I recently visited Whisk, a Manhattan kitchenware store, and next to the register was a strange new device: a 3D printer. The store bought the device, which creates objects by slowly and gently extruding layers of hot plastic, to print cookie cutters. Any shape you can imagine can be produced from a digital blueprint. There was a thunderbolt shears, a weapon, a race car.
"Send it in in the morning and we'll have it ready in a week or two," the store clerk told me. I wouldn't even have to design my own cookie cutter. He could simply download one of the hundreds of models that hobbyists had already created and put it online for anyone to use freely. In the world of 3D printing, people are now not only copying and sharing text and images on paper, but also physical objects.
Once upon a time, 3D printers were expensive and elite tools used by high-end designers who used them to create prototypes for products such as mobile phones or airplane parts. But now they're appearing in the mainstream: You can buy one for about $500 to $3,000, and many enthusiasts, schools, and libraries already have it. Sometimes they print the objects they design, but you can also make copies of physical objects by 'scanning' them, where you convert multiple images into a 3D model with your smartphone or camera, which can then be printed over and over again. Would you like a copy of e.g. The statue of Auguste RodinCaryatid next to the urn– Or maybe just some spare plastic parts for Settlers of Catan? You were lucky. Helpful people have already scanned these objects and put them online.
How will society change now that 3D printing is getting cheaper? What does it mean to be able to store and share physical objects and make as many copies as we want? One way to think about this is to think about the remarkable impact of the first technology that enabled ordinary people to mass-copy things: the Xerox photocopier.
If you didn't have to go through the trouble of publishing an entire book, copying a single document was for centuries a slow and laborious process, usually done by hand. The inventors had long been looking for a device to automate the process, but with limited success. Thomas Jefferson used a pantograph: as he wrote, a wooden device attached to his pen manipulated another pen with exactly the same movements, creating a mechanical copy. Steam engine pioneer James Watt created an even cruder device that would take a freshly written page and press another sheet against it, transferring some of the ink to the back. At the turn of the 20th century, the duplicating machine was the latest technology, using ink to make a small set of copies that grew weaker with each duplication. It was imperfect.
Then, in 1959, Xerox released the "914", the first user-friendly copier. The result of more than twenty years of experimentation was a much cleaner and drier process. The photocopier created an electrostatic image of a document on a rotating metal drum and used it to transfer toner (powder ink) onto a sheet of paper, which was then welded into place. It was fast: a copy was made in just seven seconds. When the first 648-pound desktop machines were released to business customers (some of whom had to remove doors to install these behemoths), the era of copying began.
Or rather: the copy explosion began. Xerox expected its customers to make about 2,000 copies per month, but users easily made 10,000 per month, and some as high as 100,000. Before the 914 machine, Americans made 20 million copies a year, but by 1966 Xerox had increased the total to 14 billion.
"It was a huge change in the amount of information out there," says David Owen, author ofcopy in seconds, a history of Xerox.
In fact, it transformed the pathways through which knowledge flowed into a business. Before Xerox received an important letter, only a small number of senior executives noticed it. The original would circulate from office to office, with a "roadmap" showing who read it and where they would travel next. But after the copier arrived, employees began copying magazine articles and white papers they felt everyone should see and distributing them with abandon. Did you write a note? Why don't you send it to everyone? Copying was liberating and addictive.
"The button waiting to be pressed, the buzz of action, the neat output falling into the tray: it all adds up to one intoxicating experience, and the novice copier operator feels the urge to copy all the papers in his pocket ." as John Brooks wrote in 1967New Yorkerarticle.
Officials had previously complained about information overload. But the culprit was industrial processes: book publishers, newspapers. The copier was different. It turned the average office drone into an overload engine delivering tons of stuff to baffled colleagues. "You had a huge stack of meeting papers," Owen says with a laugh, "and no one reads them."
The copy also affected everyday life. Employees fed their personal belongings into the machine and copied their IRS returns, party invitations and prescriptions. Chain letters began requiring participants not only to forward the letter, but also to send twenty copies, because now anyone could do it! And people soon realized that they could make paper replicas of physical objects by placing their hands (or rather their pants, their buttocks) on the glass of the copier. This copy of objects could be used for strange practical purposes. Instead of describing the physical contents of a criminal's pockets upon arrest, police simply threw them on the 914 window and posted a copy.
The strange variety of things being impersonated had even the folks at Xerox worried that they had unleashed Promethean powers. "Have we really contributed to facilitating the reproduction of nonsense?" how Sol Linowitz, CEO of Xerox International, was furiousLivingstore.
But for ordinary people, copying nonsense was the best part of the copier: an illegal thrill. Hiding behind the anonymity of a duplicate document, the clerks began spreading jokes and crooked caricatures. Sometimes they were bogus memos that brutally mocked the idiocy of office life: a rush job calendar with confusing dates so that a client could "order their job on the 7th and get it on the 3rd." or an "organizational chart" cartoon in which a little boss kisses the ring in front of a little boss, who also has a little boss kiss his ring, and so on. Jokes about the intelligence of different ethnic groups were plentiful, as well as sexually explicit material. Eye-catching cartoons showed "Peanuts" characters having sex.
"There were aftershocks where there was a Rorschach mass and you had to bend it and hold it up to the light, and you had people having sex in more positions than you would think," said Michael Preston, an emeritus professor of English at the university. from Colorado in Boulder, who published one of the first collections of what he called the Xerox tradition: the folklore of the copy age.
Artists, too, flocked to the device, excited by the low-fidelity, high-contrast prints it produced, very different from traditional photography or printing. As they showed, photocopying had an aesthetic. "If I show her a curling iron, she hands me back a spaceship, and if I show her the inside of a straw hat, she describes the strange joys of going down a volcano," said Pati Hill, an artist-turned-famous . . to use a copier.
In short, the copier was not just a tool for copying. It became a mechanism for sub-rosa publishing, a way to seize the means of production and spread ideas that had previously been difficult for censors and publishers to overcome. "Xerography brings a reign of terror to the publishing world because it means that any reader can become an author and a publisher," wrote Marshall McLuhan in 1966.
This had strong political consequences. Secrets were harder to keep and documents easier to leak. Daniel Ellsberg used a photocopier to reproduce the Pentagon Papers (he even had his sons help make the replicas in a friend's office). Fearing the power of copiers, the Soviet Union strictly controlled access to the machines. In the United States, activists from ACT-UP (the group that fought for doctors and politicians to take AIDS more seriously) had a powerful influence, in part because they had access to photocopiers. Many worked at media giants like Condé Nast and NBC, publishing thousands of copies of flyers and posters after work that they used to cover New York City with AIDS awareness campaigns.
"They advocated respecting all these magazines, and then they made thousands of posters and brochures that were essential to what ACT-UP did," says Kate Eichhorn, an assistant professor at the New School who is writing a book on copiers. . "These big companies supported this radical activism." This same force has catalyzed the world of alternative culture: fans of TV shows, science fiction or movies began producing fanzines, small publications devoted to their enthusiasm. The Riot Grrrl movement of young feminist musicians of the 1990s, appalled by the mainstream media's treatment of women, essentially created its own media sphere, in part through photocopiers. "In addition to its function as an 'office tool', the copier has become a means of self-expression for many people," say the authors ofcopied, a 1978 guide to DIY creativity.
But all that copying worried traditional authors: They would certainly lose out on sales if someone could copy a chapter from a book or magazine article without paying for the original. Libraries and universities were hotbeds of so much duplication that publishers eventually took their complaints to court, but lost in the 1970s. The courts and Congress decided it was okay to make copies for personal use.
"It was a really great moment in the late 1970s when a wonderful copyright solution came out," said Lisa Gitelman, a professor of English and media studies at New York University. Today, Congress is working hard (often at the behest of movie studios or record companies) in the opposite direction, making it harder for people to copy things digitally. But in Xerox's early cultural heyday, legislators and judges came to the opposite conclusion: copying was good for society.
There is plenty of evidence that 3D printing is good too. Many industries are already using it to create sophisticated and highly personalized products. Surgeons can create 3D-printed bone grafts modeled after a person's scanned body, and dentists create wax models for crowns and bridges that are perfectly tailored to the patient's mouth. Chefs are experimenting with 3D printing food for aesthetic effects, and last November astronauts aboard the International Space Station began using a 3D printer to create the tool they needed.
But how can 3D printing affect the everyday lives of the rest of us? That's hard to say now, because they're still slow devices (it can take hours to print a complex object) and even the cheapest devices are still too expensive for mass adoption. Most printers don't come with a scanner attached, so it's still difficult to use them for everyday copying. That could soon change, as big companies like Hewlett-Packard enter the field and chains like Staples start putting 3D printers in stores, giving people Kinko-like access to this strange new technology. In a few years, it might only take a few minutes and a few dollars to 3D print or replicate at a store near you.
At that point, you can imagine reaching the Xerox 914 moment, when everyday people suddenly discover the joys of replicating objects. We could start scanning everyday items that we often lose (battery covers on remotes, important hinges, or electronic parts) so that we can make another copy if something goes missing. Perhaps we'll scan sentimental objects, such as family jewels, so that when future 3D printers can affordably produce complex metal shapes, we can create highly realistic replicas of those memorabilia as well. And maybe we'll start using 3D printers for pranks and pranks too: printing gross objects we find online and leaving them on friends' desks at work. We may be dealing with a new kind of information overload: offices and homes filled with too many rare printed trinkets and junk.
Similar to the copier, 3D printers allow people to copy the intellectual property of others. Websites where people share their 3D models already have enough objects that refer to pop culture: you can print a chess set with Minions fromMy favorite villain, the differencethe transformer-similar characters. And now subversive objects are also being 3D printed and duplicated, including parts to make plastic weapons that authorities fear will not be detected by airport scanners. With 3D printers, physical objects become just a form of information that can be traded and exchanged under the watchful eye of the authorities.
"With 3D printers, once someone scans an item, anyone can have it," said Michael Weinberg, vice president of Public Knowledge, a digital technology think tank. For now, those in power are refraining from their opinion. There have been few cases where companies issued legal warnings to people for making copies of their intellectual property. “We have not yet seen a complete panic in the industry,” says Weinberg.
Even legislators have not regulated 3D printers, recognizing that they have many good potential uses. However, one area that is starting to cause consternation is that of these weapons. It's not illegal to make your own gun, but the ease of printing guns (and the plastic nature of 3D-printed guns) has led to a deluge of laws. In December 2013, Congress expanded the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which requires weapons to be traceable on scanning machines. In practice, adding enough metal to a 3D-printed weapon probably means it will show up in an X-ray machine at an airport, for example. Maryland is considering a bill that would ban printed guns altogether. Philadelphia also passed one, and in California, the legislature passed a law that was later vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. Our society's reputation for copying and distributing groundbreaking material seems to precede us from the second dimension to the third.
Editor's note: This story originally stated that the mimeograph machine used "scented ink." In fact, it was the mind duplication machine or "ditto".
This story also originally stated that the custom cookie cutters at Whisk could be ready the same day they were ordered. Custom orders currently take one to two weeks.
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Clive Thompson is by author vanSmarter than you think: how technology is changing our thoughts for the betterjCoders: The creation of a new tribe and the rebuilding of the world. He is a contributing writer forNew York Times MagazinejThe wire. Photo: Tom Igoe.