Almost all observers of economic transformation have recently focused on the feared (or cheered) future dominance of artificial intelligence and robotics. This week, Atul Singh, the founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of Fair Observer, reviews a fascinating book, “The Smartest Places on Earth,” and draws our attention to a particularly significant detail in the economics of the rapidly evolving world of industrial technology. It’s called “additive manufacturing.”
The authors of the book, Antoine van Agtmael and Fred Bakker, explore not only the technologies that are about to transform the economy, but also the trends that appear to be restructuring communities around new types of manufacturing activities in both North America and Europe. They highlight the importance of using the flexibility offered by a new generation of emerging technologies and production methods to replace the traditional manufacturing modes that have been with us since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, more than two centuries ago, methods that contributed to building the late 20th-century economic and social culture we are tempted to call “homogenized consumerism.”
Singh reminds us that, for two centuries, the “old methods such as injection molding … worked brilliantly for the last 150 years. Designed for economies of scale and undifferentiated demand, it is risky in a world where consumer demand is far more fickle and variable.”
He adds: “Making molds and setting up production lines is slow. So, if consumer taste changes, companies are often left with unrecoverable sunk costs. Additive manufacturing requires less investment, cuts out waste and enables quicker production of new designs.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The same for everyone, the orientation for the organization of society that, in the name of efficiency, has led to a culture principally focused on the lowest common denominator
Agility, adaptation and flexibility describe a new set of values that modify our perception of the efficiency of production processes. Efficiency means a greater correlation with a diversity of needs and the reduction of waste. General Electric’s website describes how the basic principle behind manufacturing is transformed from removing excess material that becomes waste to providing or adding just the amount of material needed to produce an object. “Additive manufacturing uses data computer-aided-design (CAD) software or 3D object scanners to direct hardware to deposit material, layer upon layer, in precise geometric shapes.”
Imagine Michelangelo not having to chip away at his tall block of Carrara marble to produce his “David” and producing mountains of marble dust, but creating it from layers of polymers. The end result might turn out to be less impressive, but it would certainly be more cost-effective.
Nevertheless, most people would distinguish between the needs of industry focused on mass production and the needs of art with its focus on creating a unique aesthetic experience. Most people would probably agree that a talent such as Michelangelo should retain the right to build from the natural mass and pregnant veins of his block of marble while scattering marble dust across his workshop floor (it can, of course, be recycled for other uses).
If the world of art is all about what is highly differentiated placing value on uniqueness, the world of industry has been about the undifferentiated, the lowest common denominator, something absolutely standard that everyone will feel it makes them unique, whether it’s an Apple watch or a certain brand of car. At its extreme, it is exemplified in Henry Ford’s famous quip that “you can have any color so long as it is black.”
Many see this trend toward consumerism, based on a race by industrial companies to provide standardized goods, as a factor of radical cultural impoverishment. Others, those who let quantity trump quality, see it as a sign of historical progress measured by the impressive volume and sheer weight of mass-produced objects that keep members of the consumer society consuming.
At the beginning of this century, the growing popularity of the internet allowed the thinkers of the consumer society to innovate in marketing strategy with a new concept: “the long tail.” It meant using information and communication technology to get to those distant reaches of the marketplace that were interested in non-standard products. It presaged a liberation from the lowest common denominator. Differentiation suddenly became possible as a non-marginal business strategy.
At the apex of the industrial age, Henry Ford was right to critique his salesmen and stick to his lowest common denominator. “They listened to the 5 percent,” he complained, “the special customers who could say what they wanted, and forgot all about the 95 percent, who just bought without making any fuss.” Much later, Ford diversified, but only when it became necessary and cost-effective in terms of production.
Much of what the authors of “The Smartest Places on Earth” describe amounts to the possibility of fulfilling the needs of the long tail. They assume the technology will permit it and, as so often occurs with futurists, that because it will be technologically possible that is precisely what will happen. But that assumption amounts to a major cultural shift in the way people think, and more particularly of the way they think of their own role in society. We have been taught to think of ourselves as beings who work (for somebody) to consume products that other somebodies produce. We get an education to have the best chance to consume.
The world that van Agtmael and Bakker describe seems very different, culturally speaking. Economically speaking, however, it may appear very similar. They describe a new manufacturing culture built on technology, politics, finance and education focused on industrial and commercial needs, just as the industrial world was built. It exists in particular places and services the rest of the world that plays the role of the consumer.
The underlying question few pundits have been ready to pose is this: After two centuries of homogenizing industrialism and consumerism, can we move from a society organized around the principle of what people want to consume and how we provide it to one built around the principle of what people want to create, share and consume?
One of the speculations about artificial intelligence is that it will anticipate what we want to consume and be able to provide it. But if we only exist as consumers, will we have the means to afford it… or even the motivation to keep consuming in a society that provides the means of telling us what we want?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.