There was a lot of talk last week about the emergence of “physibles,” or downloadable data sets hosted on the Pirate Bay that would allow (potentially copyrighted) objects to be reproduced at home by 3D printers. The idea is that we won’t just share music files or movie torrents, but actual physical objects; I could thus print an IKEA table or a Quistgaard peppermill at home, without ever purchasing an original object.
[Image: A printer known as the Replicator].
Bruce Sterling wrote about just such a scenario in his 2008 novella Kiosk, suggesting that a new “poetry of commerce” would arise in the form of infinitely repeatable, unregulated surrogate objects churned out by desktop factories.
Among many other things about this story, what caught my attention was the specific detail that you could scan any object you happen to have on hand; you could then upload that dataset to a kind of eBay of physibles; and, finally, someone on the other side of the earth—or sitting right next to you—could print out their own “pirate” version. As New Scientist writes, however, we might soon soon see a corporate response in the form of what could be called physible rights management—based on, even repeating, certain aspects of the misguided digital rights management (DRM) policies associated with MP3s. This would mean, for instance, “placing a marker on objects that a 3D scanner could detect and which would stop it operating” (though such marks, the article quickly points out, can simply be covered over with tape or otherwise occluded); in fact, we read, a similar such system is “already used to prevent banknotes from being photocopied.” The article then mentions other forms of watermarks and “marking algorithms,” detectable only by machines, that could be inscribed onto object surfaces, like invisible hieroglyphs of protection, so as to interfere with those objects’ being scanned.
The corporate response to the robot-readable world, mentioned earlier, is thus a kind of robot-blocking world.
In any case, what seems more provocative here, on the level of design, would be to appropriate this protective stance and reuse it in the design of future objects, but emphasizing the other end: to allow for the scanning of any object designed or manufactured, but to insert, in the form of watermarks, small glitches that would only become visible upon reprinting.
We could call these object cancers: bulbous, oddly textured, and other dramatically misshapen errors that only appear in 3D-reprinted objects. Chairs with tumors, mutant silverware, misbegotten watches—as if the offspring of industrial reproducibility is a molten world of Dalí-like surrealism.
[Image: Misprinted objects by Zeitguised and Matt Frodsham].
Put another way, the inadvertent side-effect of the attempted corporate control over objects would be an artistic potlatch of object errors: object cancers deliberately reprinted, shared, and collected for their monstrous and unexpected originality.