My reading notes are below.

Chapter 4, Digital Fabrication: Towards a new political economy of matter

p. 92

And, above all, what they are imagining is a material production that is ultra low-cost. The unstated premise behind all of these visions of the future isn't merely an economy in which high-precision fabricators themselves are available cheaply. It's one in which all the inputs required to make things with them - specifically, feedstock, energy and specification diagrams - are also available at something very close to zero cost. Without access to these, one doesn't truly own the means of production, only its instruments; with them, but for labor time and amortization of the fabrication engine itself, objects might indeed be had for something close to the cost of the raw material used to make them. But feedstock, energy and specifications all need to be produced by someone, somehow, and the costs involved cannot simply be wished away.

p. 94

At present, the great majority of digital fabricators on Earth remain sequestered in limited-access workshops like these, or still harder to get at facilities belonging to universities and private research institutions. Despite their operators' best intentions, many of these spaces still intimidate the people who would most benefit from using them, their very language, branding and framing confronting more than a few would-be users with an insuperable psychic challenge ramp. Any vision of post-scarcity utopia that is predicated on distributed, democratized production would require such sites to be not merely free and formally open but actively welcoming, and that has yet to be achieved just about anywhere.


What's more, there's a compositional heterogeneity to most of the objects in our daily environment larger than a paperclip. A simple glance around just about any room ought to establish that most of the artifacts we encounter in everyday life are complex assemblages of ceramic and polymer, cloth and wood, glass and metal. To produce anything even as sophisticated as a toaster or a laundry cart, then, implies the need for multiple different digital fabrication engines. And, of course, some assembly is always required, even in an age of on-demand fabrication. The requirements of assembly labor are perhaps the ultimate brake on digital fabrication: you can cut as many precision, one-off bycicle parts as you like, but someone still needs to put them together into a safely working vehicle. That someone needs space and time, and would preferably have some sense of what they're doing.

p. 96

Assuming it's achievable at all, though, this world of broadly democratized production capacity seems very hard to square with the needs of sustainability as we presently understand them. "More production in more places" seems to imply "more stuff," and that feels lije anathema in an age that has learned to question the insistence on perpetual growth.

p. 97

Because single-unit production runs are as economic as any other, successive approximations to a requirement can be fabricated, tried for fit and discarded, as the maker learns what works in a specific case and what does not. This process of thinking-by-making can be extraordinarily fruitful, intellectially and practically, but one of its drawbacks is that it produces any number of failed prototypes and evolutionary dead ends; but for their utility in illustrating the evolution of a thought process, it's hard to regard these as anything but waste.

p. 98

So whether or not these processes iltumately produce less waste on a per-item-produced basis than conventional methods, their efficienty is open to serious question. On a planet with limited resources, digital fabrication cannot make good on its scarcity-ending promise unless most of the waste it does generate is recovered locally, reprocessed into feedstock, and directed back into the production stream.

pp. 99-100

[Sidhant] Pai founded a social enterprise called Protoprint that intends to produce "Fair Trade, ethically sourced and environmentally sustainable filament from waste." For maximum efficienty, Protoprint's pilot facility is located in one of Pune's garbage dumps, where the raw material of the filament - HDPE milk jugs and detergent bottles in their thousands - can be had for the price of plucking it from the fly-bombed mounds. Schemes like Pai's present us with the specter of slum children prising apart waste plastic components, dumping them in the chipper, and rendering the resulting slurry into reels of fresh filament. Whether you see this as an ingenious practical element of a closed-loop, cradle-to-cradle industrial ecosystem or a nightmare of exploitation and toxic racism is largely a matter of perspective. (It is entirely possible that Protoprint is both of these things at once).


Nevertheless, here is a model for a sustainable, circular economy founded on digital fabrication. We may not be at all comfortable with Pai's vision, or what it implies about our use of things made with HDPE. But millions of human beings, both throughout India and elsewhere in the world, live and work in garbage dumps, and this work recognizes their labor as an irreplaceable element of an extended circuit of digital production. Especially if trashpickers themselves are collectively enabled to make direct use of the filament they produce, building things at will like any of the rest of us would, schemes like Protoprint offer one way to close the loop. And maybe we can keep more of what we make from hitting the municipal waste stream and winding up in garbage dumps in the first place. At the very least, it makes saense to equip fabrication workshops with some direct, local means of recovery, their 3D printers working side-by-side with the flaking machines and extruders that turn refuse into useful feedstock. But there's a still more ambitious way of thinking about circularity: we can leverage the deep sinks of energy and human labor that are already embodied in the things around us, via fabricator-enabled processes of repair and adaptive upcycling. How many things, after all, have we ever dragged to the sidewalk on trash day for want of a single lost or broken component? And how many of them might have been saved if we'd been able to make those comonents cheaply, locally and on a one-off basis? Digital fabricatoion lets us extend the useful life of household objects, especially when the missing or broken part is expensive, hard to source or no longer produced.

p. 105

For now, downloading plans and making the things we use from them remains a marginal pursuit - unthreatening, tolerated as long as it remains confined to the periphery, perhaps even patronizingly praised for its contributions to "innovation". But should any such practice actually start to erode the logic of profit in the core markets of the developed world, it would be certain to come under concerted attack, technically as well as legally.

p. 106

In order to make sense, a freely licensed, sustainably harvested, locally fabricated chair needs to be economic not when considered against one yet to be produced, but against the tens of millions of chairs that are already in the world, any number of which are availabe more or less for the asking at any given moment. As we've seen, at present, the most radical and energy-efficient choice of all is to reclaim and repurpose, rather than building something new.

p. 110

The [Ciutat] Meridiana neighbours' action offers a striking rebuke to what we might call digital vanguardism: the ideological commitment to fabrication for its own sake, coupled to the failure to take adequate soundings of a community's actual needs or desires before proposing it as a universal solution to their social and economic woes. Here people with the best of intentions had gotten too far ahead not merely of the materially productive capabilities of the technology, but how those technologies were understood by the very people they were intended to benefit.

p. 111

In any raw material sense, we already live in a post-scarcity world, even before any particularly elaborate digital fabrication capacity is brought on line. And yet we still seem to suffer from a pervasive sense of want and lack.


Contra Bowyer, wealth, is not quite the same as having many things, nov even the same as having something whenever you want it. And conversely, poverty is not so much the lack of things as it is dependence on others to furnish the basic needs of life. The essence of what is offered to us by digital fabrication isn't so much the ability to satisfy a material necessity, but that you be able to do so yourself. That you can perceive a need - possibly even a need not addressed by any existing artifact - and devise a response to it, locally, experimentally, iteratively.

p. 112

Those interested in seeing digital fabrication used as part of a project of radical transformation will need to invest a great deal of effort into ensuring that the way in which one would go about using it is actively invitational, not merely demystified and formally accessible. There's a reason why we're still talking about something as dowdy as ownership of the means of production. At every point in history, control over the shape and distribution of matter has been tightly coupled with the shape and distribution of power. The present is no exception. Even now, human dignity is predicated on the satisfaction of material need, on the abiitity to furnish everyone alive with the made objects that afford us shelter from the elements, comfortably scaled space and some measure of control over our immediate environment.

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