Bruce Sterling on 3Dprinting – an interview

by Chris Zappone

Despite the growth of the 3Dprinting empowered global Maker movement, it still lacks any sort of must-have mega-hit. The challenge of the internet to the nation-state won’t be about information, as much as money flowing across borders. And Italy’s 3D-printing powered Maker movement is creating a unique style that builds on the culture’s strength in design and handmade goods. These are some of Bruce Sterling’s observations on the state of the Maker movement, 3Dprinting and the internet.

Author, futurist, design thinker, Sterling holds a unique place in the juncture between technology and society. He is one of the imaginations that popularized cyberpunk as a genre of science fiction, which blends high-tech possibilities with social decline and disaster. Cyberpunk comes to mind watching groups like ISIS blending terror and social media. The novel he co-wrote with author William Gibson, The Difference Engine helped put steampunk on the map, which is now so prevalent you can buy steampunk mouse pads at pop-up stores in shopping malls. Sterling wrote the first serious account of hackers, in The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier, which documents among other things, early law-enforcement attempts in cyberspace and the creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Oh, and Sterling often gives the closing talk at SXSWInteractive, the pow-wow of technology thinkers and entrepreneurs considered one of the bellwethers of the next big thing. These days Sterling lives in northern Italy, home to some of the most intuitive and creative meshing of design culture, 3Dprinting found in the global Maker movement. Since 3Dprinting has the potential to reshape global manufacturing with implication for geopolitics, it’s a continuing area of interest for those who want to understand the intersection of technology and power. Sterling agreed to answer a few questions about the practical implications of 3Dprinting, the Maker Movement and technology’s impact on society today.

3Dprinting’s skill-set

Me: Do you anticipate a different ethic and skill-set to 3Dprinting manufacturing than other existing types of manufacturing and product design?

Sterling: Not really, no. That would be like expecting a different ethic between saws and power-saws. I think there might be a somewhat different ethic between home hobby 3Dprinters and the kind of high-temperature sinter metal forges that could down the neighborhood. Fabbing [the digital design and creation process] is really interesting, but people will get used to it. The generation in school now has never seen the old ways.

3Dprinting’s lack of a megahit

Sterling: It interests me that the Maker scene has never created a true megahit, some toy or gizmo that literally everybody had to have. There’s never been any Maker thing that was as hugely popular as, say, certain viral YouTube hits. The free movement of data has really been about the sort-of free movement of some data among some cliques of Makers. Every once in a while you see a motion that somebody is going to crush the scene because certain zealots print gun parts. Other than that, the movement’s just sorta chugging along.

Italy’s Maker style

Me: Will certain countries or cultures win or lose from a wide embrace of 3Dprinting?

Sterling: Yeah, I’m suspecting that there will be regional making after a while. Certainly there are people in the likes of Barcelona that really believe that. They don’t expect to “win,” exactly, but they’re very into supporting digital fabrication as an industrial policy. The same goes for the Chinese. In the USA, Obama thinks makers are cute.

Me: Or should we not expect countries to benefit as much as particular communities, cities, gangs, clubs and guilds?

Sterling: Well, I don’t think every citizen is gonna get a general-issue Maker kit. Of course it’s going to be clusters of gangs, guilds, whatever, but you could say the same about, say, the movie industries. Movies get seen all over the place but there are areas of expertise where big-ticket movies get made.

Me: There is a lot of talk about the crossover between the Maker Movement and 3Dprinting. Given the deep history of artisans in Italy (frescoes, stonework, leatherwork, food, design), is Italy as an ideal culture for experimentation and adoption of 3Dprinting? More ideal than others?

Sterling: I like to think so, yeah. I think that “Make in Italy[the Italian 3D printing movement] does in fact look different from other Maker stuff in other countries. You’re right, it’s food, furniture, clothing and luxury craft. “Open Source Luxury” might make sense in the Italian context.

3Dprinting and the internet

Me: If 3Dprinting relies on free movement of data, how would a Balkanized internet shape the development of the industry/movement?

Sterling: Actually 3Dprinting is quite old was mostly Balkanized by patents for a long time, so it’s not like there was some perfect free open-source scene that will be spoiled by Apple printers. If Apple printers were around they’d behave like other kinds of Apple stuff: iTunes on board, Siri standing by, headphone jacks, whatever.

Me: I am curious not about the code behind 3Dprinters but the objects themselves that are printed.

Bruce: I think that’s a false distinction. Real 3DPrinters can’t make all possible objects. So the data about the printers is never entirely free of the realities of the mechanical substrate. Also, the “free” data about these objects has to be in some actual, organized database owned and maintained by real people, like, say, the Makerbot Thingiverse.

If Apple printers existed of course they would curate and censor the array of Apple objects. No one would expect Apple to do otherwise: it would be considered a feature of the system that Apple 3DPrinted objects were particularly well-designed.

Me: [But] if the unity of the internet breaks down, would that slow the ability for a design in Country A to be printed out in Country B? Would a libertarian’s gun designs from Austin, Texas be blocked from entering Russian cyberspace, say? Already, I know the Japanese have prosecuted a guy who printed out Defense Distributed’s 3Dprinted gun design there. Could you see that happening across various object categories – and not only weapons, but in types of objects a state may want to hold a monopoly on – for a variety of political or economic reasons?

Sterling: I don’t advise printing guns in Japan. Actually, I don’t advise printing guns at all, but the problem you’re describing here isn’t new. The internet may have some unity but the local authorities can still prosecute me for all kinds of local electronic crimes: software piracy, hate speech, pornography, whatever they like. Also, nation-states already set up firewalls and block access to entire website categories. And despite all this, 3DPrinting is spreading really fast.

Intellectual property

Me: Right now, intellectual property theft is a huge concern of corporations and some governments. But if 3Dprinting really gains traction, won’t it elevate the importance of designers and technical gurus over the people who create a single design that is mass produced?

Sterling: I think it’s more likely that you’d find new enterprises appearing that resolved that problem by acqui-hiring everybody, firing most of them, disrupting the value chain and using metadata to get some kind of new hammerlock on what was going on. Think Amazon. It didn’t exalt authors over publishers, it just squished all of them.

Me: Research from the US Federal Reserve has questioned the value of patents in fostering new industries. There is also a growing backlash against patent trolls. As 3Dprinting really grows more common, and potentially, no two products are exactly alike, what effect will it have on the patent debate?

Sterling: I don’t think there’s much of a “debate” there. Basically it’s just open banditry, and when anybody menaces the patent mess the bigger lawyer trolls just buy off the Congress. It’s a de facto tax of lawyers on technicians and Congress is heaps of lawyers and scarcely any technicians.

3DPrinting is pretty small potatoes in that struggle. They don’t have enough money to whip up the big-time trolls, even if somebody buys Makerbot and runs around slapping up lawsuits.

The nation-state and the internet

Me: The primacy of the nation-state as a political unit emerged following the invention of the printing press in the West. Today the internet is allowing likeminded activists, militants, artists, reformers to communicate, organize and act as if political borders don’t exist. Consequently governments, diplomats, regulators and law enforcement are all struggling with the borderlessnesss of this new environment. Do you believe the internet poses a permanent threat to the system of nation-states and borders that has become the norm since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648?

Sterling: The Internet per se, not really. International electronic funds transfer, yeah, that could wreck it. Post-national wealth is a much bigger threat than post-national data.

Also, the USA spent a trillion dollars fighting the Afghanis and couldn’t turn them into a nation, no matter what. The USA lost that war about enforcing world order in the teeth of jihadi “likeminded activists.” That’s pretty bad.

Me: You say that post-national wealth is a bigger threat than post-national data to the nation-state. But these days data (in the form of YouTube videos, say) has been used to find and motivate would-be jihadists. So far, the damage has been limited – but watching Europe (France – but also Germany), you can see the profoundly destablilizing potential. (Not to mention the extemes of the post-9/11 Bush years in the US). Would you consider that data (propaganda, recruiting videos, malicious cyber activity) itself is an equal threat to the post-national wealth?

Sterling: Are you saying that a free press is more frightening than a plutocratic aristocracy? That idea is crazy. Of course Jihadists are a threat, but holy warriors never needed YouTube.

Progress and climate catastrophe

Me: There has been some gnashing of teeth lately for the level of technical progress in the time of the internet (no human trip to Mars, no flying cars but iPhones and Facebook for everyone). What accounts for these technological disappointments which have happened in our lifetime?

Sterling: People are easy to disappoint. Also, going to Mars is blatantly silly when nobody’s ever managed to colonize the Gobi Desert.

Personally, I gnash my teeth about climate change, which is all about the toxic exhaust coming out the tailpipes of colossal technical progress.

Me: Following the Great Recession, and the Occupy Movement and general dissatisfaction with the drift of the modern world in recent years, do you detect a growing appetite for the kind of big technological projects we had seen in the 20th century? Do you see the glimmers of a movement in the Hieroglyph project? Or, in your experience, do such projects remain a mostly niche obsession, years ahead of its time?

Sterling: I kind of like the niche obsessions. The Internet used to be a niche obsession. Occupy was the polar opposite of a “big technological project” because it didn’t have any deliverables; there was no blueprint, no goal.

If anybody’s got appetite for that stuff that provokes Neal Stephenson nowadays, it’s the Chinese. We’ll be hearing more from them, and they’re not a niche outfit.

Follow Me on Facebook