When a new technology comes along, the standard reaction seems to focus on the most negative aspect of the device at the cost of all positive possibilities.
Look at 3D printers. Already we've heard stories of people creating a working plastic gun with one. Surely these are dangerous devices if they can be used to create guns, right? The State Department even ordered the firm that created the gun to take down the plans from its website.
I'd call that typical government overreaction. But as with any technology, it's not that simple because just about anything can be used for good or ill.
We've certainly seen a similar reaction with Google Glass, where people almost immediately grasped the device's possible privacy repercussions -- and won't look at anything else. Some people are downright militant about it. Congress, too, is feeling the angst and is preparing to present knee-jerk legislation in response.
But I'm here to offer you a different point of view. I'm here to embrace change, to welcome disruption, and cast aside negative thoughts. Sure, you can make a gun with a 3D printer, but if you can make a gun, what else can you make? In fact, you can make all kinds of wonderful things, including body parts, and even, perhaps one day soon, pizza.
If we open our minds we'll realize 3D printers show great promise; but if you can make anything, you can make anything -- and, yes, that includes guns. Thinking about it from a business perspective though, The Economist reports there are already commercial 3D printers that can build expensive parts without all the expensive waste of the traditional parts manufacturing process. That's because instead of cutting a part from a large block of material, a 3D printer builds the part layer by layer, using only the material that's needed.
One-of-a-kind prototypes are expensive to produce, but 3D printers will reduce the cost dramatically for individual entrepreneurs and companies, making it easier and less expensive to test ideas and discard the ones that don't work quickly, then move onto to find the ones that do, The Economist adds.
Anything that can reduce the barriers to innovation is a positive device in my view. As the price of 3D printers drops, they will soon be in the hands of consumers too. Regular people will be able to download plans from the Internet and produce certain parts and devices themselves at home. It will bring whole new meaning to the DIY movement. That said, I don't think we'll soon see people efficiently producing consumer goods at home, but I can envision department stores and home improvement stores like Home Depot equipped with 3D printers. Shoppers would simply order a part or product from their local store or online. Think about how that would reduce the cost of getting goods to stores: impressive.
From an environmental perspective, it would reduce the pollution created by large manufacturing facilities, eliminate tons of waste products, and cut the pollution created when transporting goods from factories to stores. Think about how many fewer ships, trains, planes, and trucks would be needed to get goods to market because there could be a market wherever there was a 3D printer.
I'm not suggesting a purely Pollyanna reaction to every technology that comes down the pike either, Surely there is a dark side to 3D printers. How do you protect intellectual property when anyone with a printer can produce practically anything? But the printer isn't magic; you still have to buy the materials to produce the parts and have the technical savvy to put them together. There are implications, of course, from an economic standpoint and we have to think about those.
However, I do believe in the power of technology to build a better society and that we will begin to rethink economic models and notions of rights to ideas. As MIT professor and author Andrew McAfee said recently at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium closing keynote, getting nostalgic for the ways things used to be is the worst, most ignorant way of looking at technological change.
"Technology is what makes our lives better and changes the arc of human history," he said.
That's a powerful statement. It means we can't write off technologies simply because they invoke hard discussions. We cannot stop the wave of technological change from sweeping over us, any more than the Luddites could stop the machine age. Nor can legislative bodies use draconian laws to prevent the winds of change from blowing, because change always finds its way.
Face it, these technologies are already here and they aren't leaving. And it's entirely likely that other, even more transformative ones are coming. Let's look at what they can do for us, and not just focus on the potential dangers. We just have to be open to the possibilities.
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.