A common trope of far-future technology is matter synthesis — essentially Star Trek's transporter, wired up in such a way that you just spit out copies of things via energy-to-matter conversion.
We're not going to have anything remotely like that for a long time, but right now we have a fabrication technology which has been turning a few heads: 3D printing. The technology has advanced quite a bit in a very short amount of time, so much so that it's a little intimidating. Check out the Shapeways site, and the range of materials available for use in a given project: it's not just ABS plastic. Naturally the implications vis-à-vis patent and copyright are pretty hair-raising.
What got me thinking, though, is a slightly oddball, sidelong aspect of the whole thing. At what point does the term "handmade" become pointless, especially if you could program a 3D printer to emulate the very imperfections and quirks that make a handmade item so endearing? Or is it even any of those things? Is it just the cachet that goes with knowing you have something an actual human being created with their own hands? How valuable is that feeling going to be in the future?
I suspect this feeling is going to confine itself to things for which we can develop certain kinds of emotional attachments in the first place. Food, for instance: for most of us, a meal still has a strong emotional component, especially if it involves sitting down with family, cracking open a bottle with good friends, etc.
To that end, we seem to be fonder of the idea of food made by human hands, as opposed to "industrial" foods that are spit out of retorts and off assembly lines. In the abstract, it's just as easy to make a horribly unhealthy meal by hand as it is to manufacture it automatically: have you seen how much butter is used in the average restaurant kitchen?
Another thing that's been growing in popularity — or maybe just having its innate appeal rediscovered — is handmade gifts. Last Christmas some relatives of mine received a gift that the recipient had spent a good deal of time and effort on, something which could have been bought from a store in some form but which was that much more personal — and that much easier to form a personal connection with — because it was handmade.
That's the part of it that matters the most, I think: not strictly that your own two hands produced that one thing, but that you were involved with its creation to a degree, and that you didn't just pull it off a shelf in passing. When I show people copies of my books, I get positive responses even though I didn't actually make each copy by hand. I did, however, write the text, create the cover design, compose the internal layout, the typesetting, etc., etc. I was involved on a personal level.
So I suspect if we get to the point where we're essentially becoming our own industrial designers, that's going to create a situation where we have more, not less, opportunities to create things that express a personal connection of come kind.
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Other Lives Of The Mind