Without a doubt, 3D printing has begun to shift paradigms. Already, small businesses are popping up around the world, providing both the printers themselves, and services for professional prototyping and small run production. Additionally, local institutions called “hackerspaces,” are being built up in part around the the concept of personal manufacturing.
3D printing may still appear to be a novelty – but if it is a novelty, it is one that is poised to cross over into the mainstream, transforming both the economy and society in profound ways. 3D printing has moved beyond prototyping and has found itself amid medical technology, biotechnology, small arms manufacturing, aerospace, and even architecture. And 3D printing is just one of many emerging “disruptive technologies,” so named because they “disrupt” established paradigms, often at the expense of large multinational corporations, and to the benefit of individuals and communities.
Image: 3D printing has gone from producing trinkets and prototypes, to opening the door to architecture and small arms manufacturing. The average person able to build shelter and a means of self-defense, as well as many other necessities that form the foundation of modern (and future) civilization, poses a direct threat to the current establishment – not just in the West, but around the world.
As the ability to access powerful technology reaches the desktop of mere plebeians, predictably special interests are erecting firewalls in the form of regulations, laws, taxes, and fear-mongering spread across the corporate media.
Pushing on the buttons of manufactured “hot issues” like gun control – the fear of gun owners circumventing even the strictest legislation by merely pushing “print” gives the establishment “a foot in the door” to begin regulating and tempering the emergence of personal manufacturing, just as it has done to justify SOPA, ACTA, CISPA, and other draconian, monopolistic pieces of Internet legislation.
There is no doubt that the establishment fears a universally armed public it cannot disarm, but it is equally fearful of a public that is able to print out goods that directly threaten their corporate monopolies, and in turn, threaten the very source of their unwarranted power and influence.
But what happens when this technology spreads outside the reach of such legislation? While immense corporate-financier interests race to establish free-trade agreements that will lead to similar legislation being implemented homogeneously worldwide, it appears the spread of 3D printing and other disruptive technologies may be outpacing it. After all, with the still relatively open Internet, a good idea, blueprint, or set of instructions can reach the other side of the planet at the speed of light while special interest supranational blocs can take decades to construct.
A Race Against Time
A properly educated, technically competent population with access to personal manufacturing and a liberated Internet represents a landscape upon which the seeds of monopolistic corporatism and artificial socioeconomic disparity cannot take root. Therefore, creating a landscape populated by uneducated, technically incompetent people, without access to disruptive technology, has become a primary objective of the establishment, openly pursued in a wide variety of ways.
The push to implement bills like SOPA, ACTA, and CISPA represents an effort that can, and already is, creeping into the realm of personal manufacturing and other forms of disruptive technology. And while the majority of the general population remains apathetic and/or oblivious to the threat these regulations pose to their future, there are enough people across the tech community who do recognize the threat and have mobilized against it.
So effective has this opposition become, that the establishment has started targeting leaders amongst it. Most notably, was the suspicious death of Aaron Swartz, who (allegedly) committed suicide amidst a winning battle against the US government and its SOPA/ACTA legislation.
However, as the battle continues across the West between increasingly effective activists and special interests, the technological tools at the center of it all have escaped beyond the battlefield and into regions of the world where Western corporations and their rules and regulations are neither recognized nor enforced. More specifically, information technology and personal manufacturing is expanding across Asia where the contrived concept of “intellectual property” (IP) has not taken root and where “international laws” regarding IP are openly flouted by both governments and the people.
While a series of controversial free-trade agreements seek to rectify this, including the contrivance of ASEAN and the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the amount of time required to both establish these supranational entities, and produce the illusion of authority necessary to enforce the subsequent laws and regulations they contrive, will leave an ample window of opportunity open for a substantial disruptive technology-driven alternative to take its place permanently.
Now, there is a race against time for both corporate monopolies and the tech community, to see who will establish their global paradigm first – crass, stifling global consumerism, or open-technological progress. Asia offers the tech community many lessons on how to win this race. While the West appears to be crumbling in what its leaders call a “global economic crisis,” many nations across Asia have weathered the crisis with relative ease. And while the West’s tech communities fight a relentless deluge of draconian tech legislation, people and businesses across Asia openly flout the demands made by these very same corporate monopolies. What is the key to their success?
Lesson 1: Collectively Circumventing the Law
Walk into any shopping center in Thailand, and you will find bootleg goods, replicas, and “pirated” software openly on sale. Shoppers are given the choice between authentic items and replicas, and between copied software and licensed originals. Thais are quite proud of the fact they have access to these goods at prices they can afford. Armed police raids into markets selling these goods are rare, and generally end with the police being driven out by angry sellers and buyers alike. Meanwhile, expansive underground alternatives fill in any gaps left on the even rarer occasion a police raid is successful.
It is not that there are no laws put in place by the bought-off politicians polluting Thailand’s political landscape, it’s that the government finds itself completely incapable of enforcing them. This is because a culture of disregarding or circumventing unreasonable, intrusive, and otherwise unnecessary laws is deeply rooted not only in Thai culture, but across all of Asia. Even in Singapore, with its reputation of strict law enforcement, there exists a thriving underground economy the police frequently (and reasonably) look the other way from.
Cultivating and promoting a similar attitude of collective dismissal of unwarranted authority across the West is necessary. Also necessary is to expose the hypocrisy of the Fortune 500’s constant bleating over the merits of “free markets” and “competition” versus its hand wringing when the tables are then turned by disruptive technology. This helps illustrate the “color of law” by which they protect their monopolies and the illegitimacy of the authority by which they attempt to enforce self-serving legislation rammed through the Congress by shamelessly bought-off representatives.
Lesson 2: Embracing, Not Fearing Disruptive Technology
The plummeting sales of media monopolies across the West, driven by information technology and in spite of billions sunk into anti-file sharing legislation, portend the fate of their counterparts across the manufacturing and retail markets. It is a plummeting of not only sales and profits, but of the unwarranted power and political influence such sales and profits granted these monopolies.
Rather than conceding defeat to this new paradigm, and reforming themselves to play a constructive role within it, special interests in the West have decided, apparently, to fight it to the bitter end.
In Asia, a different attitude has been generally adopted. As disruptive technologies like 3D printing spread across Asia, they are being used to enhance the existing economic paradigm and in doing so, will undercut drastically foreign monopolies already losing ground in Asia.
The Economist is already in the early stages of hysteria regarding this shifting paradigm. It reported in its article, “A new brick in the Great Wall: Additive manufacturing is growing apace in China,” that:
Western countries led the development of 3D printing, and the technique has been praised by Barack Obama as a way to revive America’s manufacturing industries. It may yet do so. But the extent to which that revival will be brought about by the return to America of production which has migrated to countries like China is harder to predict—for China has plans of its own.
It continues by stating:
The company also makes even smaller printers, called UP, which sell for less than 6,000 yuan. Personal printers like these are helping to create a Chinese version of the “maker movement”—a mixture of hobbyists and craft producers who, finding that 3D-printing technology greatly lowers the cost of going into production, are creating small manufacturing businesses. The maker movement began in America, but it is taking off in China too. Maker fairs are now being held in some of the big cities. Officials seem happy to encourage this, and some talk of introducing 3D printers into schools, to spark pupils’ interest in careers in engineering.
3D printing is still a long way from replacing mass manufacturing. But in China, as in America and Europe, the technology is changing the way products are developed and made. And by lowering the cost of entry, 3D printing could herald yet another new generation of Chinese manufacturing entrepreneurs.
The choice to include in the title, the “Great Wall,” is a reference to the West’s narrative that China is cutting itself off from the “international community” and the process of “globalization.” It is generally used in regards to China’s Internet, where Western tech monopolies have been replaced by domestic alternatives, and Western propaganda is outright blocked.
The fear is that the interdependent global neo-mercantilism paradigm created by large corporate interests in the West will collapse if nations like China, India, and nations across the West’s ASEAN AEC project, decide to turn away from the continued exploitation of cheap, unskilled human labor to fulfill Western consumerism, and instead toward a more sustainable and equitable society based on education and technology.
What scares the Economist most is the fact that China will be introducing 3D printing across school curriculum, and is actively encouraging the maker-community, inspiring and empowering an entire generation of producers, rather than consumers. This national embracing of disruptive technology in Asia is unseen in the West.
Disruptive technology gives both individuals and special interests across Asia an advantage over a West that seeks to fold the region into a greater geopolitical order. If given a choice between subservience to a demonstrably treacherous West, or presiding over an independent nation with an empowered population, albeit with more modest influence and wealth, which will Asian leaders choose? It appears that in China, they have elected the latter.
It is unlikely the current establishment in the West will ever embrace disruptive technology – co-opt it, abuse it, regulate it, or bury it, but never embrace it. Instead, for the tech community in the West, just as much effort and energy that is put into fighting draconian legislation, should be put into building up local institutions within communities, leveraging disruptive technology to do what the establishment won’t or has categorically failed to do. This includes providing jobs, better healthcare, shelter, superior education, and collaborative spaces where pragmatic solutions can be developed for real, immediate problems.
If the existing establishment won’t embrace this technology and use it for the greater good, create a local establishment that will.
Lesson 3: Combining Disruptive Technology & Traditional Grassroots Economics
Asia still possesses a culture of local entrepreneurship. In Thailand, nearly everyone, rich and poor, is engaged in entrepreneurial activity, even if part-time, be it selling fruit on the sidewalk, running a bakery out of one’s home, or turning the first floor of their townhouse into a small factory, workshop, or classroom. It is not uncommon to see small factories, bakeries, restaurants, tutoring houses, and grocery stores side-by-side within a single block.
It is increasingly common to see many of these businesses leveraging emerging technology not only to enhance their current grassroots economic activity, but to open the doors to economic activity once the sole realm of big-capital.
It is very clear what implications 3D printing and other forms of disruptive technology will have in such a socioeconomic environment, where zoning laws, rules, regulations, and taxes have yet to stifle grassroots economics.
For the West’s tech community, taking advantage of this paradigm in Asia and replicating it back at home can help undermine the financial and political strength with which the establishment uses to repeatedly throw legislation like SOPA, ACTA, and CISPA at the public. While challenges surely face Westerners pursuing grassroots economics, the fact that it works in Asia should be impetus enough to find loopholes and detours around draconian legal obstacles.
Already, there are efforts to co-opt technological progress in Asia with US/EU-backed NGOs such as the farcical NDItech front and its umbrella organization, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), posing as progressive “netizens.” In reality, these NGOs seek to poison well-meaning activists across Asia who would otherwise have the education, knowledge, and enthusiasm to take up the cause of real activists like Aaron Swartz. Instead of fighting for their own best interests, these dupes are led by these NGOs through a system of institutionalized flattery, funding, and aggrandizing, to do the bidding of the West’s various foreign ministries and the corporate-financier interests they serve.
This in turn plays a contributing role in geopolitical strategies of tension represented by the US’ insidious “pivot toward Asia” and political instability sown within individual Asian nations, including Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and China itself, seeking to strangle progress long enough for special interests to catch up and reassert themselves.
By convincing well-meaning people that progress only comes in the form of “democracy,” “elections,” and “political protest,” it is hoped that attention and energy can be diverted entirely away from truly liberating technological pursuits.
Whether or not the West’s tech community realizes the importance of Asia in their battle for Internet and tech-freedom, the corporate-financier interests they are fighting have, and are already setting up camp.
A To-Do List
It is important for people across both the West and Asia to educate themselves about all forms of disruptive technology, particularly 3D printing, but also other emerging fields such as synthetic biology. The key to ensuring these technologies are used for the best interests of the people, is for the people themselves to understand them, use them, and control them directly.
Both across the West and in Asia, hackerspaces (see here for a complete list) and 3D printing operations are popping up. Visiting one of these establishments would be a good first step for the average person to get involved in supporting and contributing to this real revolution.
People must understand how powerful and profound this revolution is, and why the establishment has been desperately trying to ensnare as many well-meaning people as possible in distractions and false-causes, most notably the so-called “Arab Spring.” People must recognize attempts by the establishment to co-opt this revolution, by following the money and ties of those attempting to fund and task activists and local institutions such as hackerspaces and DIYbio labs, to do the bidding of the establishment.
Most importantly, the people of the West must learn from Asia the value of collectively dismissing and circumventing unwarranted, unjust, unnecessary, stifling legislation designed solely to protect special interests.
Collective dismissal of legislation lobbied for by special interests does indeed work, and sets an important precedent needed to check the otherwise unimpeded incestuous relationship between big-business and government. This can be done not only through directly dismissing legislation, but by constructing creative “loopholes” to circumvent such legislation. In other cases, such as SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, and CISPA, people can begin developing decentralized alternatives that render moot entirely, attempts by the establishment to monopolize the people’s infrastructure.
3D printing and other disruptive forms of technology are taking off, and as they work their way into an already dynamic Asian economy, the West’s tech community stands to gain immeasurably by understanding and collaborating with those in Asia that reflect their ideals. Ensuring the success of disruptive technology in Asia will lead to millions of people there who will in turn understand and support the West’s tech community in their fight against legislation like SOPA, ACTA, and CISPA.
Asia provides a model of merging old ideas, culture, and tradition with cutting edge technology, opening the door to a future where economics are local, but with global collaboration and awareness – a future where the crippling unwise interdependency demanded by globalization is shed off in exchange for decentralized independence granted by leveraging technology to empower individuals and communities. It is a future that is possible in Asia, and it is a future possible across the West – but one that requires wider awareness and daily activism beyond merely protesting to achieve.