless office. 3D Printing advocates (and I often find myself within this tent) hope that ultra-efficient use of materials and highly decentralised production models will create broad financial, environmental and social benefits. Material and supply chain costs — both monetary and environmental — are drastically reduced by printing “whatever you need” from home. And at home, libertarians and “free culture” types alike are excited to wrestle centralised control of the (actual) means of production away from corporations and governments and into communities.

But that utopian vision misses some key signs of what is to come. Remixing digital economies of abundance with physical economies — that have historically been understood in terms of scarcity — is messy. The production and consumption patterns of digital goods follow a very different logic than physical goods. For a preview, ask a digital-native how many new apps or videos they’ve sampled (and pictures or snapchats produced) in the last day. Or hour.

What this means in the context of manufacturing is that for whatever amount 3-D printing successfully lowers barriers of instant manufacture, it also reduces friction for conspicuous consumption. An example: How quickly will children grow tired of their current plaything if the newest-bestest-nextest is just a click-and-print away? So, although 3-D printing may lessen commercial consumption, a homemade flood of discarded objects still might be on route to our landfills.

Recycling consumer 3-D printed objects is possible. However, the laws of physics, and economies of abundance make it quite likely that measures of production will increase more quickly than the measures of efficiency. 3D printers do not make something from nothing – no matter what Cpt. Jean Luc Picard taught us. Thus, even with the highly increased efficiency of 3D printed manufactured goods, and in fact because of it, the increased amount of production will create a net environmental loss.

As one last dour note, the 3-D printing recycling schemes that do exist already show familiar patterns of global inequality. For instance, social entrepreneurs suggest certifying “ethical” 3-D printing filaments that are sourced in developing nations. In this scheme, low-caste labourers pick through landfills looking for plastic scraps to sell back to the ‘ethical’ filament company. This scheme encourages the the least fortunate pick for subsistence so that the booming global demand for self-manufactured trinkets can be appeased. If the hyper-local 3-D printing revolution cometh, its design might leave the globe swimming in plastic.

In short, Utopian visions of new technologies never work out as imagined, and often create unimagined consequences. Why do we think 3-D printing will be different?


(Special thanks to Robbie Fjordyce, Peter Woodbridge, and Andy Sellars & everyone else at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society for guidance and inspiration. I first published an environmental critique of 3D printing on The Conversation).