Meet your MakerBot

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In Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut depicted a world in which the average working schmoe was completely redundant. Machines did all the work, made all the products, filled the steaming factories, leaving humans to hang around at a subsistence level, trying to find things to do with themselves. In Vonnegut’s dystopia, folks had trouble with that last bit. The church says constructive, ennobling work is part of what gives our lives meaning and promotes our dignity. Deprived of it by more efficient and non-coffee-break-taking machines, I wonder how we in the nonfiction land are going to fare. We are closer to our mechanized replacements than we may realize.

The New York Times offered an online spread recently, detailing a new device, the MakerBot 3-D printer, which promises to revolutionize manufacturing and possibly our lives in the near future. The devices were originally used to create the prototypes that helped launch traditional manufacturing efforts. The “printer” can, following digitized blueprints, make pretty much any simple assembled product you want; perhaps, for instance, a lot of the stuff you buy on the cheap that arrived on a slow container boat from China. The model detailed in the Times forms items out of plastic, heated and sprayed under pressure in microthin layers, but other 3D printers can throw more complicated products together using other materials, even metal. There is even as larger-scale model that can be used to construct houses. Seriously.

At first glance you might consider this a great innovation. At $1,300 a pop (unassembled, but maybe you can get a machine to do that for you on the cheap), they will be hard to resist. Now virtually any hobbyist or retail manager, homemaker even, can become their own object-specific, inventory-free manufacturer. No need to outsource the job to low-wage workers China and pay to have products shipped back. No need to warehouse anything. Just rev up one of these babies! They produce on demand.

We can keep the jobs here in the good old USA, um, that is, if there were actual jobs and not these infernal machines producing things. Ahh, there's the rub. And what about those folks left behind in China. Aren’t we contemporary custodians of the free market and the beneficence of capitalism counting on low-wage manufacturing gigs to provide the stepping stones for less economically advanced societies to move out of the poverty and deprivation of traditional life?

In “Player Piano” the bored and deprived underclass are driven by the machine-produced drudgery, poverty, and sloth to rise up against their social overlords and their world's mechanized tyranny. Much mayhem ensues. In a different version of the future, Gene Roddenbery’s, machines likewise have taken over the manufacture of most things. Here Star Trekian "replicators," much like the MakerBot, spit out pretty much anything you tell your voice-activated computer you want via a magical manipulation of carbon molecules. But in that vision of the future, people are not enslaved by boredom or entrapped by poverty because they are locked out of the modes of production. In Star Trek, most folks are content to let the replicators play the piano of production for them while they look into more meaningful, fulfilling pursuits like saving the universe, introductory Klingon or learning how to play the Vulcan harp or that crazy three-level chess game of Spock’s.

That’s certainly a more attractive option that the despair and substance abuse of Player Piano. Here’s hoping, when our inevitable redundancy arrives, we can “make it so.”