Bruce Sterling on 3Dprinting – an interview

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.

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Internet nationalism?

I have been an admirer of Bruce Schneier for a while but I think he misses the point on this piece about nationalism on the internet.

Yes, he is correct that companies will try to profiteer from any cyberwar. Citizens should be vigilant. Especially after the war profiteering around the US invasion of Iraq and the global war on terror.

Yes, the government must be kept in check to prevent an assault on the privacy of its citizen – in the name of security. And that is a full time effort.

But if Schneier thinks the biggest risk in the situation arises from nefarious corporations in West, he needs to take a closer look at the implications of State Owned Enterprises in China, which are neither fully private companies, nor fully the government.

SOEs’ fist-in-glove relationship with the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party really blur the lines of responsibility in any matter of privacy and profiteering.

The challenge in the West is that capitalism has corroded democracy in recent years. But that trend is slowly being corrected by a rise in participation in democracy and a more vocal civil society movement. The path back to sanity in the West is restoring the boundaries between government and business which eroded during the rise of freemarket fundamentalism. The cure is more oversight and accountability.

SOEs by their design run counter to those ideas. And in fact, it’s the mix of the Chinese military, cyber-thieving on an industrialized scale, only to share the spoils with China’s businesses (no doubt through well-connected SOEs) that forms the threat for Western economies, businesses and citizens.

I’m not sure Schneier takes this into account in his piece. He writes in the same anachronistic tone that many people do, who assume US power in these areas is uncontested. US power in the cyber-industrial realm is very much contested these days, from many fronts, by the biggest single challenge, I would guess, is the new model coming out of China.

Another interesting point Schneier touches on and that we have considered for some time at Cold War Daily, is the possibility of a Balkanized internet. Schneier writes:

We’ve started to see increased concern about the country of origin of IT products and services; U.S. companies are worried about hardware from China; European companies are worried about cloud services in the U.S; no one is sure whether to trust hardware and software from Israel; Russia and China might each be building their own operating systems out of concern about using foreign ones.

It sounds like science fiction now but if the Internet truly becomes Balkanized, you can expect the technology to follow. Some authoritarian governments have a deep interest in making their systems inoperable with the wider internet. Why wouldn’t that extend to the hardware, too? It sounds far fetched but it shouldn’t. There was a time, in the not too distant past, when there were two models of many pieces of hardware. The kind seen in the West, often underpinned by the R&D and industrial policies of those countries; and another version found behind the Iron Curtain. A similar trend could come in the future.

If not war, then….

An alternate vision of the China-Japan “war”


An interest take by Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalf’s on Hugh White’s Big Call. While Medcalf downplays the prospect of imminent war he notes….

it would be folly to count on a prolonged crisis simply fizzling out. But both China and Japan are more than capable of strategic patience. Neither wants to force the issue in the immediate term. Each government has an interest in trying to exert greater control over the various institutional players — not just navies but also civilian maritime agencies — whose operational decisions could make the difference between calm and crisis.

It points to the beginning of a struggle for influence in the seas between China and Japan, backed by the US. But should the dispute linger and harden into a kind of DMZ-type situation, how difficult is it to imagine the struggle for influence transfering to other areas of competition? Already there is a race between China and Japan and South Korea to secure the resources needed for the economies. What if the polarizing effect of the island dispute seeps into other areas of deal-making? Already manufacturers routinely add other countries besides China to their supply chain to try to miminize disruptions related to a total reliance n China?

What if that kind of polarization begins to shape the regional economy? If it takes hold in Asia, which is the strongest region in the globe, it could have follow-on effects elsewhere. Already China’s Internet is not exactly the same thing as the Grown Up Internet, which the US and Japan share. If the Internet becomes Balkanized, why wouldn’t that extend to technology and technological standards, too? In this way, if the Internet is like a universal language, we are seeing the emergence of regional dialects (China’s internet, Iran’s , Thailand’s internet), and not because it makes sense economically, but becuase it makes sense for nationalistic reasons. This is the stuff of science fiction, to be sure. But it wouldn’t be the far off either. Some anthropologists theorize that the development of language is as much to facilitate communication within a given community as well as blocking it out with others. Transfer this notion to the world technology, economic, etc… Basically, anything to avoid a war while doing anything to avoid cooperation between the world’s second and third largest economies. This could be a new kind of sectional Cold War.

The Not-So-World Wide Web of the future

I hear little talk about this but I think it’s possibly some technology that is more or less universal will become balkanized, or divided between two or more poles in coming years. What do I mean by this? The internet has developed and spread through the period of unchecked, relatively borderless globalization. China’s rise occured roughly over the same period of the PC, Windows, up through the iPad and iPhone. But what the Western globe wants from technology platforms and what the Chinese want is different. There could be enough incentive in China-world to push for software, networks and more that are suited to their needs. At the same time, the wholesale ripping off of Western technology to advance China’s economy may spur the development of more technology that isn’t meant to adopted in China. This is all very nebulous. But you have to look at the objectives of the technology companies and the risks. For the West, the pitfall of a universal market is an endless vista of pirates and hackers. For the Chinese Communist Party and other authoritarian regimes, the very openess of technology conceived of by Western minds, represents a threat to their power. It doesn’t take much to imagine new softwares, networks (look at Weibo) one day even new protocals and code that isn’t designed to communicate on a world wide basis, but with a section of the world. And this is crucial to the notion of a new kind of Cold War. This balkanization first of the internet and then of technology itself, will allow other divides to emerge. The fact is, there are incentives on both sides of the Pacific to cordon off networks. That’s not to say the tech border won’t be porous. Maybe even highly so. But the flow of data and information may, over time, more closely reflect the culture, law and objectives of the two competitive regions. Am I wrong? I’d be very curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this.