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Pathfinders: No Man is an Island...

Socialism won’t be got by evolution but by intelligent design, though it would be nice to think there was an easier way. The political shortcuts turned out to be circular, but some people never give up hope that technology might open up some fast track to the Promised Land.

It was always so. Probably when the plough was first invented there was some Neolithic version of futurist Ray Kurzweil running around the Fertile Crescent gibbering about the Coming of the Singularity, while autodidactic peasants sat around in the smoke-filled back rooms of tribal longhouses discussing the revolutionary implications of the social democratisation of agriculture. Much to their chagrin what they ended up with was kings, wars, plagues and a lousy diet. With the later invention of the printing press some people no doubt foresaw a new flowering of subversive thought and the imminent rising of the masses, just prior to being drowned in a tidal wave of pulp fiction and religious junk mail.

Of course there has been huge progress, but behind each screaming wave-front of optimism trails the long, Doppler-shifted whine of hindsight. For all the smart phones and sushi bars we’re still slaves chained to the day job, compared to whom the playboys and girls of the Neolithic seem to have enjoyed great diet and health, endless holidays and free art classes.

The plough and the printing press were key technological developments in two of the most essential human activities of all, production of material goods and distribution of information. The whole trajectory of capitalism has been towards the efficiency and economy of scale of mass production and distribution, together with their correlates, state-imposed mass ideologies. When the horrors of Nazism and Soviet Communism turned people off ‘mass’ concepts, and rising affluence meant people couldn’t be fobbed off with production-line uniformity, a new cult of the individual was born.

At first this ‘lifestyle’ capitalism was little more than a marketing scam. We could ‘individually’ commute to our individual replica jobs, eat our individual replica food in our individual replica residential boxes, while watching mass-entertainment on our individual idiot-boxes. Advertisers called us princely consumers and we bought the flattery along with the products. The more we acquired a bit of individual ‘class’, the more we forgot the collective power of class consciousness. The more the notion of individualism was fostered, the more sheep-like we became. We didn’t mature into a society of individuals, we fractured into an atomised mass, our former commonality too vulgar to preserve.

Technology is embedding the illusion. Under Soviet rule dissidents were forced to resort to self-publishing their own material, a difficult and risky business known as samizdat, or self-made. The desktop publishing and internet revolutions have given us all the technology for this kind of independent self-expression. But people forget we are all products of society and therefore not so very different, so the upshot of all this self-publishing, blogging, Facebook and supposedly interactive Web 2.0 is that we have ended up with infinite versions of uniformity. Homogenous variety, samizdat become same-as-that.

If we don’t see the illusion it’s because we don’t have the attention-span to look at the big picture but only into a mirror. Instead of opening the doors to infinity we are mostly using the internet to create a narcissistic bubble around ourselves, a self-promoting solipsism which closes out every fact or idea which contradicts our own world-view. And the advertisers are slavering to make it more so. People now get different results for the same Google search due to ‘personality’ filters they don’t even know about (New Scientist, 23 July). Each person’s information environment is determined not only by their own conscious likes and dislikes but also by automated trackers deciding what is good for them.

Astoundingly, a similar thing could happen in the world of production, with the development of individual 3D printing, now being called by some the second Industrial Revolution. When the Socialist Standard first reported on this (August 2005) it was at an early stage, able to turn out fragile trinkets. Now it is possible to ‘print’ sophisticated equipment using composite materials with complex circuitry. The first 3D-printed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle has just been successfully flown (New Scientist, 30 July) and enthusiasts predict that in the future robots will walk out of printers, fully functional with batteries included.

If they were only foreseeing a revolution in new research and development at the lab-bench, the optimists could well be right. The lag between plan and prototype is certain to decrease by at least an order of magnitude. But no, they are talking about nothing less than the ‘democratisation’ of production, just as the digerati talked about the democratisation of knowledge through the internet. Even supposing 3D printers one day become as cheap as computers, this is still to confuse democracy, where people act together, with the cult of the individual, where people act alone en masse.

While the new parochialism of the internet involves huge waste of heat and storage in order to deliver infinitely slight variations of the same thing, so each person under the illusion of personal choice may end up printing separately what they could have produced collectively. This would be like boiling a single serving of rice in separate pots, one grain at a time. Capitalism is quite capable of this sort of stupidity if there’s money in it.

Most of the benefits of progress have historically percolated up like champagne bubbles to the rich, instead of downwards like loam deposits on the poor. If the rich can afford to print whatever they want, it follows that whatever mass-production still remains must exist only to cater for the poor, with all the quality and variety that implies. The poverty gap could then become unimaginably wide. In response to this, the poor majority might use the technology, with ‘hacked’ designs to get round regulations, to print their own guns and ammunition.

The most significant aspect of 3D printers is that they can ‘print’ themselves. They can’t print food or organic compounds though, or things larger than themselves. If 3D printing is the second industrial revolution, then nanotechnology is potentially the third. Eric Drexler is famous for his inspirational writing about the possibilities of nanotech, but even he overlooked the obvious political implication of a means of production that can reproduce itself. Not only would it abolish material scarcity (which has already effectively been done) but also any possible artificial barrier to individual abundance (which certainly has not). What worker would consent to slavery when they had the means to provide all their material needs through a domestic replicating device, which itself could be infinitely replicated? Capitalism would collapse, practically overnight.

No need to get too excited though. Nobody has come close to creating a self-replicating nano device, and like nuclear fusion it may remain permanently years away. Even if it could be done, such a replicator could run away with itself and convert the entire Earth into ‘grey goo’. Even if it were made safe, the ruling class would have every reason to ensure that the technology was never developed. Even if they couldn’t suppress it, material abundance does not imply socialist consciousness any more than knowledge implies wisdom. It’s no use to live as a king in an empty palace. One way or another, socialists have still got work to do.