Tag Archives: actor network theory

print your own reality “a pixel at a time”

At the massive Consumer Electronics Expo in Las Vegas, two notable technologies are vying for attention. Both are iterations of the 3D printing craze that continues to blur the divide between cyberspace and “reality”.

(Replicator Industries – Makerbot example)

Arneb Sen┬árecently wrote on how life that crosses virtual and the physical boundaries raises new issues, and require fresh approaches in technology and culture. His piece mostly covers digital representations of physical things meshing into new interactions of human and computer, that change how we act, shop, and produce culture and technology – calling on Actor Network Theory to do so. Rather than digress into an agonising ANT critique, I just want to note that these 3D printers represent how the inverse of what Arneb sees coming has already arrived.

Rather than digital artefacts in the real world (i.e. augmented reality, geotagged objects, RFID Passports etc.) the ‘objects’ produced by 3D printers are physical artefacts from the digital world. And not just in the sense of they are born of CAD, but that they represent the network from whence they came – your digital world. They represent the simplest and most personal example yet of what Latour might describe as network actors. Looking at the simple plastic shape printed at your digital behest, Latour would first see it as “contained within itself with well-delineated edges and limits; [only to realise the] swarms of entities that seem to have been there all along but were not visible before and that appear in retrospect necessary for its sustenance.”

The two 3D printers on display for consumers to buy offer two very different models of production that poses open source against a traditional capitalism. Where the “makerbot” ships with thousands of designs and encourages an open community of sharing, its competitor the “Cube” offers apps for a price, one design at a time.

As homebrew designers mix, mangle and create various digital designs to be formed in plastic, and these capabilities increase, the politics involved highlight adversarial modes of producing not only objects, but the networks and societies behind them will come to the fore. Fancy the design of of a certain medical device? make one. Property law, which seems challenged enough in the purely digital world, will become increasingly murky in the blurred cyber-reality of replicators producing objects pixel by pixel. If these capabilities follow anything akin to Moore’s law, or even without such a trajectory still become as commonplace as the car, new ways of thinking about culture, technology and what ‘things’ are will be required indeed.