Maker Bots and the Future of Identity

I picked up Reverend Jim Groom last night from the airport. He stopped by on his way to track down the notorious hacker @emre5807 and help us launch our new “Ed Parkour” initiative here on campus. As you may know, he now has a few Maker Bots, 3D printers for just over $1,000 that can print out just about any object you can imagine. If it’s made out of plastic (or chocolate) you can make it yourself. You don’t have to poke around very long to see why this kid loves his 3D printer:

People are already using them to print out Star Wars figurines (and mashups thereof), that will bring the old copyright conundrums of print, photo, and video to the physical object. And we’re really just at the early stages of this. There is already a $500 3D printer prototype on Kickstarter. I’m starting to realize that it is highly likely that my children will grow up in a world in which it is as common to make your toys as it is to buy them.

I *love* what I see here for the possibilities of creativity. And it has me thinking about what it will be like for my ids to grow up in such a world. It strikes me that for better or worse, a world of 3D printing may have some remarkable implications for “identity” in a society in which people define themselves by the stuff they own and display. In our society you don’t just wear skinny jeans, a v-neck, and an iPod playing Foster the People. You wear those things so that people know that you are the type of person who would wear those things. Our rooms, especially the rooms of youth, are filled with identity markers. So what happens when most of those things are made by you? What happens when we don’t leave the heavy lifting of identity craft up to the corporations and brands that currently serve as the Legos we use to build? What happens when we print our own Legos?

When I was growing up, we were all trying to “find ourselves.” It took some leap of wisdom to discover that we actually “make ourselves.” It took still a little more wisdom to get past that initial euphoria of “making ourselves” to realize that there are limits to just how much we really “make” – that the world of meanings that we draw upon is an ongoing collective creation, mostly out of the control of any one individual, and one that in our society is heavily influenced and populated by advertising, brands, and corporate agendas.

The Maker Bot seems to push the envelope a little bit here, and expand our creative potential – not just for the creation of objects, but for the creation of ourselves. And that will be both wonderful and terrifying. We already live in a world saturated with choices … the Age of Whateveran age in which whatever seems possible, where people can do, believe, and be whatever.

A world of infinite choice in which we identify with the choices we make, is a world that becomes even more fragmented as we each pursue our own interests in our own micro-cultures of meaning. Such fragmentation feeds social complexity, and a fragmented, complex world is one in which people feel increasingly overwhelmed, disengaged, and disconnected. They greet the bounty of whatever with an underwhelming “Whatever.” “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”

The world of the Maker Bot will require a new orientation to whatever … a sophisticated wisdom about who we are and how we relate to the world. The attainment of this wisdom will be the work of my children. I can’t begin to predict what the world will look like in 15 years, or what kind of wisdom it will take to thrive in it. They will have to figure that out in the fires of identity creation, and I look forward to their insights.

But whatever, I’ll take a shot at what I think it might look like.

First off, I think a world in which we can create anything ourselves will require us to embrace creativity more deeply than we have ever embraced it before. By that I mean that it will not be enough to create whatever our heart’s desire. I think we may be left with the realization that we create our heart’s desires too (at least partially, or even mostly, or at least it will appear as mostly, even to the fatalist who will just deny such appearances as an illusion).

To the extent that your heart’s desires are self-focused, you will find yourself in a vicious cycle. You will create stuff to present yourself as cool, hip, and individual. Others will do the same, and since everybody will be trying to make sure they are doing their own thing you will end up with evermore fragmentation, complexity … loss of connection, meaning, empowerment, etc. Feeling such a loss you will redouble your efforts to create your own individual identity => more fragmentation, complexity, etc.

But if you make a slight switch and orient yourself to the world, rather than to the self, a virtuous cycle emerges. The world is suddenly not full of choices with which you identify, but possibilities for play … serious play oriented toward serving the world. Fragmentation looks more like a rich diversity. Complexity becomes a rich symphony in which we all play along.

/// kids are awake, wisdom brainstorming will have to wait … feel free to join in!


Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

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5 Responses

  1. Randy Caruso says:

    Recently went to the Maker Fair in Queens… LOTS of MakerBots but there were few yet able to really make the case that useful things were coming out of them…it’s early yet – and we’ll have time to adapt to what we can shoot out of these things. The adults, myself included were hitting the wall of practicality, which is seriously misplaced here. The kids -like in your video – only see limitless wild possibilities, and here’s what got me to respond to your article: Think about how SillyBands took over. Spread like an infection; if you didn’t have any- you were out of fashion. Inside that system there were levels of specialization and curation but in the end i’m not sure that full differentiation will trump fashion. Because of the scale of these devices, I think that’s where the magic will start: kids and fashion. Trendy little objects that can only be had by the few and connected. As they become more widespread, there will be unique traits that arise and the class system of fashion will manifest all over again. I say we get the kids connected to them and get out of the way. When we’re old and confused they’ll deliver us our new printed shoes.
    (Huge fan of your work by the way, keep publishing – there are readers out here)

  2. Tim Owens says:

    I’m late seeing this but I can tell you I’m already seeing a renewed sense of wonderment in the students that come and see the Makerbot in action. I was showing it to a set of sculpture students and one girl kept saying “I don’t believe what I’m seeing is real”. What’s crazy about it is that these types of things were typically relegated to engineering and technical schools, yet here we are a liberal arts institution and there’s something amazing about how it’s bridging these skills in the minds of students. I have a girl who was so inspired by it that she taught herself 3D modeling so she could start creating sculptures. We used an Xbox Kinect to scan in her face and she added it to the sculpture. Seeing her sit there and watch the thing print her creation was like watching someone at a magic show. We’re only starting to reach the surface of what’s possible, and I think that’s what’s so incredible about it. These moments we get to explore the boundaries of what’s possible and shine light on our own understanding are rare and amazing.

  3. Donaldson says:

    Hmm what people are not only suffering

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