3D Printers Are Not Like 2D Printers: A Rant

The last time I wrote about 3D printers, an appalling number of people in the comments – including VCs who really, really should know better – kept writing things like: “Nearly identical comments were made about personal computers, desktop printers, color printers, laser printers…” and “just like printing at home” and “Let’s use the traditional paper printer as an example” and “it will follow the same trend as 2D printing” and and and and and.

Recently the very same thing happened to me in casual conversation. And so, this rant:

People. Listen. 3D printing is not just 2D printing with another dimension added on. Yes, the names are very similar, but their uses are not even remotely analogous. We may reasonably conclude, therefore, that 1) 3D printing will not recapitulate the history of 2D printing, 2) as soon as you make an argument along those lines you lose all credibility and look like an idiot.

Why? Because paper, I think you’ll agree, is used almost exclusively as a medium of information. Exceptions like Nicole Aptekar’s stunning paper art only serve to prove this rule. This is true even of photo printers: if it can be digitized, it’s information. Whereas 3D printers generate stuff. And our relationship to stuff is thoroughly, extremely, fundamentally different from our relationship to information.

(Yes, 3D designs are information, of course; but they’re the map, not the territory.)

Now, 3D printing is indeed revolutionary. Just ask, well, potential revolutionaries. Or the U.S. military. Or Panda Robotics, who cancelled their PandaBot Kickstarter because it was trumped by a sudden eruption of institutional interest in their product. Or the EFF, out in front of the big issues as usual. Today’s 3D printers are the nascent edge of a technology that will ultimately entirely transform our collective relationship with stuff. They are a big deal.

But at the same time, their use cases, adoption rates, economic impact, etc., will be nothing like those of the 2D printers you know and love (or, more likely, hate). Yes, even though the names are so similar. Shocking, isn’t it? So please, Internet, I beg you, please please please stop using that ridiculous and thoroughly inaccurate analogy.

That said, there is one, small, extremely limited way in which it does almost hold. If Nathan Myhrvold — who is increasingly becoming a caricature of himself, and/or the Dr. Evil of the Internet — were to register a patent for technology that would prevent 2D printers from printing out copyrighted work, you would probably find that incredibly creepy and disturbing and Orwellian. Which is exactly how you should feel about his company Intellectual Ventures’ move on “object production rights.”

But that is all. That is the extent of the remit of the “3D printing is like 2D printing” analogy. Otherwise, please, just, no. Stop it now. Thank you. This has been a public service announcement.