Houses of history and the irresistible march of progress

Much has already been speculatively said about the revolution that will begin when 3D printing migrates from being a niche hobby to a mainstream practice. The commentaries discussing it often focus on the industrial and legal ramifications of this innovation being as it has every potential to sound the death knell of traditional industry, doing away with mass production and ushering in a host of political changes. It is undeniable that however wide the scope of uptake of 3D printing is that it will have massive repercussions that will echo throughout history much like the printing press before it. Although it is arguable that an unhealthy amount of the discussion of the potential of this technology has focussed on its predicted impacts on consumerism to the detriment of the other likely ramifications. In this post I will attempt in my own way to remedy this by discussing a potential usage of the technology that I feel could one day dramatically alter the way we engage with our culture and history as a species for good.

To begin with I will attempt to offer the briefest and least jargon heavy explanation of the fundamental principles of 3D printing possible. The reason I aim to do so is as much for my own benefit as the readers, the tendencies of  the tech and science communities to assume that the general public get the same thrill from technical terms as they do is one of its biggest PR failings and will only serve to hamper the growth of this revolution in coming years. Perhaps the best summary of 3D printing I found while researching this post was written by Spencer Thompson at The Guardian in an article discussing the need for regulators of all forms to be wary of measures that could strangle off this industry in its birth if not careful, the article in its entirety can be found here. When discussing the technology Thompson had this to say in summary:

“what is 3D printing exactly, and why should we be so excited about it? It allows people to download designs from the internet and turn them into physical objects, building them up layer by layer. Enthusiasts are already making dollsguitars and – more sinisterly – perhaps even guns, and the technology is advancing all the time. Recent advances mean you can now 3D print in metal and bio-materials, prompting some aerospace and medical firms to make specialised parts with them. This list of uses will only keep growing.”

This summary perfectly highlights both the promise and the threat that is inherent in this technology although again the focus tends towards industrial ramifications at the expense of other possible ramifications. Before I begin my own discussion of the possible effect 3D printing may have on the consumption and recording of human history and culture I will say a little more about the technical process that it entails so as to make clear for the reader how this industry differs from traditional industrial processes and why it is that 3D printing is so revolutionary.

Taking the basic description of 3D printing from Wikipedia as my start point, the difference the entry offers between traditional industry is that the traditional model is reliant “on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes)” . The 3D printing industrial method however “is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes” according to digital template.  It is this very critical difference between additive processes and subtractive processes that is reason that it is such a revolutionary idea. Traditional industry  with its subtractive process is by definition wasteful as it takes a certain amount of any given substance and from this crafts a product discarding what is left over. Even in cases where the discarded material can be used for other means it can only be used a certain amount of times in a highly specific number of ways. The technical aspect of 3D printing that makes it so as revolutionary as Gutenberg’s printing press is that it is an additive process meaning that it only ever uses the necessary amount of material to make things which in a world increasingly aware of its own limited resources is truly ground-breaking.

That this process will come to thoroughly alter the world in which we live is not a contention that I am willing or plan to argue with, as to do so would be utterly futile. Make no mistake about it – this technology will have political ramifications equal in nature to the printing press which similarly challenged the monopolies that certain aspects of European society enjoyed before its introduction. The effects on traditional industry and specifically the power and wealth of the owners of big industry are likely to be drastic, and unlike the printing press which challenged only small albeit powerful aspects of society, 3D printing will affect the whole world in a way that few existing technologies have or ever will.

That is as long as they aren’t simply used just to make bongs for video game fans.

To grasp the scale of how revolutionising the effect of the technology might be in years to come lets conduct a little experiment. Look around the room you sit in while you read this post and count the number of truly unique items in it, the likelihood is that almost everything in that room was mass-produced and that the unique items number so few that they can be counted purely with fingers. As a process for all its positives in terms of personal economy mass production is a process which clearly favours the rich and powerful in society who can afford to build consumer goods on an assembly line at the expense of artisans in every field in every community who may now finally see a chance to produce unique goods which aid them to pay taxes and directly benefit localised economies more than corporations ever could.

This post not sponsored by Nike.

This post not sponsored by Nike.

This being true however does not change the fact that too much of the dialogue on 3D printing focusses too heavily on the industrial and economical implications of its widespread adoption. The aim of this post is to argue that one use I recently thought of for 3D printing could have equally tremendous implications for educational and cultural reasons. The title gave a small clue as to the brain wave which overwhelmed me recently much as moments of seemingly divine inspiration are wont to do.

Museums, they’re one of my favourite places to visit whenever I have the opportunity.  I’ve been fortunate enough to travel in my years on earth and central to every trip that has had a inalterable impact on me as a person was a visit to a museum which in some distinct way changed my view of the world that I held before entering the building. From Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a late Roman church turned mosque turned museum which is arguably the world’s most beautiful ugly building to London’s Natural History Museum which in no small part caused my obsession with dinosaurs that devoured whole days of my childhood at a time – museums have had a irretractable impact on me as a person. How positive this impact has been on my personality of course is open to interpretation, however one concrete notion that I take from the influence museums have had on me as person, that I feel is inherently positive, is that I have a great love of and appreciation for history and why it is worth studying.

All of my above feelings on the topic of museums being true, I do at the same time recognize some issues with museums that trouble me greatly. These conflicting emotions lead me to see a way in which 3D printing could potentially be utilised to serve cultural and educational purposes and solve the flaws of museums as we conceive of them. I’ll begin this section of today’s update by firmly establishing what I feel the main flaws of museums are before moving onto a discussion of how 3D printing could be used to alleviate these issues.

The first issue that I have with museums is that for all their appeal I feel that they still retain a somewhat elitist air about themselves as institution that stems from their history often as the pet projects of rich philanthropists. That the appeal of museums is one that offers more to the upper and middle segments of economic and class groupings ultimately works for museums as an institution with such patrons able to pay or donate towards the upkeep of such facilities.  But let us not forget that in reality business is more often than not a reciprocal relationship rather than unidirectional and so even if museums “work” as a business when viewed from their own perspective this is not reason enough to protect the status quo. If the stated aim of a museum is to inform and educate society then what value is an institution that exclusively informs patrons who in all reality have the finances to be able to educate themselves independently while neglecting the class of people who due to economic circumstance would otherwise be unable to do so. Even in cases such as like here in the UK were entry to the largest and most popular museums is free there are still barriers to entry that hamper people in lower classes from accessing museums. One of the major barriers to entry is the location of many popular museums with world class collections which are often in national capitals meaning that travel and perhaps accommodation are requirements to visit them, again only serving to price out those who might gain the most from a visit to such sites. One way in which museums in the past have attempted to meet this challenge head on is by having travelling collections often arranged around a theme which move from museum to museum in order to allow more people the chance to see their artefacts although despite perhaps the best of intentions such travelling collections rarely make it to regional museums and instead simply rotate around world capitals.

The other problem I have with museums, specifically here in Britain, is their hoarding of artefacts which once perhaps were in danger of damage or destruction to lack of care or civil strife in their country of origin but no longer are. The main culprit which springs to mind in typing that last sentence is the British Museum which contains numerous artefacts that arguably can safely be returned to other countries museums and whose hoarding is so in spite of any notion of decency actually has been detrimental to international relations between Britain and various other countries. Examples of artefacts which are housed in the British museum that have been requested for repatriation include the Elgin Marbles (Greece), Rosetta Stone (Egypt), Benin Bronzes (Nigeria) and statues from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (Turkey). The supposedly enlightened thinking of saving such artefacts from destruction may have once been true but they ring false in the modern day and age.

Greece wants these back even though only one has got a head ...

Greece wants these back even though only one has got a head …

Now that I’ve established what I feel the flaws of museums are I will now offer what I see as one possible and fairly simple alternative to their current behaviour that would incorporate 3D printing and remedy these issues – printing duplicates of existing artefacts. By scanning the dimensions of existing artefacts into data form and then printing these and perhaps painting them to make them completely identical to the original artefacts museums could solve their two biggest flaws by allowing museums and perhaps even schools and universities too all over the world to own copies of the most important cultural and historical items from human history which in turn helps by freeing up the original artefacts up for repatriation to the national museums of the countries they originate from. By utilising 3D printing to catalogue and recreate historical artefacts museums would truly democratise the experience by allowing far greater swathes of humanity access to its history, fulfilling to a much greater degree their aim to educate people in the illustrious history of mankind. Some may argue that because the duplicates are exactly that – duplicates – that they would hold no appeal, my counter argument is that when you view items in a museum the history of the item itself is actually a very secondary quality. The more important quality the item possesses by far is that it is a representation of mankind’s evolution as a species and ultimately copying the item retains the items value as a representation of mankind’s progress being as the original item is only ever a representation of such an idea and therefore is a perfectly worthwhile act in my mind.

Even if you are vehemently antagonistic to my ideas as I have worded them above then please consider another scenario which I feel couldn’t fail to win you over. 2000 years from now the earth is literally ending as a result of mankind’s utter disregard for its environment although humanity is safe as we have finally mastered interplanetary travel. In this situation in an attempt to preserve the most important elements of human history are we really to load rockets with the contents of the world museums knowing how much fuel it takes to lift just 1KG into orbit or might we benefit from carrying simply the scanned data of the worlds museums on a hard-drive  and then printing them upon arrival.

Hardly classifiable as carry-on luggage is it ?

Hardly classifiable as carry-on luggage is it ?

However we feel about the idea of duplicating historical artefacts we can surely see at this juncture that we have at hand in this precise moment in history a technology which will aid in the fight to preserve and protect human history as museums have strived to do in more recent years and I fear we would be foolish to dismiss it out of hand without seriously considering the rewards to reaped from its utilisation.


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