When the Ink Moves Again (the future of squidgy)

Cory Doctorow suggested recently that Digital Rights Management and its shoring-up exercises may be only the start of a “War on General Computing” to come – in which various interests, probably more powerful than the entertainments industry, will attempt to control peopleʼs use of computers by requiring that they only operate with built-in spyware to monitor and control our activities – no matter how impossible that is to actually achieve in any comprehensive sense.  (And I might add, no matter the problems prohibition and wars always create.)

This sets me thinking:  As others have observed, one area this might happen is 3D printing.  Right now, weʼre in much the same place microcomputing was in the mid-to-late 1970s, with build-it-yourself kits (like the original Apple) being about the most popular way of obtaining them.  We have yet to see the 3D printer equivalent of the Vic-20, ZX81, or BBC Micro.  Thatʼs not to say that there will inevitably be such a thing.  (If history really did repeat itself it would be easier to learn from.)  Itʼs questionable whether there will ever be the kind of demand for 3D printing at home that there has been for computing and 2D printing.  But it can be expected that something like the IBM PC will emerge and dominate the market anyway, because thatʼs what mass-production markets do.  And going by present trends, it will have DRM; instead of USB it will connect with something like HDMI, a cable (or at least an interface) which restricts the actions of a computer, owned by anyone, to those permitted by a Luddite industry association.  There is no particular reason to think that industry associations in this case will be any less inane than the entertainments outfits, so there will probably be something like DVD region encoding too.  Which is one reason why I plan to get in early and get the equivalent of an Apple I (in memory of the days when Apple did not seem like part of the problem).

But thatʼs not what I came here to blog about.

In many ways the emergence of the technology known as 3D printing is not similar to computers 35 years ago.  It just happens to be a consequence of computing.  It has more in common with the emergence of 2D printing as a major technology – which of course, by the time 3D printing became possible, had already happened twice, first being realised as letterpress.

Those who know me will know the story I used to tell of how I started printing at the age of nine with wax stencils, a stylus, a typewriter, and a Rex-Rotary duplicator; how I progressed through potato prints, silk-screening, rubber stencils, photcopiers, scalpels and Pritt-Stick; and how around 25 years ago I arrived at the second coming of printing: electronic origination (in my case in the form of an Amstrad PCW with DTP software and a mouse, followed by PageMaker and Illustrator on a 9-inch Mac).  Now I find the computer and the web are replacing the second coming almost before it arrived.  Historians may have some difficulty picking it out.  In 2012, I donʼt need to print things very often, [1] partly because the screens we have are large enough and/or high-resolution enough that we donʼt need much paper...

I want to step back to Gutenberg for a moment.  I wonder, reading the current 3D enthusiasm, whether it was like this then.  In the 1970s, we knew printing was revolutionary: power, here in our hands.  Cut & paste fanzines and small-press political magazines were similar well into the 80s.  So were computers, and many of the builders of 8-bit microcomputers knew it (Iʼm told).  Now ‘makers’ are conscious of the same thing.

Did Gutenberg know?  Or was he too respectable a businessman?  Or did he not have the example of several hundred years of enlightenment and shared knowledge?  Many later printers were consciously radical; itʼs not difficult to spot the issue when someoneʼs trying to stop the presses.  Prior to DRM it was more obvious – cudgels and courts draw more attention than HDMI cables, although the intent and the justifications are similar.

Whatever Gutenberg thought, the first printing revolution, the mass distribution of knowledge, came about with moveable type.  Industrialisation brought us to hot metal, to offset lithography and phototypesetting, computing brought us to mass electronic origination.  Now back to today:

...but concurrently because printing in some places has fully moved into its next phase: Networked Electronic Publishing[2]  As weʼve known for a while, this is revolutionary.  For personal purposes at least, apart from two occasions when I've needed to sign a paper copy of a form, and one circuit plan required by regulation, I have now gone over a year without printing anything.  My printers sit in boxes alongside my old Macs and Amstrad.  I have written more out by hand in the last year than I have printed.  (Itʼs like being a teenager again.)  Almost all the physical print I see now is packaging and junk mail.

2D printing is not redundant, nor do I think it will ever be, though it will slowly be relegated to specialist markets, and may become more expensive again.  But the main 2D medium has become fluid, and is getting more so – the ink now moves, on screens, walls, phones and maybe soon on floppy pieces of electronic paper.

So what I came here to blog about is this:

I wonder what the future is for 3D printing?  Firstly, will the 3D ink move again?  Will we ride out this development cycle, and not only leave our expensive kit printers behind when cheap mass-market gear becomes available; will we find the cheap 3D printer thereafter becomes irrelevant because we have a new moving technology?  Will we not need to print objects; just upload a form (optionally, with actions or response patterns) into a new substrate?

What could the substrate be, and how would we interact with it?  I donʼt think these are really new questions.  Answers are likely to be – to function, it would need to be a sort of plasticine computer, a ‘squidgiPad’ maybe.  Plasticine computers might come in all shapes and sizes, but Iʼd prefer to be able, like plasticine, to mash a few bits together to occupy the space I need.  For this, it would need to be composed of symmetrical multiprocessing plasticine [3] chunks.  Or it might be a scoopful of nanobots at a time (microbots may be more realistic though).  It might inflate and deflate where necessary to fill spaces (like insulating foam) or for rigidity – maybe thatʼs optimistic, but very useful...

Much like the future of 2D printing, I think there will always be a place for some quasi-permanent objects.  But how many, and what kind?  If organisable-fluid objects [4] became a reality, would we find ourselves wanting fewer possessions, because one could take on many roles?  We could hope so, to reduce consumption.  But permanently organised objects [5] (which might be short-lifespan or disposable/recyclable rather than permanent in the ordinary sense) would still have many uses, and most art objects, useful or not, would be permanently organised, including those with some degree of organised morphing.

In terms of interactions ... if the iPhone is anything to go by we would probably talk to it, and be spoken back to.  So in its unorganised state it might constitute a sort of motile, Turing-testable, fungus.  (Was there not a Quatermass movie with one of them in it?)  It could run most of its computations remotely as a thin client, but the issues of anonymous encrypted networking would apply here as much as anywhere, and perhaps more so.  Itʼs one thing to jailbreak your iPhone and see whether youʼve a rootkit on board; it may be another to jailbreak and monitor the interactions of a myriad microbots which can form a candlestick one day, a book cover the next, and in between reformations, send an easily overlooked individual bot to hide out with the spiders till after the next malware scan.  Maybe not an intractable threat, but I might just want to print my own bots and have them operating as a fully autonomous squidgiCluster.  But then – and given that 3D fluidity (if invented) could in time represent, or form part of, practically every human artifact, this is the big question – would I be allowed to?

And that leads into a second question.  We can clearly see now, centuries on, that printing is a revolutionary and profoundly enriching technology, that as far as (real) knowledge has spread, it has (with some qualifications) made us wealthier, healthier, happier, and in spite of the determinedly ignorant among us, probably wiser on average.  All this is the outcome of the large-scale reproduction of knowledge, though it is also the outcome of the consequent development of the reproduction of objects through moulding, sheet forming, and other older 3D printing processes.

I doubt we can sensibly extrapolate from this a future in which 3D printing produces a similar revolution through the availability of objects rather than thoughts.  Like 2D computer-controlled printers, maybe they would have would have, but their existence is an outcome of that revolution having already happened.  They are a personalisation of already extant technologies.  But we now have a new revolution ahead of us – the convergence of knowledge and form.  With or without 3D fluidity, before long, nearly every object made could also be a book.  And as at the time of writing, a book has already become the network.

Just as phones have become computers we can read, or have tell us stories, so could anything we now make; from our beds to our shoes to our organ replacements – mechanical or semi-organic.  (And yes with IPv6.)  Even food-purpose meat is now being 3D printed.  (Douglas Adamsʼ talking dish of the day beckons, perhaps?)  I doubt that the reproducible combination of knowledge and substance, whether benevolently or exploitatively implemented, can fail to bring about a similar magnitude of revolution as Gutenbergʼs press.

And with the computer-controlled printer, things come full circle.  What Gutenberg invented was an efficient means of producing repeatable, consistent quality of information.  But MailMerge is now more or less standard.  I can already choose which elements of a print run of objects will be repeated and which will be individually customised, all with consistent and high quality.  For 2D objects – printed paper – this can now be done with a digital press at high speed in quantities into the millions, if I can pay for it.  When every object we make or buy can be individually registered to us, geotracked, individually printed to our size or decorative preference, individually organised to only talk to us (and specific others, with or without our knowledge or consent) ... the increased range of possibilities begin to be apparent.

Those of you who use them might want to consider borrowing an umbrella; it checks your subdermal tag to determine your access rights and nags loudly and continuously if you havenʼt been added to the ACL.  Tolkein fans will remember the Trollʼs Purse?  Phones can now ‘brick’ themselves if stolen.  An umbrella could dissolve when wet?  These sorts of capabilities will have a great deal to recommend them, so one way or another I think they will develop beyond phones.  We will want them.  But just as I already have heavily encrypted hard drives, and just as someone somewhere is fed up of their umbrella being borrowed, and will want the facility to do something about it, so narrow, unthinking industry associations want meaningless, even counterproductive, levels of control of their products, and other petty tyrants want meaningless and counterproductive control of their victims, whether it be their daughters, their entire countries, or their global customer base theyʼre locking in cellars.  Someone will want these sorts of abilities too, and we can assume that those with the power will get them, and those with the power to enforce the universal use of their spyware in a particular territory or a particular market will do what they can to rig any local laws to that end.

So can the tyrants be reined in?  What realistic methods are there for doing so?  (I donʼt count showy but effectless DoS attacks.)  Can they be anything other than, as the Prime Minister of Norway inspiringly said in another context recently, ‘More openness, more democracy’?  Can they be anything other than open systems – rather than secretive trade negotiations to preserve closed systems?  More freedom to know whatʼs happening to us, more freedom to experiment and print, and publish?  Yet these are the open systems that are constantly under attack, and as things stand in many countries our only defences are national legislatures with a history of willing subservience to or participation in tyranny, of corruption, or at best, ignorance.  When the knowledge-networked-object world [6] comes about there will be no more excuse for ignorance, at least.

If they are possible, I hope that our little squidgiNets will not turn out to be Quatermassian creeping horrors, just as I hope my next regular computer will be ‘on my side’ as Doctorow puts it.  I am tired of creeping lock-in, be it ever so excellently presented, from Adobe and Apple, from online retailers and telecoms companies.  I am deeply tired of region encoding.  (More because of its stupidity than because itʼs awkward to get round.)  3D printing offers me a particular set of opportunities I'm keen to take up when I can afford it, preferably before it starts reporting everything I make.  I may not live long enough to see the 3D ink move, but never mind me – think of the children who may before too long grow up with no knowledge of fixed-form monitors, like some adults today have no knowledge of wax stencils.  When their permanently organised organ replacements [7] send daily status and position updates to their health insurers, they will want to know, not only that their joints and hearts are ‘on their side’, but that the companies who make them, sell them, commission the software for them and pay for the proximity-based advertising they trigger on their fluid viewsheets, are on their side too, at least to a legally mandated first approximation, and not one based on todayʼs corporate influence over the lawmakers.



  1. Though Iʼm still open to offers for print design jobs.  
  2. Well NEP could be a usable acronym ... maybe not an inspiring one?  
  3. SMPP ... better.  
  4. OFOs ... that actually has a chance of spreading. ^.^  
  5. POOs ... maybe not so much.  
  6. Mmm well you can see that one a mile off.  And in reverse.  
  7. Yeah.