On 3D printing technologies and The Nature of Gothic

We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity. - John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice.

3D printing technology is a new fad that is capturing the attention of occupational therapists.  The technology is disruptive, primarily because of cost factors, but as is often the case there are important considerations lying underneath the alluring new technology.

During the Industrial Revolution society developed technological solutions that made mass-produced items readily available.  People seem to enjoy showcasing achievement, and I can't help but notice the similarities between our celebrations around 3D technologies and the mid-century celebrations of the Industrial Revolution.  YouTube and Facebook are our new Crystal Palace at The Great Exhibition.  I am not sure that much has changed in the last 150+ years.

Reading Facebook testimonials on the use of 3D technology is a descent into feel-good hashtag exaggeration.  We spend 3 minutes oohing and aahing as an outsider technophile delivers a neon-pink prosthesis to a child whose limb has been blown off by a landmine, but what happens when those cameras stop rolling and the video is over? 

Cost is undoubtedly a disruptive factor - but is all this really as inexpensive as is typically touted?  There are rampant claims about prosthetic hands that can be made for $50 as compared to a standard hook prosthesis that might cost hundreds or thousands of dollars - or as compared to a myolectric prosthesis that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.  Is the new technology really only $50?  Who pays for the printer?  Does the third world country littered with landmines have electric power in remote villages in case a part breaks?  Does the third world country have an outsider technophile at the ready in all the remote villages to print and then assemble and then custom-fit the device?  So is it really just $50?

The allure of the technology causes people to overstate its utility - as has always been the case.  

The mass production of goods in the Industrial Age caused people to yearn for a time when artisans were responsible for the creation of their own products.  Ruskin and then Morris believed that aesthestics were lost in the sea of mass production.  They argued that this was not just a loss of beauty but that it was also a loss of humanity.

So how aesthetic and human is this?

I fully understand that function matters, but functional alone is not enough.  History has taught this lesson rather clearly.

Where is the Nature of Gothic in our new technologies?  We should look at our technologies as a first and faltering step toward improvement.  However, if we fail to address aesthetics, and if we fail to consider that machines will not replace the artisan skills required to deliver help to humans in need, then we will have lost much more than we have gained.


lej said…
While I can appreciate your well-reasoned wonderings about just how effective, useful, or even truly client-centered or cost-effective 3D printed technology is, I think it although it is certainly a technology that is in its early stages, it is still an important area for OTs to begin getting involved with.

For example, as a first year OT student I just completed a project for a "Technologies" type course in which several other classmates and I collaborated with biomedical engineering students on their version of a 3D printed hand. I agree with most of the points you made -- about how functional the 3D printed products actually are, their inhuman appearance, and the risks that can be created when handing out technology willy-nilly, without considering the individual, their context, or their environment. However, these are the things that my teammates and I helped these engineering students understand as they continued to develop the product!

Although I'm not sure where the future of 3D printed prosthetics lies, I think it will be helpful for current students and practitioners to at least be willing to provide much-needed, valuable guidance about such topics as typical hand function, reasons for technology abandonment, functional use, and individual/environmental/social, etc. factors that can impact 3D printed prosthetic development (and perhaps use). By getting involved and being proactive, I hope that OTs (in collaboration with other professionals) can help prevent some of the negative outcomes you described and make these devices functional and beneficial for their users.

And if you have time for a quick read, this is the link to an article about how an OT helped a child use his printed hand as a “helper device,” and it gives a good view of how an OT’s clinical reasoning and training can ensure that the client has the best experience possible with their 3D printed device and avoid some of the pitfalls you described. http://enablingthefuture.org/2014/10/11/e-nabling-super-hero-training-%E2%80%A2-the-importance-of-ots-and-pts/

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