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The Shape of Shaping Things to Come

A weird commotion outside wakes you up. You peer out the window to see the source of the music and revelry. A group of college kids from the engineering school are smashing all of their furniture in the street. The next day while walking the dog, you see them again. They’re sweeping up the pieces of broken housewares, and shoveling it into bags. The next day, it looks like they’re moving in again as they carry brand new designer furniture into their house. They do this every month or so.

You are shopping in Ikea, looking for a new end table, and perhaps a rug. Suddenly, uniformed security guards appear and surround a young woman. She is escorted from the store, uneventfully. “Pocket scanner,” you hear an employee tell an inquiring couple.

With delighted expectation, your son unwraps his birthday gift. Awe is quickly replaced by disappointment. “Isn’t that the one you wanted?” you ask confused, certain that it was the new action figure, ordered directly from the TV show web site. “Yeah, it’s the one,” he says cautiously, not looking you in the eyes. “I just forgot that all the accessories would be un-modded on the store version.”


3D printed objects, or “physibles” are an incredible example of the mundane aspects of future-weird. They are glitchy-as-fuck, but their shapeshifting effect on our cultural space will inhabit the same metaphysics of street graffiti— appreciated by only a few, truly understood by even less.

A physible is simple. Download a file with information about the shape of an object, or component parts of an object. Use a 3D printing machine that squirts molten plastic, metal or other material to pour you that object, without needing a mold. Or, send the file to a company who will do that for you. These machines simplify the process of fabbing an object, by using a single machine to create parts of nearly anything. Previously, specific injection molds had to be created for each piece, or a welder had to attach pieces by reading a diagram. Now the machine can build the entire piece in one run, with basically zero set-up investment. The investment to produce a single object is nearly nothing— all it takes is the design, and one of these universal printing machines.

This technical evolution is interesting, but the real revolution will be in the changing distribution of fabrication shops that this production shift will create. Fabrication has been sourced wherever the set-up requirements are cheapest, with the production runs made as large as possible. But the technology behind physibles will make short-run fabrication, anywhere, much more preferable. It will eventually be cheaper for a person to fab one object at home, than to buy one of five hundred thousand made in one place and shipped across the world. Physibles will decentralize the Pearl River, and bring China home.

But the technology of physibles doesn’t mean much to the consumer. Not any more than the encoding of a MP3 file, or the precise stitch pattern of a handbag. It means something to the person who actually fabs the object, but as a consumer, you’ll get your things wherever is cheapest and easiest, just like always. You’ll still order things online. Rather than coming from China, perhaps a Chinese company will outsource the design to a fab shop down the street that will hand deliver it to your door. The means of production continue to mean nothing to the end-user: commodity cost is king. Most people want their stuff to just be stuff, and don’t care about how it works. Consider the frustration people experience trying to get a PDF to print correctly on a flat sheet of paper. These folks will be filling their cabinets, entertaining their children, and brushing their teeth with physibles every day of their lives without knowing how the object came into existence, or what that means for global distribution networks.

Most people. On the other hand, there will be a new set of object hackers, who will be spending all their free time online, discussing the precise interior dimension ratios of the new set of Target glassware (which, they have discovered, is almost exactly equivalent in volume to a very famous American glass company’s 1940 catalog). Their forums will be filled with discussion of the best way to minimize wind resistance on custom bicycle fenders, while still maximizing spray blockage. Drug paraphernalia will be designed for maximum efficiency, with a willing and ready test market. A new hacker vernacular will be filled with implicit understandings of the integrals of surface area and volume, of curves and angles, of phase change curves and stress tolerances. One more set of bright kids will take a hard tangent outward from the common understanding matrix of “mainstream society”. But if you’re nice to them, perhaps they’ll fab you a custom iPhone case for Christmas.

Of course, there will be people who get into this deep. As 3D printers get cheaper and more functional, there will be folks that just can’t avoid diving head first into this new physical object magic. Even less people will download physibles from The Pirate Bay than download ebooks, but those who do will shape the world for the rest of us. They will be that hot nozzle, spraying our sense of physical existence into reality according to precisely calculated coordinates.

These physible hackers will crave new material. They’ll need stuff to work with and to hack, just like DJs need new tracks to cut up. You’ll see weird looking people in stores, fondling new design products. Measuring them. Pointing lasers at them. Taking cell phone photos from multiple angles. Physible hackers’ creations will remain on the outskirts, like custom-painted skateboard decks, like underground mixtapes. This marginal domain will have its superstars, its up-and-comers, and it’s sell-outs. Retro physible hackers will take up woodworking, just to “make something real”. You’ll be able to tell physible-hackers by their weird stuff. That friend of a friend, whose apartment is filled with contorted lamps and more abstract vases than any 20-something really needs. The girl on the subway platform, with a pair of headphones/cosplay-animal-ears you’ve never seen on anyone else. The freebox on front lawn of that house with the loud music, that occasionally has bizarre, nearly unusable dishware sticking out of it. Is that dishware? Or is a porcelain hat?

This stuff will stay in the fringes, until it somehow becomes cheaper and more appealing than stuff on the shelf. Then you’ll buy modded, open-source objects without realizing it, there being nothing to distinguish them from “real” objects. You’ll see modded objects, and never know that you have never seen the original, just like you hear remixes without ever listening to the original song. You’ll be told in product reviews to search out the “forked” object via this link, rather than buy the real one on Amazon. You’ll click, inquisitively, but the link will be dead. There will be new forms of Digital Rights Management, and new ways around that Digital Rights Management. There will be some amazing innovations in objects that have pretty much been the same for the last one hundred years: pretty ingenious new door stops and mouse traps. A 12 year-old will give a TED talk about how she stumbled upon a new type of eating utensil while doing a homework assignment for some class called “Fab Lab”: whatever that is. Cool Tools will be shut down by a DMCA notice, for failing to cull links to physibles from their comments threads. None of this will matter to you, unless you know what Cool Tools is.

You’ll see “cancered objects”, or other New Aesthetic artifacts on the surface of physical objects. Whereas once we accepted the blobs and seams left by injection molds without a second thought, we will accept the new characteristics of things that physibles provide without knowing it, as the physical semi-error-states of physibles slowly move from bug to feature.

But the production artifacts won’t just be on the surface of the object, in the unique flaws of the actual fab process. Artifacts will grow in our mental conceptions of what things are, and what space is. Our aesthetic sense of negative space will be synonymous to the scattered shot of a 3D scanner’s laser beam. Pixelated curves in physical space will form a low-res, “8 Bit” houseware aesthetic. Inset or missing blips in the resolution of the surfaces of our stuff will be a natural aspect of the college student’s lifestyle. A physible hacker could navigate this newly crystalizing structure of our cultural space. Given enough coffee or booze, s/he could expound for hours on the means of production and the social implication of various bioplastic distribution networks and recycling schemes. But who would really care? Geeks— am I right? Would the plight of minimum-wage object fabbers using carcinogenic printing materials matter to us any more than the suicide pacts of Foxconn workers?

I’m thinking of this as the “mundane future-weird” because while it’s going to be weird, it’s also just going to be resolutely more of the same. Does it really matter how any of the thousands of disposable objects that clog our sense of time and space got to be there? Does anyone care about how things came to be, past their ability to move a shiny-new-something from one set of hands to another, and perhaps make a buck in the process? If there is anything truly surprising about the future, it’s that we are never really surprised when it finally arrives. Nothing springs from the earth fully formed. Everything comes from somewhere--whether from the nozzle of a 3D printer in a hackerspace, or straight from the endless cycle of “capitalism,” whatever that is. Those who know, already know. Those who don’t aren’t likely to be suddenly shocked out of their current state of mind by a table lamp, even if it is smashed in the street.


Don’t be disappointed though. If you want really want to see weird, you just have to jump a step ahead. But what about scanning and printing buildings, copying and archiving architecture? What about terraforming? What if the unique drainage contours of a fertile river valley are scanned, and then used to reshape an area destroyed by strip mining, or suffering cataclysmic rainfall increases from climate change? The physible, a file containing the geodetic and topographical information, is beamed to a thousand drone bulldozers. After a week, the land is shaped as easily as using Photoshop’s clone-stamp tool on a Google Map. How about plastic surgery? How about internal surgery? Why have your heart, with a family history of disease, when you could have the heart of a person who lived to be one-hundred and five? Let us fab you a new future, from scans of other futures of the past.

But it all becomes academic after awhile. We already do those things as well. We shape the earth, we shape ourselves. We shape space and time. It’s just modded neologisms and recycled phrases squirting from the end of the nozzle. The stuff that you fab, ends up fabbing you.

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Kyle McDonald March 8 2012 18:21Reply

love the speculative fiction, but this is just a weird article.

it feels like it's on the outside of pop culture/thepiratebay.org (including the "download" ad in the screenshots…?) and on the outside of hacker/maker culture (there's no mention of thingiverse.com). but in general i feel like anyone excited by 'physibles' just hasn't been paying enough attention to the reprap+makerbot communities.

there are also some weird assumptions about how 3d scanning and 3d printing will evolve hand in hand. the two technologies are following very different routes. people who own 3d printers aren't usually trying to replicate things, they're trying to design things that don't exist in the first place. 3d reverse engineering software is still massively expensive and niche.

i'm sure the future described here will eventually come to pass, but it's not going to emerge from present technology (extrusion printing and handheld 3d scanners).

JoshHarle March 8 2012 20:37Reply

I'm a PhD candidate in Design and Architecture and have done a fair bit of both 3D reconstruction and 3D fabrication. Having insight into both the user and developer side of things as they are today, and an idea of where the tech is going, I just wanted to make some points:

But the technology behind physibles will make short-run fabrication, anywhere, much more preferable. It will eventually be cheaper for a person to fab one object at home, than to buy one of five hundred thousand made in one place and shipped across the world.

I'd love if this were true, but there are a few reasons why it won't be. There are always economies of scale for bulk material purchase, equipment investment, and technical expertise.

A desktop Makerbot is are nothing but a toy compared to professional 3D printing machines. Even our university's compliment of $800k+ printers are dated and obsolete just a couple of years after getting them (in both the final product quality relative to other methods, and in the sense of it being unsupported and impossible to source material for).

Besides being a fun hobby project, there's little reason to desktop print when you can get a much better final product from the other side of the world, much cheaper (I'm thinking Shapeways here, which is 5-to-10 times cheaper than our uni printer, and much better results).

Traditional printing is a reasonable model: Desktop printers are for piecemeal printing at low quality. You could print a book, but the result would be lower-quality and expensive. Professional printers can happily Print-On-Demand one-offs, and do so well and cheaply.

Desktop printing is good for quick prototyping, and allows you the same freedom that the emergence of digital photography does: there is no outside person involved in the process, and so if you wanted to print, for example, some components of a weapon then you are free to do so.

As for the 3D scanning side, there are already affordable solutions to desktop scanning, and technologies like the Kinect and photogrammetry are making 3D scanning more and more ubiquitous. Check out this video from 2009 demonstrating a less-than $1000 desktop scanner for reproducing broken car parts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggvzcGdZsTc

Adam Rothstein March 11 2012 17:53Reply

In both of this comments, it is a good point that the resources and technological advances in different aspects of the production process, not just the "scanner/printer" per se, are what will be the defining factor in the way the market evolves. The scanner/printer is a consumer object in itself, because it conceptually makes the fabbing process a "one-machine" activity for certain users. But production, as always, is a much wider domain than any particular machine.

Per this particular comment, I just want to add something about the parallel to paper-printing technology. Again, it is a conceptual issue of what is a "machine. The idea of a "desktop printer", or a "Print-On-Demand" printer, is similar to that of a "3D Printer". It in itself is a consumer unit, that doesn't really address the technology inside. A desktop color laser printer has basically the same quality print engine as an in-line "book machine". What defines the ability to make a book is the right paper, the pre-press know-how, and in-line bindery functions. If someone knows InDesign and is willing to cut and bind a book by hand, they could indeed make a professional-quality book with a $300 desktop printer. It is because we, as both users and consumers, privilege the all-in-one process of the machine (despite the fact that book-machines aren't magic and are difficult to use with consistent quality) that we think of certain machine set-ups as having this singular ability, when actually the technology is a much wider field.

So when we say that consumers will always get better quality or speed or value by going to a "professional", weren't not really talking about the operator, the owner, or the technology itself, but we're talking about access to certain technologies, and the skills to use them all together. No offense to either of the commenters here, whose skills and experience are no doubt well-earned; but I think that while these skills will still be real and crucial, they will be, in the near future, distributed outside of "professional" industry. I'm saying this from my particular experience in paper printing. There is still a necessary investment in skill and equipment, but it is leaving the "industry". Coffee shops are getting bookmaking machines. Offices are getting bindery equipment. Individuals are learning to cloth-bind books, for no other reason than they want to do so. Perhaps this is a feature of the changing nature of "professionalism" in industry, or because of the cheapening of technology. But either way, it's interesting to watch.

idenergycrisis Dec. 27 2012 13:45Reply

I really appreciate the insightful and playful speculation in this article. I am not actively involved in hacker culture at all, much less the specific circles of maker-bots etc., but I am an artist and cultural observer and I appreciate your keen sense of how this technology will indeed shape the cultural actions and attitudes toward objects. I heard Marshall McLuhan's frustrated voice ringing in my head when I went to the AT&T store the other day to register an iPhone i just got…what I've gathered from him is the danger of not properly cataloguing the (potential) cultural, psychological and physical effects of emerging media in a culture of mass distribution where, as you mentioned, a majority of the people don't give two shits about the origin of their mountains and mountains of stuff. Anyhow I think you've done a really good job of starting to catalogue and speculate on the wider influence of a technology that has hardly been tossed into the pond or begun to make ripples, much less make waves. But you kind of fizzled out there at the end, retreating into a "more things change / more they stay the same" sort of conclusion. I just signed up with Rhizome and i'll be interested to hear your continuing thoughts on this conversation. I think it is possible and necessary to cultivate the hacker-mentality of DIY production and (as you mentioned in response to the printing analogy) the availability of the technology seems to be having some effect on people's willingness to see the bird's-eye-view of production and take matters into their own hands. Part of the cultivation of the hacker-mentality is to bring micro-cultures that pop up around different technologies into conversation with one another, or to further IRL the URL conversation, as it were. I know so many people with limited access to or interest in digital technology whose lives would be tremendously affected by a few less degrees of separation from somebody involved in a hacker-space, for instance. Now i'm getting side-tracked speculating myself about the possibility of localizing our economies and pooling our resources and whatnot. I guess that's the part I'm interested in. In your article you did a fly-over of a lot of different parts of the future-culture and i was glad to see you peek into so many corners of the market, but i'd say don't get bogged down about how the mainstream attitudes towards said technology will be apathetic or none the wiser RE: "the nozzle." For my own part in this future I am intrigued by the potential of connecting the realm of physibles to new audiences. My feeling is that in communities where there is a true need for innovation, the true innovators step up to the task and are able to bring fresh eyes to emerging technologies. Great article!