Monday, 18 February 2013


This scared the proverbial out of me when it appeared on my Facebook last week:

Why? This story about the 3D printing of stem cells. (Let's get one thing clear before we go on: the problem is nothing to do with stem cell research, which is a vital part of biomedical science and mustn't be stopped by paranoid, reactionary legislation). The explanation is going to take us around the houses a bit, but bear with me.

It comes back to the concept of scarcity. Scarcity is the basic principle of modern economics, and it basically means that the supply of stuff is limited. Sometimes the limit is material (eg. the amount of oil or iron in the Earth's crust), and sometimes it's temporal (eg. the number of hours of daylight, or the number of days in a life), but though some limits, like the energy output of the sun, are so high as to be irrelevant to ordinary economic activity, everything is limited.

This is why we developed warfare and trade; we all want stuff, but the supply is limited. Warfare and trade both allow us to convert surplusses of one kind of stuff into another; trade converts material goods into money and vice versa, warfare converts bullets and young people into whatever crap we decide society can't live without today. Obviously we tend to prefer trade wherever possible.

And up until about twenty years ago, that was fine. The supply of almost everything we wanted was limited, so we could trade and price things on the basis of supply and demand.

Then computers happened (okay, computers have been happening for at least 70 years, but it's only in the last twenty that they've become part of the domestic rather than the industrial landscape). The costs to duplicate and distribute information have become negligible, not to mention hidden in among our monthly bills rather than made explicit with each transfer. In effect, information ceased to be scarce.

The result? Chaos across the entire information economy. Piracy so endemic that it's not even worth calling it a crime anymore. Big media and distribution companies going to the wall. The steady rise and rise of shareware art in all forms. Not all of this is bad, but it is all chaotic, and evolving far too fast for us to get our heads around.

One common theme that anyone who works in the creative industries has to face these days is the question 'Why should I pay for this when it costs nothing/I can get it for free elsewhere?'. People complain about ebooks costing a full $0.99, or even just requiring you to create an account with a distributor in order to get them for free.

Please don't think I'm being bitter, by the way. I think the attitude expressed by this question is a little bit short-sighted and narrow-minded, but I can't actually find fault with it. It's based in the fundamental principle of human economics; just as we don't charge for air because it's effectively non-scarce (pollution issues notwithstanding), we can no longer expect to charge for information because information has passed beyond scarcity.

That's not the same as saying that new information has passed beyond scarcity. Anyone who wants up-to-date news, commentary, topical art etc. needs someone to create it. But anything you create that can be digitised is non-scarce from the moment of its digitisation, and given that there's already more digitised information out there than anyone could possibly absorb in a lifetime, new art is fighting a losing battle - after all, how can any writer hope to compete with Shakespeare or Keats?

At the moment, of course, all this stuff only applies to things that can be digitised, which means mainly higher cultural functions - academic research, journalism, luxury items like music, films and video games etc. As we've seen over the last decade, society can survive just fine with all these industries in total, hand-waving, coop-full-of-headless-chickens chaos.

Now imagine that chaos spread out to every other manufacturing industry. Anything that involves a complicated design that can be (and probably already is) digitised can now be sent over the internet to a computer with a 3D printer attached. You'll be able to download the latest iPhone just as easily as you can get films and albums now. Whether you do it legitimately from Apple or from a copy ripped off by a hacker will be entirely up to you.

Some of you are almost certainly saying that there's no way 3D printing will ever be as efficient as industrial manufacturing, I say this: have you been paying no attention to the last seventy years? In 1952, production of the second commercial-model Ferranti Mark 1 was interrupted when the government that ordered it cancelled all contracts whose value was over £100,000. The Ferranti had (if I'm understanding the Wiki page right) a processor speed of a little under 1Hz and the equivalent of a bit over 1kb of RAM. That hundred-thousand pounds, by the way, is about £850,000 in today's money.

An entry level PC from Dell now goes for £300, has a couple of billion times the clock speed and four million times the RAM. With some reasonable approximation, we can estimate that computing power costs something between a billionth and a trillionth what it cost sixty years ago, the lower bound of which more or less fits Moore's Law.

Unless there's some upper bound on the efficiency of 3D printing which is much lower than the limit imposed by the laws of physics we currently know about, in fifty years the technology will look less like the clunky, awkward, expensive models we have now and more like Star Trek's replicators.

This is why an advance on the scale of the 3D printing of stem cells is scary - that's a significant step up both in precision and in the delicacy of the materials the machines can work with. We've already seen 3D printers that can print a circuit board. Basically, what I'm saying is that, within my lifetime, I expect to see everything piratable except raw materials.

The question of what that will do to our industry and economy is a terrifying one. Any business dealing in physical goods where the primary asset is the patent for their design could be the next Borders or HMV. Patent law could very easily go the way of copyright law. Lots of people are going to lose their jobs before this is over.

But, again, it's not all bad. Just as the post-scarcity of information gave us global academic databases that have massively accelerated access to the cutting edge of research, and the thriving culture of shareware art, from webcomics to Soundcloud and back again, there's a lot to be excited about in the rise of 3D printing. What will we think about the open source community when they're able to give us fridges and cars with the same ease they give us Firefox and Schlock Mercenary and so on?

The TL;DR of all this is that if you think economics over the last twenty years has been crazy and chaotic, it's time to brace for impact. The real chaos is only just beginning.


  1. There was a great article written about how people won't own 3d printers.
    If this is shown to be true, only people with 3d printers at home would be able to pirate stuff.
    And lets not forget that the proliferation of robots and replicators might just, one day, allow us to work, not for money, but for the advancement of mankind!
    [I'm basically a dreamer, but I'm not really the only one]

    1. PAz - thanks for the link. Interesting reading, but I can't help hearing echoes of those famous quotes from the 60s and 70s where various computer people said that no-one would ever need a computer in the home or that home computing would be for hobbyists only. I think it's true that design for 3D printers will remain a hobbyist activity, comparable to programming in the open-source community, but the use of them? As with all the idle, irrelevant stuff we do on our smartphones, we'll find uses for our 3D printers just because they're there.

  2. I think you're perhaps exaggerating the scope and spread of this 'chaos' in the information sectors. Sure, the institutional boat has been rocked for large corporations, and the marketplace has become a lot more crowded and a lot more connected, but in economics we tend to observe that the more predictable outcomes are to be found where there are a larger number of agents (i.e. highly competitive markets) rather than a smaller number (oligopolistic/oligarchical power structures).

    Also, it's worth considering the fact that no matter how efficient manufacturing becomes, it will still depend on a finite supply of raw materials. 3D printing cannot change that.

    Interestingly, the change that I would conjecture is, following the industrial revolution: labour intensive to capital intensive manufacturing; we will now seeing the beginnings of the 'design revolution', with ultra-capital intensive manufacturing (i.e. 3D printing), with a greater emphasis on the labour-intensive design process.

    Now i'm going to get all utopian on your ass and predict a serene, vibrant artisan arcadia where everyone man and his dog has a uniquely styled kettle made by a local 'cyber-craftsman', with sketch-up, a laptop and his 3D printer.

    1. Maybe chaos was the wrong word, at least from an economic science point of view. I mean exactly the things you identified though - the sudden closure of large, seemingly-secure corporations, the explosions of new markets and industries (smartphone apps, anyone?), the wildly ham-fisted legislation (SOPA and PIPA etc.).

      I have some utopian hopes of my own in this regard, but I think there's going to be a protracted corporate/legal battle before we get there.