Watching the news, two stories catch one’s eye, and remind one of how much things are changing, and how fast. At a lab in a US university somewhere, someone hits “send” on a 3D diagram, and a machine beside the computer whirs into life, spits out a toy glider. Not a picture of a toy glider, but the thing itself, in an off-white generic plastic. When chucked, it flies perfectly across the 3D printing lab, one of many now developing this technology across the world.

Switch over, and there’s a story of a London school, teaching its students ancient Greek via videolink to a live teacher. The school could not afford to hire a teacher to run the class, and videotapes of interactvie lessons would be manifestly inadequate. But the videolink ensures that the teacher can come into small classes at five schools simultaneously, vastly expanding not only what kids can study, but also their notion of what they might aspire to study.

Both stories are extraordinary in their own way, and pole stars to navigate the future. Both have been expanding more slowly into mainstream consciousness than its proponents would have liked — 3D printing has been around for a while, but had a science-fictive air even a few years ago, and interactive video has stubbornly failed to replace face-to-face meetings, even when the latter involve many people undertaking long trips they do not want to be on, for pointless meetings in three-star hotel meeting rooms.

Yet, as with other technologies, once they hit, they will really hit. For years we were tantalised with the idea of buying music, movies, etc, by the simple transmission of the information that constituted such texts, rather than via a physical object, no matter how streamlined. The transition from atoms to bits was a sort of slow striptease by the material world, from LPs to CDs and via a whole series of intermediate forms, orphan tech that never found love (someone should establish Museum of Intermediate Technologies, a collection of the forlorn objects — DATs, cordless landlines, car phones, in-store book printers —  who came too late, too late to be wanted, even in nostalgia. Won’t someone adopt a CD Walkman today?).

Then downloading and torrenting was here, and suddenly the idea of storing these texts, performances, images in a physical object sitting on a shelf became strange, fetishistic. Buying them became increasingly otiose. Renting and returning them has become more or less intolerable. How soon will it be before the trip to Blockbuster is as bizarre in memory as the 18th-century business of renting pictures — a series of Hogarth prints for example — for a day or two? (“you forgot to rewind the rake’s tale, that will be three groats extra”).

That wave hit, lifting some, dumping others, and now we’re waiting for the next, bigger one — 3D printing, where the simple objects you need, a series of plastic wall plugs, for example, don’t require a two-hour sodding journey to an exurban DIY barn, or a three-day wait for physical delivery, but can be printed out right there and then, from a block of plastic. How extraordinary would that be, will that be? And how utterly will that change our perspective of the present and recent past in retrospect?

Yes, yes I know. The journey from bits to atoms is not as simple as that from atoms to bits. Three-dimensional printers, unlike laptops, smartphones, etc, would not benefit so greatly from the exponential processes of Moore’s Law, which make these objects cheaper and more powerful in a headlong process. Three-dimensional printing would require working parts. Presumably its cost gradient will be lesser. Indeed it may have an intermediate collective form — in-store/public/booth-based machines for a quite a few years — as the process follows the same path as 2D printers did, the slow procession by which a colour laser printer went from being a treasured object possessed of few, to a something given away as a loss leader for overpriced cartridges.

But happen it will, with vast consequences to everyday social life — as will the steady improvement and increased integration of interactive video (as one among a host of such technologies). What is common to them both, and others, and will be magnified by their concurrent occurrence, is the dissolution of practices of daily life that have been so intrinsic to human existence that we take them for granted. What practices? Necessary encounters, object exchange and fixed place, are three of them. The first two are particularly embedded in human being.

For most of our existence the vast majority of our being together, our encounters, have been necessary ones — working together, making things, transporting objects, exchanging things and the like. Life was a web of necessity, obligation and exchange, much of it onerous and oppressive. More recently — i.e. 6000 years ago or so — we began developing the idea that different types of these encounters took place in fixed places, which acquired a character — and in turn structured the meaning of social life, from schools to city halls to workshops and much more.

In three generations — and most noticeably in the past 10 years — those necessary boundaries have been transformed, by the transistor, the microchip, the fibre-optic, the PC, the net, the web, and the new things to come. Suddenly, massively, hundreds of encounters, tasks, processes, have become voluntary rather than necessary. Shopping, paying bills, working don’t need to involve any contact, negotiation, object transfer between yourself and a real other person. Things don’t have to happen in this or that place, they can occur anyway, and the task mixed and matched.

The immediate and apparent advantage of that is avoiding a whole series of encounters that are time consuming and often irritating. But the massive, largely unnoticed shift is that a much larger share of our human encounters become willed and intentional — effectively demanding a presentation and projection of self, an affective commitment, which buying a stamp did not demand. That shift between necessity and volition is already having massive effects — it is one reason the centres and high streets of towns and cities have collapsed in so many places, why many are becoming spaces not dangerous, but devoid, absent of any meaning for the diminishing numbers of people who traverse them.

Moreover it is having a series of cultural, psychological and interpersonal effects that people have not yet come to understand as related to each other, or to this larger process. Aspects of it are focused on — the rapid decline of bookshops, for example — without being related to the whole, like not recognising the true character of an outcrop of bedrock. Though people put a brave face it, no one who loves books, cities, culture can see the process, which is inevitable in the current techno-economic frame — as anything other than a disaster, a death in their own life.

But that demise is merely one example of the other encounters we do not have — shopping in entirely automated supermarkets, which are now not shops in any sense, but depots, communications, official processes, etc — and whose gradual disappearance, and dematerialisation has not yet been comprehended in any aspect other than its liberatory ones.

You can see half-understood attempts to compensate for this process everywhere — in somewhere such as office work, for example, where the individualisation of daily work process (who do you really need to speak to, to get anything done?) is compensated for by vast amounts of unnecessary meetings, conducted solely so that people can gather in a small closed space and relate to each other. The succes fou of Madmen is a result of this — “necessity nostalgia” for a time when getting a letter typed required a conversation. The sexism of the period gives the nostalgia a frisson of guilty pleasure. Imagine a time when work was conducted in adult clothes and a serious place, not a kidult playpen; where people had roles defined by gender, and had different types of work; when a sheet of paper had to be threaded into a roller 20 times a day. Don Draper isn’t the star of the show, the IBM Selectric typewriter is.

But there is no way back, no matter how much the lush features of the show encourage the viewer to project themselves wholly into it — a fact often take by one-dimensional technophiles as an argument that we should not think about such processes at all, just let them happen. The more dramatic the transformation, the more far-reaching the reflection required about what it is happening to every aspect of daily life — a process that, to judge by the disconnected, vague understanding of what is under way, has barely begun.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW