3D manufacturing could replace our mountains of wasteful commodities. A musician's take on the "end of stuff"

We’re delighted to run this new piece from Kev Sherry, lead singer of Attic Lights (who wrote for us previously on how musicians regard power). This time round, Kev takes the musician's insight on 3D manufacturing (see the Boing Boing tag for its current culture) - and its potential to redefine our relationship to consumerism and its objects.

Kev Sherry on The End of “Stuff”

Eight years ago Mick Jagger told the New York Times that the days of artists regularly making millions from the music industry are over. It bummed me out at the time because I’d just signed a record deal and I realised he was right. No-one was going to be able to shift physical product (in the form of CDs) in the same quantities as they once did.

Now however, I see something similar coming around the corner. Musicians and artists have been the first casualties in a revolution that slowly but inexorably will change the nature of daily reality and global power. A new assault on ‘stuff,’ is slouching towards Bethlehem to be born and those who get a handle it on what it really means first, will be the victors.

The collapse of the physical product record industry through both legal and illegal digitisation (and similarly with the film, TV, publishing and information industries) is the beginning of the end for ‘stuff.’

You know ‘stuff?’ We fill our lives and living spaces with it. We use it as identifiers of our tastes and our personal histories. It defines our social status and power. Humans have lots of stuff - animals virtually none. ‘Stuff’ is the stuff civilisation was built on.

Something called the internet has taken some of our ‘stuff’ away - and surprisingly, most of us are not bothered about that. Rooms full of books, magazines, movies, CDs, LPs,  - scenes that were once so common in houses around the world, are now the provenance only of collectors, of nerds.

There is a younger generation who will never have CD or DVD or book collections in their (probably rented) homes. Everything they need now is on a screen, coming in over the wifi. The stuff that previous generations have used to decorate their inner and outer lives will become something far more fluid in the years to come.

The internet was the beginning and it caught the powerful entertainment industries by surprise. They are still waging a rearguard action against it.

So what is this beast that draws inevitably nearer? It is a rather quaint science fiction sounding creature that goes by the name of “3D printer”. And yet the threat it poses to established power across the globe is vast and completely unprecedented. Call it InternetMax or call it manufacturing and production armageddon. But it will soon be on us.

The technology can already do things like build violins, bionic limbs or car engine parts and is still in its infancy. The world wide web took a chunk out of ‘stuff’ by accident, not design. The 3D printer will end ‘stuff’ as we know it.

Want to change the ornament on your kitchen table and upgrade to something more modern? No problem. Take the ornament, the printer will disassemble the component parts and using those base molecules, print out the new ornament to suit your changing tastes.

Need a new part for your car engine? See above. Hell, need a new car? Print one out. Feel like changing your dining room table, an unwanted gift, a pair of shoes, a dress, bicycle, television or the door that goes from your kitchen to your living room? The old gets recycled into the new. 

Even when it comes to food, things will change. Want to eat that fancy pizza you saw the dude make on TV last night? No problem. The answer is the same. 3D print technology will progress to deal with all of these eventualities. The industry is expecting further great strides with some companies hoping to print fully functioning human organs for transplant over the coming years. The consequences of this tech will change not just society but human beings themselves.

But what of us and our heirlooms, of the consumerism that defines us? Can we change our feelings for physical objects as quickly as technology will be able to change them from one thing to another? We have become accustomed to viewing ownership of ‘stuff’ as part of our identities. Stuff and capitalism are completely entwined and it’s this issue that means questions of our psychological wellbeing in relation to ownership and personal property should wait. There are far more pressing questions that need to take precedence.

Who controls the stuff that makes the ever-changing stuff? Who builds the printers? Who produces the base materials for creation? Who owns the design patents for our stuff? What of jobs, economies, the wealth of nations? What of the global manufacturing and production industries?

The neoliberal mantra is adapt or die. Thus, control of printers, of base materials, of patents for schematics, is where power will lie. Do we want a small number of powerful corporations defining what, how and in which way we print out our physical lives? Or should we use this defining moment-to-come in human history as a launching pad for building a better world?

If capitalism survives the end of stuff then it will be in a vastly mutated form. Maybe then it’s time to come up with a whole new ‘ism’ for a world where the very nature of consumerism will change.

This technological revolution, if played right, if worked with vision, compassion and imagination, could change the fortunes of the human race, poor and rich combined. It could save our species (and many others) from extinction. We might even see the collapse of those soon to be old-fashioned stuff-mongers (the 1% as they are known these days.)

The first battle that will need to be fought is one that mirrors the freedom of information the internet provides. Intellectual property rights. Big business will fight to buy up the intellectual property patents that tell a printer how to turn a cooking pot into a fireguard. But given how the internet has played out, it will be almost impossible for the powers that be to exert hegemony over this flow of information.

Where that leaves the rest of us, like myself, who make part of our living through the intellectual property rights in songs and other writings is hard to say. Open Source intellectual property is a price I would be willing to pay if it allows for greater individual freedom and less centralised multinational or government domination.

Corporate authority must not be allowed to legislate the “End of Stuff”. 3D Printers. Base printing materials. Open Source printing schematics. These are three fronts on which considerate and humane decisions need to be fought for and we need to start thinking about it now, preparing legislation for it now, making the case for, if not full public ownership of 3D printing tech, then free access to the machinery and no copyright on what can be printed. At the moment of technological change, at the point of global realisation, this is where the most important decisions on our future will be hurriedly made.

And in that moment there is a chance to build a new social system where property and the daily needs of the physical world don’t create debt, unfairness and consolidated power structures. But to do this we will need greater awareness, new organisations, pressure groups, technical experts and a powerful movement ready for the coming fight.

What we remake our ever-evolving lives with and from should be no-one else’s to control. If the war for the future of physical things is won by the people and for the people, then we can get on with worrying about the psychological implications of the end of ‘stuff.’

Our children are going to look at our racks of cds, our bric-a-brac, our unfashionable ornaments that line the walls and surfaces of our homes and see only obscene clutter, hopeless nostalgia and selfishness.

If that’s the price to pay for saving our planet and creating a new, fairer society then so be it.

Kev Sherry is lead singer of indie band Attic Lights. He tweets @KevSherry1