Saturday, December 14, 2013

Promise and peril
3D Printing and the world of repercussions
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel November 1, 2013

3D-printed scissors*
When you hear author Rebecca Solnit read in public, her writing sounds disjointed and lacking structure. She herself seems easily distracted: more than once, she invites everyone standing, to please sit on the floor since the chairs are all taken. Her cell phone goes off and she is embarrassed. She fusses with the microphone. Her unrestrained wavy mop of hair keeps falling in her face.

Rebecca Solnit
(Publicity photo by Jim Herrington)
But to actually read one of her books is a distinct pleasure, and the arc of her storytelling falls effortlessly into place, as she weaves seemingly disparate observations and occurrences into one lovely, connected whole. Solnit says that storytelling is a writer’s effort to find the patterns inherent in the chaos of life. And in her latest book, “The Faraway Nearby,” she does just that. She writes, “the sudden appearance of the patterns of the world brings a sense of coherence and above all connection.” To emphasize the point, she reminds us that Virginia Woolf once wrote, “Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what . . . “

These connections can happen in unexpected ways. In her latest book, “The Faraway Nearby,” as she connects the sudden appearance of a pile of apricots on her bedroom floor, with the conjunction of mothers and mirrors, with the emblems of ice and cold. “That vast pile of apricots included underripe, ripening, and rotting fruit. The range of stories I can tell about my mother include some of each too,” she writes. “This abundance of unstable apricots seemed to be not only a task set for me, but my birthright, my fairy-tale inheritance from my mother who had given me almost nothing since my childhood.”

Rebecca Solnit read from her just latest book, “The Faraway Nearby, at Bookshop Santa Cruz last June to a s
tanding-room-only crowd. (photo provided by Bookshop Santa Cruz) 
Solnit further explores parenting themes, and ice and cold, through the early life of Mary Shelley (who lost her own mother at birth, and lost 3 of her 4 children in infancy) and her classic book, “Frankenstein,” first published in 1818 when she was a mere 20 years old. In the famous story, medical student Victor Frankenstein—the parent in a sense—has made an incredible discovery and created a living, breathing creature. But once he beholds his brilliant creation come-to-life, he is frightened and repulsed, and runs away.

“Frankenstein imagines himself as a savior,” writes Solnit. “But when he brings his creature to life and then frees it, he is both a parent abandoning a child and a citizen walking away from a calamity in the making. The coldness of this novel that begins and ends in the arctic and climaxes in the great glacial landscape of the high Alps is the coldness of his heart.”

“Frankenstein” is certainly one of, if not the earliest works of science fiction, and has become the template for a thousand imitations. “The cinematic version has become so familiar,” writes Solnit, “that ‘Frankenstein’ has become the oft-invoked byword for reckless, irresponsible science....” For me, these themes of science fiction and the unintended consequences of technology were echoed in a new book I’ve been reading, “Fabricated—the new world of 3D Printing; the promise and peril of a machine that can make (almost) anything,” by Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman. The very first chapter describes a futuristic world with 3D printers as commonplace in our daily lives as today’s 2D printers, generating everything from fresh blueberry muffins for breakfast to customized toothbrushes before bed.

Lipson and Kurman give a whole new meaning to the word “print” when they envision new homes constructed with organically-shaped foam walls printed from a gigantic nozzle, complete with built-in weather sensors and solar panels. Or shoes that are comfortable, durable and require no glue, printed into modular components that are interchangeable to allow a variety of different looks. Or replacement hearts, kidneys and other body parts, printed from cell mixture and biomaterials, ala Frankenstein’s monster.

It sounds like a world that’s light years away, but the authors says it’s more like decades. Much of the book explores where we are right now in the development of these 3D technologies. For instance, we can print (i.e. fabricate and bake) a 3D high-res shortbread cookie with a small, portable 3D printer, but printing a fresh, hot hamburger with everything on it is difficult to envision. Ideally, the products we print (even if they steer us away from fresh ingredients) will make us healthier and save lives. Food printers, for example, would allow the user to control the nutritional content of every meal, making it easy for someone diabetic or lactose intolerant to avoid sugar or milk.

Some predict that “bioprinting”—having a replacement body part made out of your own cell tissue—is only a generation away. “Printed on-demand body parts will help people who need an organ transplant, or have failing joints,” write the authors. “People with disposable income will order custom printed body parts optimized for a beloved recreational activity.” The ethical concerns, however, may be just as thorny and problematic as stem cell, abortion and cloning debates are today. One example: “The Olympic Committee in the year 2072 will struggle to decide whether athletes with bioprinted organs, should be banned from the Games.”

Just as Victor Frankenstein’s life-giving experiment goes chillingly wrong, the authors admit that bioprinting and other 3D technologies—in irresponsible hands—could lead to disastrous results. Once bioprinting becomes relatively cheap and easy, blackmarketeers will snap up cast-off medical bioprinters and sell discount organs made from outdated, faulty design files—or produce sloppy organs in a non-sterile printing environment, resulting in unnecessary deaths.

3D printed artificial heart valve.  Currently available valves—both mechanical ones and valves taken from animals—suffer from serious drawbacks. Someday surgeons will save lives by taking an entirely new approach: 3D printing a new heart valve with stem cells harvested from a patient’s own body. Bioprinted heart valves made from a child’s own stem cells will more likely be accepted by the immune system and be able to grow with the body and repair themselves. (Photo credit: Jonathan Butcher, Cornell University)
“The downstream impact of emerging, game-changing technologies is difficult to predict,” say the authors. “Criminals will quickly learn to apply 3D printing technology to improve their illegal wares and services. 3D printed weapons and new chemicals could be devastating if they fall into malevolent hands.” And so, just as the coldness of Victor Frankenstein’s heart corrupts his creation and causes his monster to go on a murderous rampage, so may the coldest of future human hearts use this 3D technology to bring about death and destruction on a much grander scale.

On a more personal note, I’m feeling conflicted about embracing one more piece of technology that will invite me to sit for longer periods of time staring at a screen (like I am now). I’m reminded of that cautionary scene in the movie “Wall-e” in which the obese inhabitants of a futuristic world float around in cushy lounge chairs watching virtual 3D images and sipping liquid meals grabbed from drive-by 3D printers.

Maybe 3D printers will help us create complex shapes and products that could not be produced otherwise, but at what cost? Will the bioprinted heart used to save a life, be necessary because humans have become inert and sedentary? Will the printed food we prepare at the push of a button save us time (much as processed, packaged food does now), giving us the opportunity to sit and watch more cooking shows? (Or will cooking become something our grandmothers did?) If there is nothing we can’t fabricate with a computer and printer, will we, the consumers of all these new products, forget what it feels like to be self-reliant, a little more omnicompetent? Will we lose the motivation to create?

Rebecca Solnit writes beautiful books to find ways of making connections, to discover “what belongs to what.” Connecting apricots with her mother, and her mother with ice and cold—and perhaps even the neglect of Victor Frankenstein—must have taken a measure of courage on her part. But perhaps making connections—in art as well as life—is the most important and consequential task we have as humans.

 “The self is also a creation, the principal work of your life, the crafting of which makes everyone an artist,” writes Solnit. “This unfinished work of becoming ends only when you do, if then, and the consequences live on. We make ourselves and in so doing are the gods of the small universe of self and the large world of repercussions.”

*Printing functional objects. These 3D-printed scissors work “out of the box” – no assembly or sharpening required. By making objects in layers, a 3D printer could print a door and attach interlocking hinges at the same time. No assembly required. Less assembly will shorten supply chains, saving money on labor and transportation; shorter supply chains will be less polluting. (photo provided by the publisher, Wiley Publishing) 

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