Object Cancers

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.

9 thoughts on “Object Cancers”

  1. How embarrassing might it be if you were to show up to a fancy dinner party and find the table covered in a massive Pottery Barn watermark.

    "Psst… Hun, where's the table cloth?"

  2. Luckily (hopefully?) with 3D scanning and printing being accomplished so often by open-source, home-made machines, the success of markers could be highly limited. Adobe Photoshop may not allow scans of currency to be opened and edited, therefore limiting the counterfeiting capabilities of many, but if one could build one's own graphic editing software as easily as one could a 3D printer, things would be different.

    (NOT that those who counterfeit money and those who would print their own silverware, or torrent the latest blockbuster are AT ALL the same people. It was just an easy example.)

  3. Or perhaps designers will release open free designs but heavily branded with sponsors corporate messages and logos.
    Could also open up a whole new 3d Netsuke fetish of sculptural obsession among geekdom along the lines of ty beanie babies.
    Owning an unbranded table could become the equivalent of a Blade Runner owl of the future.
    (but of course the branding is just sanded out afterward – tut,tut).

  4. I recommend reading Mallory by Leonard Richardson, which speaks to some degree of "physible rights management". Also you make no mention of Thingiverse which has actually received a take down notice for a copyrighted object on their server.

  5. After scanning a physical object, nothing will keep the person doing it from removing the cancer, essentially retouching the object as if it were a misscanned photocopy.

    Copy protection of real objects will fail so hard, I fear that something like SOPA/PIPA/ACTA will evuantally be invented for real objects as well, making it illegal to even show such objects, or put them on display or something like that.

    I say, anything that can be produced, can be reproduced. This goes for tables, cuttlery, electronics, photographs, music and even (especially) money. The whole idea of a mass production culture like Earth's, is that things can be reproduced over and over again, so copying things will be nothing if not trivial.

  6. keep in mind that "scanning" is now as simple as taking pictures from several angles, and using software like 123D Catch, from autodesk (Which is free, by the way)
    It's surprising how good it looks

    (I don't work for autodesk)

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