Of MakerBots And John Locke (Not The Guy On Lost)

I have mentioned the MakerBot a few times on this blog, but have not really talked about it.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the MakerBot Cupcake CNC is a 3D printer. Yeah, that’s right – it prints three dimensional objects.

It works by melting a plastic filament (ABS – the same stuff that Lego bricks are made of) and extrudes it through a nozzle, drawing the object one layer at a time.

Q: How cool is that? A: AWESOME!

MakerBot Industries was started by Zach Hoeken Smith, Bre Pettis, and Adam Mayer. They did not invent 3D printing. They started out collaborating on a 3D printing system called RepRap, another open source project with the goal of designing a machine which was capable of creating all the parts necessary to build another copy of itself. Once you get over the creepy science fiction/horror film implications of that, it’s a great idea.

The problem with the RepRap is that if you want to build one, you need parts. Parts which you need a RepRap printer to make. There’s a bit of a bootstrapping problem there.

When you build a RepRap, you’re supposed to print a set of the printable parts and sell them to someone who wants to build one at cost. Nice idea. But there’s a relatively small community of RepRap operators, so getting started can still be challenging.

The MakerBot folks figured out a way to make it easier for the aspiring 3D printer builder. They designed a laser cut plywood box for the moving parts to sit in. You cannot print plywood with a MakerBot, so it reduces the percentage of the machine that you can print on the machine. Also, the MakerBot kit is more expensive than the materials cost of a RepRap. These end up being fair trade-offs for the increased convenience. The MakerBot has certainly caught on – there are well over 1000 MakerBots in the world today.

The RepRap is the not the first 3D printer, either. There have been 3D printers for years, used primarily in rapid prototyping and product design. But commercial 3D printers tend to be very expensive. RepRap and MakerBot look to bring this capability to the masses. Of course, a $20,000+ machine is going to be more capable and produce more polished 3D objects than a $750 MakerBot, but that seems quite reasonable.


People do not make their own stuff anymore. This is called progress. But is it possible to progress too far?

Division of labor in society means we don’t have to make all our own clothes and shoes and tools and buggies and houses, and so on. It meant originally that someone focused on making shirts and other articles of clothing and traded them for goods or money so that they didn’t have to grow their own food or build their own house or tools or whatever. It also meant that they got better at making clothing than they could have if they also had to do all that other stuff. Other people, who specialize in other things (like shoes or tools or houses or buggies) get to buy or barter for better clothing than they could make themselves. Everybody wins.

Up to a point. Have you looked inside a computer or TV or cell phone recently? If you are an average person, the answer to that question is (unfortunately) no. If you have, you know how insanely compact electronics devices are today, and their components are impossibly small.

Before “Solid State” became a marketing term, you could actually fix your radio or TV set. Chances are, when it broke, one of the vacuum tubes went out and you could easily remove and replace it. Electronics stores like Radio Shack had testers you could use to figure out which tube was broken so you didn’t have to replace them all.

Today your TV has a label on the back of it that says “No user serviceable parts” and they aren’t kidding. Vacuum tubes have been replaced by surface mount integrated circuits encased in epoxy. No one can repair it because TVs have become disposable.

The improvements that came from the shirtmaker specializing in shirts are best appreciated when the consumer can make their own rudimentary version of the same thing. Mr. Shirtmaker does such a better job than I can that it’s worth me giving him something in exchange for them rather than making them myself.

You can’t built a TV. And honestly, the workers who do build it don’t understand how it works, either. When the manufacturer produces something that the average person can’t even consider making, the appreciation of that specialization becomes abstracted. When this becomes an accepted norm, we end up in a very unfortunate situation.

America, as we know it, was based on the Lockean notion that ownership is derived from labor. Working to turn nature into livable farm land makes that land yours (from a philisophical standpoint, at least). I see Locke’s principals in many things that define America. Effort and hard work entitle one to success derived from that effort. This applies to things like tilling soil, manufacturing physical goods, and even standing in line.

(I know the RepRap is an international effort, and the Maker community is by no means confined to America. There are many things from other countries that exhibit what I think are American qualities. The United States certainly does not have exclusive claim to these notions – Locke was not an American himself, after all. But I am an American and tend to view the world through this prism. I mean no offense to anyone.)

Societal division of labor requires the bastardization of this tenant of ownership to some degree. If you use your labor to create a shirt, it is of course yours to sell. But what about the person who buys it? Money is an abstract representation of one’s labor. It allows the transference of ownership of the results of that labor. When exchanged for a physical good that one did not make, there is only a very indirect connection between that good and the purchaser’s efforts.

In the Lockean sense, the purchaser owns that shirt less than if they had made it. It almost certainly would be of less value to them.

Socialist principles are built on the separation of ownership from labor in the industrialized world. Factory workers spend their labor to build things that they do not in any practical sense own, and in many cases could not afford to buy with their pay. This situation creates unrest in the working class.

(Oddly, Socialism attempts to resolve this by disallowing the very idea of ownership, which is of course paradoxical, and a primary design flaw in Socialism.)

What Engels did get right is that people feel a sense of ownership when effort is expended, and feel devalued when that effort is divorced from ownership of its result.

Modern day things are almost universally so complicated that you could not make any of them or repair common problems. This is the corollary of the worker’s problem – the things you “own” are not – and could not be – the results of your labor.

The Maker community is, at its core, focused on this problem. Different Makers describe it in different ways, because there are many viewpoints in this community. Some frame it as anti-consumerism or anti-capitalism. Some treat it as an environmental issue. But however they view it, everyone is concerned with buying stuff they don’t really own, and that can’t be fixed. Everyone is attempting to reconnect with the things we interact with in everyday life.

Mr. Jalopy wrote the Owner’s Manifesto for Make Magazine, which made a T-shirt out of it that says “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” Bre Pettis simply says, “I make things.”

The MakerBot is a tool that makes things. Simple things that generally need to be combined with other things to do anything useful, but things nonetheless. And things that can be modified if needed to suit a particular purpose.

And if you screw one of those things up, so what? You just got another chance to make it better.

Like the RepRap, the MakerBot is open source, which means you can look inside and see how everything works. If you can think of a way to improve it, go ahead. The MakerBot folks request that modifications are released back to the community, so everyone can benefit.

The RepRap/MakerBot community has been very generous when it comes to its efforts. Not only are both projects open source, but so are the very things that most people are making with them. Thingiverse is a huge collection of designs for objects that can be downloaded and made, many with a MakerBot. Need a whistle or shower drain cover? Or a miter box or a bottle opener? They’re there. No need to go buy them.

And if any of those things doesn’t quite fit your needs, you can modify something that’s already available or you can design it yourself. The tools to do so are within reach of anyone, often for free.

This is why I’m so excited about the MakerBot. Technology has provided us with a way to reconnect with our stuff, solving what was effectively a technological problem to start with.

MakerBot Industries printed some humorous stickers to promote the Cupcake CNC. One of them says “Tea, Earl Grey. Hot.” It is easy to dream of the MakerBot evolving into a Star Trek replicator that can produce whatever one desires. But the Star Trek replicators are magical devices that produce goods without effort on the part of the operator. I don’t know how that is any better than walking into retail store and buying something that you didn’t make.

Let’s hope the MakerBot remains a manual manufacturing tool for quite some time.

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