Whole labour and 3D printers: taking a moment to think about the intersection of alienated labour and 3D printing.

Three things are responsible for the following idea. I'll go in reverse-chronological order in explaining them. 1. Two days ago, someone commented to me that people seem to be disproportionately interested in 3D printers, compared against all the other technologies of making and hacking we currently have access to. He wondered, aloud, why 3D printers have caught the public imagination so successfully. 2. I've been reading a book recently called The London Hanged (Linebaugh, 1992), which is an account of crime in eighteenth century London, but which sheds light on the transformation that concepts like criminality and property were undergoing at the time. One chapter recounts changes to particular trades, which, in squeezing the margins and financial opportunities of increasingly specialized tradesmen, engendered a poverty and lack of agency that often resulted in theft. 3. A member of my dissertation committee has encouraged me to read more Marx, which is highlighting for me the importance of the concept of alienation. So, here goes.

It occurs to me that the popularity of 3D printing may have something to do with our desire to become whole labourers, making whole objects. In describing the segmentation of labour taking place in the eighteenth century, Linebaugh writes "[t]he creation of the 'detail labourer' who performed 'fractional work' in the workshop meant that the value-producing class became collective since no single worker produced a whole commodity" (1992, 223). With such segmentation comes, in Marxian terms, alienation of labour, both from the object of production and from the act of producing it. What's interesting in the case of 3D printing is the idea that a human being producing a product might want a relationship with the product, something that is largely done away with in the fractionalization of labour. No one worker can claim ownership over a product produced on an assembly line, as so many hands contribute to the final output as to make individual responsibility negligible.

Douglas Adams satirically addresses this anxiety in the fifth and final book in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. When the protagonist, Arthur Dent, finds himself on a planet which is relatively primitive, compared to Earth, he becomes depressed at his inability to help the local people by reproducing any of Earth's technological conveniences. He realizes that, without detailed knowledge of electrical or engineering principles, the only practical skill he has to offer is the ability to make sandwiches. This kind of anxiety about our lack of understanding of the goods we use every day, and of the inability of one person to produce the technologies and goods we take for granted, is endemic of the alienation of labour from production.

3D printing is seductive in this respect, because it offers the opportunity for people who might not normally feel capable of producing an object on their own to suddenly feel able to build something whole, from start to finish, to go from idea to object without the intervention, aid or direction of others. Though we may not be able to sew ourselves a t-shirt, or to fabricate a light bulb, 3D printing presents the appearance of building something for oneself, from scratch. There is a kind of pioneer spirit in it. That spirit assuages a fear, or a guilt, or an anxiety about our alienation from the objects in our lives and the objects of our labour. The bulk of our objects are things we do not know how to produce. Our work is styled after the 'fractional work' described by Linebaugh, only far more advanced.

There is a kind of power in feeling able to do for oneself, certainly, one often compared to the self-sufficiency detailed by the likes of Thoreau. But the idea of becoming a whole labourer seems, to me, slightly different. The idea of total self-sufficiency, though often discussed by both advocates and detractors of 3D printing, is a different beast from the desire to de-fractionalize one's labour. In the self-sufficiency narrative, there is the idea that an individual (or, in some cases, a community) should be able to take care of the sum of their personal needs, through their own actions. The end being sought, in such a narrative, is a kind of guarantee that an individual might take care of themself. In comparison, the idea of 3D printing as an elixer for the alienation of labour is about the product of our labour, rather than our ability to exist as an independent individual. Tracts like Shop Class as Soulcraft and The Craftsman speak to the desire to feel a connection to a whole object, as a whole labourer: the idea that craft represents a whole understanding, a kind of mastery not offered by the routinized, fractionalized actions of the modern shop floor. In short, a whole labourer is one who can produce a whole object, solve a whole problem, act alone rather than rely on a community of production in which each worker represents a different, fragmented skill.

The 3D printer spits out a whole object. Alone with a small collection of tools-your CAD software, your slicing software, your 3D printer-you can produce an object yourself, without the intervention of other specialized labourers. It allows you to feel a mastery that may not be afforded in other areas of life and work. You are offered a feeling of accomplishment and ownership, having produced something yourself, in its entirety. In short, in a society in which the vast majority of our labour has been divided and fragmented to an increasingly fine degree, the 3D printer seems to give you a moment of wholeness. You leave fragmentation behind in the time that you produce that 3D-printed object. You become a whole labourer, with mastery over your tools, and everything you need to produce an object, embodied in your own skills and resources.