Back in the 1990s, “digital technology” was synonymous with “virtual reality” (VR). VR was “virtual” because it happened on a computer (and was projected on a screen, in a visor, or, perhaps someday directly into your brain, as in The Matrix or ExistenZ), not in “real” life (which is often abbreviated as IRL, in-real-life).
Twenty or so years later, consumer technologies mix the virtual/digital and the IRL experience. Nintendo and Microsoft have popular gaming systems that incorporate the IRL body’s movements into on-screen events. GPS systems and various smartphone apps (like Google Maps) track my movement across the Earth’s surface, and display it on a map on my portable device. Those are just some of the most common examples. The point is that as technology advances, we’re not abandoning physical, embodied reality (IRL) for “virtual” reality, we’re using the virtual to augment IRL experiences, and increasingly blurring the line between “virtual” and IRL.
One popular technology that blurs the virtual/IRL distinction is 3D printing. #D printing is just what it sounds like it is: the use of a computer and a printer to extrude or fabricate three-dimensional objects. When I print a document, I send, say, a PDF to my 2D printer, which then, via some software, translates the PDF file into printer-friendly code. The printer then runs this code, and prints me up a paper copy of my newest journal article, or that cupcake recipe I’m going to make this weekend. 3D printers work more or less the same way: there’s a file—either something the user develops, or a canned “blueprint” someone else made—that gets sent to the printer, and then printed. Most hobbyists print with plastic; heated extruder heads melt plastic “thread,” and then push out thin strips of molten plastic, building objects layer by layer. 3D printing is just about to break from hobbyist/specialist/geek chic to mainstream consumer technology; some speculate that within the next decade, 3D printers will be as common a computer add-on as a 2D printer.
If you want to go into more detail about 3D printing, I suggest these websites:
For a basic intro, here’s the Wikipedia article.
Thingverse is good for people with basic technical knowledge, e.g., people who might want to build their own printer.
Hackerspace Charlotte has a weekly workshop for people building 3D printers.
3D printing does raise some interesting philosophical questions, such as:
1. Before the industrial revolution and factory mass production, consumer goods were handcrafted at home—this is what we call the “cottage industry” model. In the 20th century, consumer goods were largely mass produced in factories. But 3D printing raises the possibility of mass-produced goods made at home. 3D printing potentially calls into question the public/private (home vs factory) logic that, up until now, has organized relations and “logistics” of production. This likely has a whole host of implications for business ethics, for example.
2. Take all the intellectual property questions raised in the “virtual” era (e.g., with file sharing), and make them more complicated by introducing IRL products into the mix.
I’m interested to hear what other sorts of questions or problems you think 3D printing might raise. Thoughts?