20 February 2013
3D Printing and the Household: Implications for the Division of Labor
In what is becoming a series of posts about the possible implications of 3D printing;
Following the lead of the New York Times (as embarrassing as that is for a devotee of Zinn's, Manufacturing Consent such as myself) , I am turning my attention away from the implications of 3D printing on industrial class relations to comment on one of the possible implications of having these machines in our homes.
As this article from the Times website today points out these machines are becoming affordable, and are capable of producing many things that we need around the home. The article cites fixing clocks, espresso machines, etc.
Is it possible that this technology may in a sense allow the modern household to return to frontier farm stead. It is easy to imagine a not to distant future where we are again producing ourselves, in the household many of the "small" commodities that we purchase for daily life. This change would essentially be a move backwards in time in terms of the division of labor in society. The definition of modern life is one of great specialization.
As I am fond of telling my students, "if I had to grow my own food, make my own clothing or generate my own electricity I would be dead in a week". I specialize in reading, writing, teaching, and mixing cocktails. The monetary gains from these few activities allow me to exchange for everything else that makes up the myriad of consumption that comprises my material existence.
It is possible with an in home 3D printer that many "highly" specialized people such as myself will no longer need to exchange for much of the array small commodities that we use in our daily life, but rather "print" them in our own homes. It is possible that the manufacture of relatively simple, inexpensive commodities may soon be relegated to the type of process that washing the dishes, making the bed, and sweeping the floor currently is for most of us in society; a processes completed in the home. The production of commodities for use, that were never intended for exchange, may be making a comeback. I am not meaning to suggest that rates of specialization in our paid labor will decrease, but rather specialization in certain areas of production will be rendered obsolete, forcing those currently engaged in production of many commodities based in plastics to evolve or face structural unemployment.
What are the economic impacts of these machines? I think it is clear that only time will tell, but it is not a big leap to suggest that the technology with the greatest impact on the organization of production since the personal computer may be here and structural unemployment of makers of household commodities is probably just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.