I am definitely excited about all the new technologies that are accessible, inspire creativity, and are changing how we think about production and consumption. Sometimes, though, I feel less excited about teaching the technology know-how, and get more excited about the applications of technology. Of course when teaching it's important to learn the basics and introduce the main concepts, but my mind is always jumping ahead. 3D printers are totally cool, no doubt about it - I squealed with my first print. But there are so many questions about every technology that I think are important to ask that center around sustainability and transformation, especially as a youth librarian. Sustainability (or resilience, or whatever you want to call it) I think this article does a pretty good job exploring issues behind 3D printing, one of the Maker movement’s biggest darlings. It asks the fundamental question: “We’re in a period where almost anyone has the tools to make almost anything – but are we making the right things? Or too many of the wrong ones?” Kids come in to our Makerspace and print little Minecraft figurines, or little elephants, or keychains for their teachers: all things that make them feel delighted to have printed themselves and gives them a certain amount of empowerment and wonder about the world. Hopefully they’re connecting that to more than just an easy way to get a plastic thing. Arieff says: “A 3D printer consumes about 50 to 100 times more electrical energy than injection molding to make an item of the same weight. On top of that, the emissions from desktop 3D printers are similar to burning a cigarette or cooking on a gas or electric stove. And the material of choice for all this new stuff we’re clamoring to make is overwhelmingly plastic. In a sense, it’s a reverse environmental offset, counteracting recent legislation to reduce plastic use through grocery bag bans and packaging redesigns. While more people tote reuasable cloth bags to the supermarket, plastic is piling up in other domains, from TechShop to Target.” I think that these concerns are valid. In a recent study from the Illinois Institute of Technology, results showed that “… caution should be used when operating some commercially available 3D printers in unvented or inadequately filtered indoor environments. Additionally, more controlled experiments should be conducted to more fundamentally evaluate aerosol emissions from a wider range of desktop 3D printers and feedstocks” (Stephens, Azimi, El Orch, & Ramos, 2013, p. 339). The researchers were concerned with the lack of data on the health hazards of 3D printers, in context of the hazards demonstrated by industrial 3D printers. Definitely something to think about. And as far as plastic goes, there is no lack of evidence that we are producing and trashing too much plastic. So are we teaching kids to create more plastic stuff that will become obsolete? Some sources point to 3D printing as a solution to environmental damage attributed to overseas shipping and cumbersome prototyping. But that is just about streamlining old manufacturing processes, not about rethinking how we create things in our world.
Obviously it’s not as black and white as that. There is a lot to be said for the importance of content creation in libraries, especially for young people, and 3D printers can be a great aspect of teaching that. As Nate Gass said, “[3D Printer] technology fits in about as neatly as book discussions, resume workshops, technology instruction, and children’s crafts- all standard practice in many public libraries. These types of services are not about content or information dissemination; they are about what you do with it. They involve some form of digesting, synthesizing, and creating, all within a community context.” The key words in that I think are community context: how can we empower kids to think about making beyond just designing products or printing a new toy? At my library, we've done some solution-based 3D printing classes, asking kids to think how can we solve problems using our prints.
An exciting application of technology that is about the environment and collaborative technology is Public Lab, which works to “build and inspire a community of DIY activists and explorers using simple tools to build a growing body of data about our local environments.” They create kits to gather big and small data on the environment, such as testing water, indoor air quality monitoring, detecting pollutants through spectrometers, and environmental mapping with balloons. This project seems like an incredible way to involve people in science and in a collaborative community context for science and environmentalism. Printing supplies on a 3D printer for engaging in a public science project like this seems like an excellent use of a Makerspace.
Another great idea is the iFixit website, which is working to battle obsolescence by creating repair guides to everything. This could be a great educational program that focuses on technology skills and rethinking our consumer products. It is empowering to be able to fix your own stuff, and reduces waste.
Transformation Another aspect of technology that interests me is the idea of transformation: social, personal, and political. If the only framing of transformation we have is disruption - ie Amazon introducing 2-day shipping, or Facebook creating new ways to collect information on consumers, etc - then I’m the opposite of interested. However, technology, like many other tools (I still believe a lot in the power of handmade art), has the power to transform how we interact with the world or deal with problems.
Something I found recently that was exciting was the wearable tech hoodie, developed by Iltimas Doha--Eyebeam Student Resident at Eyebeam Atelier. “In New York City, 9 out of 10 people stopped by police have been innocent. 50% of those stopped are youth (aged 14-24). Smartphone apps are excellent ways to record and document these incidences. But what if you’re too scared or vulnerable to pull out your phone? It’s time to empower youth with the modern tools to protect themselves against profiling and harrassment by law enforcement. Iltimas Doha--Eyebeam Student Resident--wants to make this happen! Though the stop-and-frisk tactic is diminishing as a tool used by the NYPD, and crime rates are down this year across NYC, youth of color are still being victimized and criminalized. We can’t have more youth end up like Mike Brown or Oscar Grant. “Perhaps the most traumatizing part is the point of realization that you have been totally disempowered. That the officer who stopped you can literally do whatever they’d like, right up to putting their hands on their sidearm, and all you do is hope and pray that this time you look light enough, look mature enough, look innocent enough, that they won't touch you. Because that’s all can be done; there is no tool or tactic you can reasonably use in these situations,” says Iltimas. Iltimas needs your help to create a hoodie embedded with stealth technology like sensors and GPS that will record and transmit data for your own protection.” Wearable tech as itself - a fun way to light up your outfit, A cute yarn flower that glows - has a lot of cool factor. But an application like Iltimas’ is totally exciting. And a library space that not only offers classes on how to do these things, but showcases exciting applications of tech, is an important community resource.
Next steps As a children’s librarian, the question is always how can empower children to be part of sustainable or transformative processes. Giving children the experience of being part of something larger than themselves, sharing their projects and ideas with the world, and thinking about solutions and projects that contribute to world issues, can be scaled to many different ages and programs.
Sources cited in depth
Arieff, A. (n.d.). Yes We Can. But Should We? The unintended consequences of the maker movement [Web log post]. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/re-form/just-because-you-can-doesnt-mean-you-should-252fdbcf76c8
Gass, N. (2013, January 30). Do 3D Printers belong in libraries? [Web log post]. Nate’s Broadcast. Retrieved from http://www.natesbroadcast.com/journal/do-3d-printers-belong-in-libraries-a-defense
Royte, E. (2013, May). What Lies Ahead for 3-D Printing? The new technology promises a factory in every home—and a whole lot more. Smithsonian Magazine online. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-lies-ahead-for-3-d-printing-37498558/?all
Stephens, B., Azimi, P., El Orch, Z., & Ramos, T. (2013). Ultrafine particle emissions from desktop 3D printers. Atmospheric Environment, 79334-339. doi:10.1016/j.atmosenv.2013.06.050
*post updated October 28, 2014