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Reproducing Wealth Without Money, One 3D Printer at a Time: The Cunning of Instrumental Reason image
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The paper investigates the relation between two approaches to transforming the world, one wedded to technological development and industrial revolution, the other stressing popular mobilisation and articulation of conflict. This discussion is grounded in a case study of a low-cost, open source 3D printer called “Rep-rap”. The aim of the Rep-rap project, as explained by its founder in a manifesto article titled “Darwinian Marxism”, is to spread a self-reproducing 3D printer to the masses. It is hoped that this will undermine the market in 3D printers as well as markets in every other kind of goods that could be printed on such a machine. In short, Darwinian Marxism is a roadmap to the transcending of existing market society. The ideas of the hobbyists in the Rep-rap project are compared with a longer history of utopian thinking among engineers, beginning with the French Revolution and leading up to the cyber-political vision of 1960s counterculture.

3D printing, open hardware, engineering, utopia, markets

Johan Söderberg


“Socialism was introduced into silk-weaving workshops with the mechanics of the Jacquard loom; it profoundly altered the habits, interests and material and moral circumstances of weavers” (Monfalcon, 1866: 365, my translation)

This remark by a librarian of Lyon, attributing the birth of socialism to the mechanics of the Jacquard loom, was made with the deepest disapproval. In his history of Lyon, it was his explanation for the violent uprisings by artisan weavers that had shaken the town thirty years earlier. As he saw it, in raising the living standards of workers, the Jacquard loom encouraged higher pay demands and worker recalcitrance. What interests me in the quote above is not the claim that the Jacquard loom improved the living standards of weavers, nor whether their radicalism was driven by growing affluence or deepening deprivation. Both of those claims are questionable, to say the least (cf. Strumingher & Bolo, 1978). Of greater relevance to my argument in this paper is that the quote links the introduction of a new technology with the birth of a political – even a revolutionary – idea, the idea of socialism. Still more intriguingly, the technology in question is the famous Jacquard loom. A series of technical advances over the previous fifty years in the Lyon weaving district had culminated in this machine, nowadays hailed as the world’s first computer. The loom mechanism was guided by punched cards, a machine tool control system still employed in heavy industry a century and a half later (Noble, 1986). It is the same principle of using pre-written instructions – i.e. software code – to control the movements of a tool head, that lies at the heart of 3D printing. As for socialism, Adrian Bowyer launched the open source 3D printer project Rep-rap with a manifesto article, where he stated the following:

“So the RepRap project will allow the revolutionary ownership, by the proletariat, of the means of production. But it will do so without all that messy and dangerous revolution stuff, and even without all that messy and dangerous industrial stuff.“ (Bowyer, 2004)

The revolutionary bravado of this paper reflects a long tradition of utopian thought in engineering, a tradition in which the progressive application of human reason to nature is projected to make the market obsolete. This promise comes in at least two versions. One tendency, epitomised by the ‘red cyberneticists’ in the Soviet Union, primarily objects to the irrationality of the price mechanism, and strives to replace the market with computers as a means of allocating resources (Dyer-Witheford, 2013). The second tendency, to which Rep-rap project arguably belongs, looks forward to the day when wealth is so abundant that scarcity will have been superseded, and markets with it. But the quote testifies to another constant also historically prevalent in engineering thought, namely an uneasiness about conflicts of values and interests that might erupt in violence. To avoid this scenario, emancipation must be derived from the manipulation of natural laws that evolve independently of human consciousness and deliberations. This corresponds to a vision in which the market society, or whatever part of it is held to be undesirable, is to be overcome through a (second, third…) industrial revolution. By contrast, the opposing understanding of revolution situates human freedom in a radical break with the past and with the chain of causality that rules in nature. Another way to understand the word “revolution” in both these cases, is as “politics”. What is at stake, then, is two different understandings of how to think and do politics. The first prescribes technological development as a means of promoting social change, while the second puts its faith in popular mobilisation and the articulation of conflict. It is not my intention to compare and contrast the two ideas of revolution/politics in order to show one of them (i.e. the engineer’s vision) to be wrong. Instead, this paper explores their common historical roots and interdependencies. There was a time when there was no clear separation between the politics of the engineer and the politics of the social reformer/militant (cf. Jamison, 2006). As we will see later, the parting of the ways had something to do with the rebellious weavers of Lyon, the world’s first computerised workers. If I choose to stress the commonalities rather than the divergences, it is partly because the two ways of thinking and doing revolution/politics seem about to converge again. Geeks and engineers are forced to engage in parliamentary politics in response to intellectual property laws and related enforcement regimes. Social activists, in turn, are compelled to become acquainted with natural science and engineering in order to make sense of the social conflicts characteristic of today’s world (Kirkpatrick, 2004; Dunbar-Hester, 2012).

My discussion is grounded in a case study of the Rep-rap project conducted over a 2-year period. It draws on interviews with 11 people designated as “core” developers in the Rep-rap project, representing about half of the core team at that time. In addition, the CEOs of four of the first start-up companies (B-f-B, Makerbot, Ultimaker, TechZone) were interviewed, along with other key participants and sponsors of the project. A secondary source of information was the texts published on discussion forums and blogs dedicated to the development project. In this article, I will leave aside the important question of the hands-on practices and designs of the hobbyist-engineers, which I have explored elsewhere (Söderberg, 2013b). Another factor that I have dealt with previously and which I will only mention in passing, is the legal aspects of distributed 3D printing (Söderberg & Daoud, 2011). My focus in this paper is on the ideas and claims driving the Rep-rap project. In the first part of the article, I will describe the ideas behind the project. In the second half, I will relate these ideas to the long history of utopian and political thought in engineering. Towards the end, I tease out some observations about possible ways of thinking about revolution/politics in an age of unbounded, instrumental reason.

Actually-existing Darwinian Marxism: the Rep-rap project.

Of all the machine tools that offer personal/desktop manufacturing, the low-cost 3D printer is the crown jewel. It was the Rep-rap project that triggered a booming, low-end market in 3D printers. The principle behind the Rep-rap 3D printer is that a material (usually plastic) is melted and deposited in layers to build a three-dimensional object. This offers a highly versatile manufacturing process which, in contrast with many other production methods, involves no toxic chemicals, emits no dangerous fumes and requires no high-voltage electricity. In short, 3D printing is ideal for hobbyists working at home (Ratto & Ree, 2012). These technical properties are intertwined with the political claims and visions attached to the Rep-rap project, which themselves are part of the larger, utopian vision of a ‘geek public’ (Kelty, 2008). What makes the Rep-rap project stand out, besides the technology itself, is that these ideas have been developed in a published manifesto.

The vision of the project’s originator, Adrian Bowyer, shared by at least some of his closest collaborators, is to disrupt established patterns of industrial production, global distribution networks and mass consumption. In their place they envision a new regime of decentralised, peer-to-peer manufacturing (cf. Bauwens, 2005). This transformation is framed within a biological and evolutionary perspective, under which everything hinges on the capacity of the 3D printer to print (most of) its own parts. With this capacity, the growth curve of the 3D printer machine park becomes self-reinforcing, in other words existing 3D printers can be used to build new 3D printers. The wider implications of this work are sketched out by Adrian Bowyer in a text subtitled ‘Darwinian Marxism’. The pivotal idea in the paper is that once the 3D printer is capable of making its own parts, the machine will begin to mimic a key feature of living beings: self-replication. The name ‘Rep-rap’ is an abbreviation of self-REPlicating RAPid prototyper. The names given to the official versions of the Rep-rap 3D printer pay tribute to the biological sciences: the first generation was called Darwin, the second Mendel, the third Huxley.

The claims made for the Rep-rap project have been enthusiastically received by sections of the geek public, although others, unsurprisingly, have reacted with profound scepticism. The sceptics have usually taken aim at some technical hurdle. For instance, only half the parts of the 3D printer can be reproduced, leaving out the most complicated, such as microelectronics and motors. And even if the day comes when every single part can be printed, a human being will have to assemble them. An oft-recurring objection to the Rep-rap project has therefore been that its claims to build a self-replicating machine are hyperbolic (Perens, 2008). Bowyer, however, had already anticipated this objection in his paper, riposting with the idea of “symbiosis”. The machine can be said to reproduce itself if we allow for a more distributed view of reproduction. The 3D printer replicates itself in symbiosis with the user. The human being is willing to help the machine reproduce because she is rewarded with consumer goods, just as the wasp helps orchids to reproduce in exchange for nectar. Now it might sound as if Bowyer had undermined his initial claim about a self-replicating machine, but beyond the question of technical feasibility, there is a more interesting critique of ‘Darwinian Marxism’ to be developed.

Bowyer’s idea of “symbiosis” has a bearing on another kind of objection which, no doubt, springs to the minds of historians or social scientists as soon as they hear of a ‘self-replicating 3D printer’. To such readers, the claim will sound uncannily reminiscent of an old engineering fantasy: the fully automated factory (Turner, 2008). However, this potential objection also needs qualifying when the notion of “symbiosis” is raised. With symbiosis, the human being is enrolled in the machine’s reproduction process, albeit with the exclusion of one crucial aspect, namely her existence as a conscious, thinking being. The power of the wasp-orchid synergy lies in the fact that it draws exclusively on the wasp’s instincts. The historian or social scientist may therefore stress the historical continuity with the (semi-)automated factory, where the human is reduced to an appendage of the machine. This critique is not without merit, but it fails to grasp the whole picture, because conscious decision making re-enters at a different stage of the equation. The point with a ‘self-replicating 3D-printer’ is that the critical parts for the machine can be made on a second device, i.e. a second hobbyist’s machine (Olliver, 2010-05-04). What is at stake, in other words, is the ‘functional autonomy’ of the collective of hobbyists. The term ‘functional autonomy’ is borrowed from the labour historian David Montgomery and I use it in exactly the same way as him. He documented worker struggles in nineteenth-century factories, where the worker collective often had de facto control over the production process. Their functional autonomy vis-à-vis the factory owner was due to their  greater familiarity with tools and practices. Montgomery showed how the reorganisation of work practices and production processes, in large part through the introduction of new technology, contributed to undermining the functional autonomy of workers (Montgomery, 1976). Its logical end-point, of course, was the fully automated factory.

In the case of the Rep-rap community, the risk of losing functional autonomy is as acutely felt as it was in nineteenth-century workplaces. But a diametrically opposite significance is attributed to technology and automation. Furthermore, the threat does not come from an employer, narrowly speaking, but from start-up firms and venture capital. A brief example can serve as an illustration. When the second-oldest start-up firm, Makerbot Industries, was created by a former core team developer, Zach Hoeken, the new company inherited the stock of electronic boards entrusted to him as director of the non-profit Rep-rap Foundation. As a result, hobbyists wanting to build a Rep-rap 3D printer had no choice but to go through Makerbot Industries. At the time, Makerbot Industries was part of the Rep-rap community and had a high level of credibility in the open hardware community. Nevertheless, hobbyists had misgivings about being dependent on the goodwill of a single firm, which spurred numerous secondary projects to develop alternative electronic boards, some of which were tailored for home production needs. In theory, at least, the possibility of home brewing the electronics ensured that no single firm would be in control of this critical component. In practice, the option of making the electronics at home was restricted to a handful of very resourceful hobbyists (Markus Hitter, 2011-09-11). The lack of technical skill among average users is an overriding constraint on the design of the machine and the weakest link in the user-machine or wasp-orchid symbiosis supposed to drive the horizontal distribution/evolution process. It is in this light that we need to see the Rep-rap project’s long-term goal of automating away the skills required of 3D printer users (Söderberg, 2013b). The ultimate aim is to move from electronics boards that can be etched in an acid bath at home to a machine capable of printing conductive materials and thereby its own electronics. Objections regarding the technical feasibility of such a scenario can be left aside for now. The point I want to make is that automation in the Rep-rap community has taken on the opposite meaning to that which it had to workers in the nineteenth-century factory. Hobbyists pursue automation with the aim of preserving their community’s functional autonomy vis-à-vis corporations and venture capital.

The first commercial machines took the design of Rep-rap 3D printer wholesale, including the open, modular mechanical construction and the use of standard rolls of filament. As was already known from the example of the market in ordinary printers, long-term profitability would come not from selling machines but from selling ink/plastic. The first step taken by firms to control the plastic market was to introduce conditions in the warranty, obliging customers to buy their filament from official vendors or have their warranty suspended. To be fully effective, however, a lock-in of plastic sales had to be hard-wired into the architecture of the machine. This required a non-modular mechanical design fixing the critical component, the extruder head, through which the filament is fed (Higgs, 2011-11-03). What proprietary source code is to free software developers, plastic filament delivered in cartridges is to 3D printing hobbyists. In much the same way as having access to source code is the life-blood of the free software community, the Rep-rap community relies on access to filament, because the sharing of plastic parts hinges on the cheapness of the raw material. Lose that and the community will become no more than an appendage to a cartridge. Anticipating this danger well in advance, one core developer, who’s claim to fame it is to have built the first proof-of-concept prototype of a Rep-rap 3D printer, expressed confidence that the community would be able to work around any technical constraint:

“When people try to make money, more specifically when they try to put something in the way so that you have to go through them to do something interesting, the project generally tends to fall apart. But that does not happen with Rep-rap because it is specifically designed to reproduce itself. So you could not really put yourself in the way and demand money.” (Olliver, 2010-05-04)

This quote illustrates that the engineering goals – to foster modularity in the design and reproduction of critical parts – are integral to the agenda of the Rep-rap project, and it also shows an awareness of the constraints under which this political programme must be implemented. The adherents knew from the start that their ideals had to be realised through the market, or not at all (Sells, 2010-05-07). When the first two entrepreneurs arrived and made inquiries about selling a modified version of the Darwin printer, they were strongly encouraged to do so (Adkins & Major, 2009-11-26). This pragmatic attitude to involving for-profit ventures coincides with broader trends in social movement activism post-1989. The Rep-rap project differs, however, in that it has adopted pragmatism while maintaining a long-term vision of transcending the market economy. Paradoxically, the undoing of markets and firms will be achieved by coexisting with them. This argument about the possibility of working through-and-against the market is built on the idea of evolution, in this case evolution applied to the self-propagation and ‘natural selection’ of 3D printers. The presupposition behind the working of these evolutionary laws is that user-individuals are lured by their consumer impulses into a symbiosis with the self-reproducing machine. The inspirational source behind this assumption is easy enough to identify – neo-classical economic theory. But user-individual choices will not aggregate spontaneously to form a new market. Quite to the contrary, when every home has been supplied with an ubiquitous manufacturing process unit (i.e. a 3D printer), most market exchanges will have been rendered superfluous. The centrality of this idea for hobbyists is suggested by the Rep-rap project strapline: “wealth-without-money”. More clues come from Ed Sells, a former PhD candidate in Adrian Bowyer’s laboratory, the second person to join the Rep-rap project and mastermind of the Mendel generation of the 3D printer. Pondering the possibility of HP or some other multinational company trying to outmanoeuvre the Rep-rap project, he raises the following counter-scenario:

“I think that Adrian has hit on a mechanism which is so unbelievable powerful. When you’ve got something making itself, it is scary from the point of view of HP […] Self-reproduction wins over anything else, over any linear production. Rep-rap exposes the fact that if you’ve got a 3D-printer, it can make itself. So HP will go: ‘well, we are not going to make any money here‘. And the fact that Adrian has made it open source from day one means that there is nothing to stop people designing around someone [i.e. HP] coming in. I don’t think you can stop Rep-rap except if you get to a safe distance and nuke it.” (Sells, 2010-05-07)

This quote testifies to the confidence and idealism that flourished in the Rep-rap community in the early days. In hindsight, with the market in low-end 3D printers more or less divided between two multinationals, Stratasys and 3D Systems, the prediction looks rather quaint. But the reasoning behind it is worth exploring further, because, I contend, despite recent setbacks, it is the only logically rigorous roadmap to abolishing money that we have on offer at the moment. Ed Sells alludes to two factors believed to give the Rep-rap community an edge over commercial vendors. The first is the possibility of designing around any chokepoint imposed by a firm. The case of Makerbot Industries and the home-built electronics exemplifies this claim. The second is the speed at which the 3D printer will spread and develop. This point needs to be developed a little further. While components for a Rep-rap machine can be printed either on another Rep-rap machine or a commercial 3D printer, this does not work the other way around. The corporations have no interest in designing their 3D printers in such a way that they could alternatively be made on a Rep-rap machine. To underline this point, hobbyist-engineers call commercial 3D printers “Rep-straps”. Rep-strap is the name given to machines which can be used to build (or “bootstrap”) Rep-rap machines, but cannot make copies of themselves. This asymmetry is believed to give the Rep-rap 3D printer an advantage over commercial derivatives. As the market for commercial Rep-straps grows, the population of Rep-rap printers (and with that, the Rep-rap community) grows with it. Potentially, at least, the community will grow faster than the market, since the Rep-rap project benefits from the aforesaid uni-directionality in the spread of 3D printers (Bowyer, 2009-11-24).

The paper on Darwinian Marxism proposes a thought experiment in which the output of a self-printing 3D printer is compared with an injection moulding machine, a standard industrial tool for the mass production of consumer goods. In the long run, and provided that the question of exhaustible resources is ignored, self-replication will numerically overtake mass production. This will happen by the same process as exponential growth outdoes linear growth. A quick reality check reveals that, of the estimated 80,000 desktop 3D printers sold globally in 2013 (Stratasys, 2013), the overwhelming majority were of the Rep-strap sort. Indeed, even acknowledging the exceptional growth of the Rep-rap community over the years, the growth curve did not take off until the introduction of some centralisation in the design and distribution of key components (Higgs, 2011-11-03). These caveats aside, what must be granted to Bowyer is that there now exists a theoretical answer to the question that has shipwrecked innumerable socialist and anarchist dreams: How can an alternative economy be coordinated in which goods are delivered as efficiently as in the current centralised and industrialised market economy? Furthermore, if the raw numerical advantage claimed for decentralisation fails to convince the reader, another line of argument points to the superior dynamics of an open innovation process. This idea originates in open source-guru Eric Raymond’s iconic catch-phrase: ‘add more eyeballs and all bugs are shallow’. In other words, innovation will accelerate faster the more people get involved in the process of discovery. This ensures a maximum diversity of perspectives, thereby increasing the chances of finding novel solutions to old problems. Starting from this observation, Raymond inferred that an open and decentralised development process will win out over a closed and/or centralised development process (Raymond, 1998). The hobbyist-engineers in the Rep-rap project have incorporated this idea into the narrative on evolutionary biology. Diversity is a prerequisite for natural selection, and natural selection ensures that the best technical option will prevail over faulty designs. When the design is walled up behind intellectual property claims, diversity is stifled and the engineering project runs into an evolutionary dead-end (Prusa, 2011-09-19).

Not everyone in the Rep-rap project, perhaps not even the majority, subscribes to the ideas about evolutionary laws outlined above, though the most influential and active developers do. Likewise, not everyone cares about the stated goal of contributing to large-scale economic and social change. Just as with other hobby-engineering projects, the joy of tinkering with technology might be the biggest incentive for people to get involved (Kleif & Faulkner, 2003). Other motives are the possibility of getting a 3D printer at a cut-rate price and, increasingly, the growing business opportunities within a booming consumer market for 3D printers. However, the possibility of harbouring such divergent viewpoints under one and the same roof is part of what makes the call for diversity so appealing. Diversity is not just seen as a principle leading to superior technical solutions. It embodies the ethical and political values that constitute the raison d‘être of the Rep-rap project. The value of diversity is set against the current system of centralised mass production. Furthermore, on a day-to-day basis, appeals to diversity are part and parcel of project management. Conflicts between members of the core team over design choices and long-term strategies are commonplace. Under the watchword of diversity, developers are encouraged to work within a design-and-let-design ethos. The assumption is that natural selection will sort out wrong from right (Prusa, 2011-09-19; Sells, 2010-05-07). In fact, the assertion of “diversity” performs roughly the same role for the hobbyists as the notion of “pluralism” did for the 1990s alter-globalisation movement or post-2008 protesters. Both words signify the antithesis of party lines, ossified ideologies and sectarianism.

Just as with pluralism and tolerance, however, the value of “diversity” has an Other. To paraphrase Herbert Marcuse’s memorable expression, this Other can be named “repressive diversity” (Marcuse, 1969). Almost from the start, objections were raised on the Rep-rap discussion forum about the second term in the phrase ‘Darwinian Marxism’. The concern was that newcomers would feel excluded (General Forum, Aug. 27, 2007). The project’s by-line ‘wealth-without-money’ and a quote from the UK’s Guardian newspaper claiming that Rep-rap would ‘bring down global capitalism’, both initially fronted on the website, were later removed. All the while, tensions in the Rep-rap community have grown as the consumer market in 3D printers itself has grown. The pattern is familiar from other social movements that have tried to gain leverage in society by making alliances with for-profit ventures. Success is often bought at the price of diversion from the original goals (Hess, 2005). A turning point came in autumn 2012, when Makerbot Industries announced that it would no longer allow the community access to the design of its latest products. Indignation ran wild on the Internet, and some called for Adrian Bowyer to intervene. Partly to defend himself against the charge that he was too lax in enforcing the open licence policy, Bowyer responded as follows:

“When it comes to the success or failure of RepRap, moral beliefs, legal constraints and the flow of money are almost completely irrelevant. It is the evolutionary game theory that matters.” (Bowyer, September 21, 2012, Makerbot blog)

The actions and intentions of the hobbyist-engineers are irrelevant to the unfolding of an impersonal and cumulative causative process, which obeys only the laws of evolution, but is nevertheless, paradoxically, moving towards the social transformation claimed by the hobbyists. To an unsympathetic reader, this probably sounds like a convenient way for the engineers to justify any opportunistic venture they might choose to embark on, such as Bowyer’s ownership of shares in Makerbot Industries, publicly acknowledged in the same message. A former member of the core team recalls that Bowyer told the other team members about his investment at the same time as they learned that the firm had been started by Zach Hoeken et. al. After that, any ideas of adopting a cohesive policy for firms that failed to play by the rules were left hanging (Higgs, 2011-11-03). In the absence of community enforcement of the licence, a free-for-all ethos would seem to have filled the void, as suggested by the negative reactions to attempts by anyone on the discussion forum to name-and-shame a firm sensed to be out-of-line with the licence requirements. The person in question can expect to be reprimanded in turn for his lack of appreciation for diversity. That this has a downside, even when judged by the criteria of ‘evolutionary game theory’, is implied in a comment by another core developer. Interviewed in Reprap Magazine, he was asked if commercialisation held back any aspect of development:

“Yes, I think the majority of people wanting a 3D printer want something cheap, easy to build and operate, with good print quality, and care little about it being self-replicating, so naturally there aren’t many people working in that direction.” (Palmer, cited in: Hodgson, 2013, p.29-30)

The aggregation of spontaneous choices does not, naturally as it were, point to a self-reproducing machine. Someone must first rig the game, and keep it rigged, for the right kind of evolution to occur, starting with the choice of licensing regime. In this respect, the observation on mechanical determinism by Antonio Gramsci seems relevant. He warned that it leads to ‘passive and idiotic self-sufficiency’ in a movement, especially in rank-and-file attitudes to the party leadership. But he also admitted that it brought fortitude in hard times (Gramsci, 1999, p.646ff). It is this last remark by Gramsci, I believe, that explains the strong support amongst devotees for Bowyer’s response, and the copying and favourable references to his text on numerous other forums. The underlying message is that evolutionary game-theory makes both actions by hobbyist-engineers and counter-actions by vested interests equally irrelevant. Given that the playing field is heavily tilted in favour of the latter, as exemplified by law and money in the quote above, the appeal to an extra-social, higher authority becomes very attractive (Söderberg, 2013a). It follows that grand-scale social change can be had without direct confrontation with the powers-that-be, which is to say, without a messy and dangerous revolution. In fact, hobbyist-engineers have stumbled on a recipe for social change that has waxed and waned in leftist thinking over the last 200 years, namely the idea that the System can be changed by withdrawing from it. A first wave of withdrawal was attempted by the followers of Fourier, Cabet and Saint-Simon in the aftermath of the miscarried French Revolution (Corcoran, 1986). In his Eighteenth brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx succinctly described those experiments as attempts to seek salvation “behind society’s back” (1937, p.9), a proposition that Marx considered an absurdity. In his view, it was society, or, to be more precise, social relations, which acted behind the backs of individuals. Darwinian Marxism is a programme for rigging the laws of evolution in order to smuggle social change behind the backs of society and individuals alike. It seeks to transcend capitalism through the ‘cunning of instrumental reason’.

Historical overview of engineering ideology

The ideas outlined above are fairly consistent with the orthodox Marxism associated with the Second International, which claimed that human emancipation would march hand in hand with the gradual advancement of science and technology. Increases in social wealth flowing from ever-more powerful forces of production gave an ultimate assurance that capitalism would eventually be transcended. What is the dream of a 3D printer capable of printing almost everything, including a copy of itself, if not a manifestation of the forces of production at their apogee? The extent to which this vision follows Karl Marx’s thinking is an object of intense philological controversy. According to one view, the scientism characteristic of Second International Marxism originated in Friedrich Engels’ own texts and/or in his post-mortem editing of Marx’s manuscripts (Levine, 1973, but cf. Gouldner, 1980). Intriguingly, Engels too turned to nature in search of laws (of dialectics) that would strengthen his case that capitalism was a transient phase in human history. So perhaps ‘Darwinian Engelism’ would have been a more appropriate heading for the political programme of the Rep-rap project (Engels, 1987).

That said, faith in the emancipatory potential of science and technology was not a trait exclusive to late nineteenth and early twentieth century Marxism. Such ideas were a common legacy of the Enlightenment, and its firstborn children were the engineers. Another motion asserted in this milieu was the advancement of nature as a metaphor for the the possibility of social change. In the eighteenth century, as the epistemological framework of the Enlightenment developed, French engineers begun to discern dynamic forces in nature. Dynamism was taken as a model for their concept of technical efficiency. This interpretation was charged with political undercurrents, because nature thus understood was contrasted with the hindrances and inefficiencies of the feudal order (Jakobsen, et al. 1998; Picon, 2009). Henri de Saint-Simon excelled in this line of thinking. Initially an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, he became dismayed by the bloodshed that it had unleashed. He greeted France’s embryonic industrialisation as a force that could complete the task that the political revolution had left unfinished, that is to say, the eradication of the ancien régime. Against the feudal order he marshalled the productive members of society, what he called the “industrialists” – a label that encompassed bankers, patrons, artisans, craftsmen and workers – without registering the emerging lines of conflict between these different groups (Saint-Simon, 2012; Musso, 2010).

This ambiguity was inherited by Saint-Simon’s followers, one wing of which courted bankers and factory owners, while the other sympathised with the growing mass of pauperised workers. Indeed, the word “socialism” is commonly attributed to Pierre Leroux, a prominent member of the latter tendency. In-fighting and the eventual suppression of the socialist wing of the Saint-Simonians coincided with the first weavers’ uprising in Lyon in 1831 (Musso, 1999: 111f).  The Saint-Simonians had hurried to Lyon to promulgate their utopian ideas to the workers. As a consequence, they were singled out by state authorities as troublemakers responsible for the uprising (Rude, 2007; Musso, 2010). The historian Pierre Musso has suggested that the state repression that followed prompted the remaining Saint-Simonians to change their rhetoric and style of thinking. The role of struggle in the social transformation that they propounded was played down. Social change would instead come about through the development of communication networks, chiefly railways and canals. This proposition resonated with the presence of engineers educated at École Polytechnique (Musso, 1999). Part and parcel of this legacy is the subsumption of conflicting interests under a common good, achieved through cooperation and the advancement of technology. Ultimately, what this common good consists in, and by what means to get there, should be entrusted to those who are most knowledgeable and impartial, that is to say: the engineers (Savigear, 1971).

I propose that the split in the Saint-Simonians, catalysed by the Lyon textile workers’ uprising and the ensuing state repression, was the historical moment when two approaches to revolution/politics parted ways. One path stressed political mobilisation and articulation of conflict as a means of changing the world, the other played down overt conflict while smuggling in social change through the manipulation of the laws of nature, including the nature of fellow human beings. In ‘geek publics’, the same tension often crystallizes into “hacktivist” and “techie” camps. It is exemplified in the stand-off between the Free Software Movement and Open Source Initiative (Berry, 2004), in the schism between hacklabs and hackerspaces (Maxigas, 2012) and, indeed, in the various factions found within the Rep-rap project. What is crucial to note here is that this tension is not simply played out between two well-defined and opposing camps. The same polarity is reproduced inside the representations and strategies of the respective camps. After all, the techie who affirms unadorned, incontestable facts over loose opinions and values is, in doing so, making an appeal to a certain kind of value (Gillespie, 2006). Conversely, when the moment comes to translate the political assertions of the hacktivist into a substantive change in the world, the question of efficacy must be addressed.

The inclination among engineers to anchor their ethical and political claims in nature received new impetus with the breakthrough of evolutionary biology in the second half of the nineteenth century. In countries where the ancien régime lingered on, for instance in Germany, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was greeted by the bourgeoisie as an ally in their struggle against the aristocracy. Later on, when the central lines of conflict had shifted, and the bourgeoisie confronted an ascendant working class, the meanings invested in “nature” changed as well. Natural selection was now called upon to show that market competition was a mere reflection of the eternal order of nature (Pannekoek, 1912). The name that surfaces here, of course, is that of Herbert Spencer, whose writings on social Darwinism became immensely popular. Spencer’s influence on his contemporaries needs to be emphasised, because today his name evokes little but hostility or indifference. Perhaps it is no accident that Spencer was an engineer by training (Sharlin, 1976). Edwin Layton goes so far as to argue that social Darwinism was the founding ideology underpinning the constitution of the engineering profession in the late nineteenth century. Although engineers never developed their ideas into a single, coherent doctrine, certain notions recurred with great frequency. One key notion was the assumption that nature and society are governed by laws that are accessible to human knowledge. Those laws were held to be immutable and incontestable, but this was not understood by engineers as a limitation on their freedom to act. On the contrary, it was through the manipulation of nature’s laws that engineers could exercise influence over society. Layton stresses that the popularity of these ideas surged at a time when the subordination of the engineering profession to the corporate bureaucratic hierarchy was being consolidated in America. With their status under threat, the engineers drew on social Darwinism to maintain their professional values and identity (Layton, 1986, p.55).

Layton goes on to argue that the same ideology was extended and codified with the advent of Taylorism half a century later. Passed off as a means of improving efficiency in industry, Frederick Taylor’s scientific doctrine was at the same time a programme for resolving ethical questions in a context of intense class conflict. Taylor and his followers believed that they had discovered immutable laws of management possessing the same force as natural laws. They imagined the engineer to be an impartial judge and interpreter of those laws, thus standing above the messy world of politics, and in particular above the conflict between workers and management. It was the anti-political outlook of the engineer that fitted him for the role of arbiter in politics. This worldview provided the germ of what would, a few decades later, develop into the notion of an end to class conflicts and ideological strife (Maier, 1970). The name Frederick Taylor evokes images of satanic mills and factory despotism. Just as with the deterministic laws of nature, things looked differently from the engineer’s vantage point. Taylor’s promise of increasing industrial production was coupled with a bid to extend the autonomy of the engineering profession. Needless to say, this would come at the expense of blue-collar workers, but it would also restrict the autocratic, unscientific rule of managers (Zussman, 1985, p.6; Layton, 1986, p.139). Scientific management would demonstrate the faults of the manager “who merely cracks his whip over the heads of his workmen and attempts to drive them into harder work for low pay” (Taylor, 1911, p.58). Of course, there is no denying the fact that Taylor’s chief contribution was to dismantle the functional autonomy of worker collectives on the shop-floor. There was enough ambiguity in his writings, however, to allow some of his closest disciples to put an anti-corporate spin on scientific management. This points to a split in the conception of rationality that runs from Saint-Simon to the Rep-rap hobbyists of today. Rationality defined on technical grounds and directed towards the production of social goods – the engineer’s position – contrasts with the pecuniary rationality advocated by economists, managers and owners. The most systematic account of this schism is to be found in the essays that make up Thorstein Veblen’s The Engineers and the Price System. Although not himself an engineer, Veblen was inspired by ideas he had encountered among engineers, and he influenced some of them in return (Stabile, 1986; Knoedler & Mayhew, 1999). Intriguingly, he too drew on Darwin and evolutionary laws as rhetorical resources, pitching them against the economists and economic science of his day. Free markets, he charged, had become obsolete in modern society and were now holding back progress. In an industrial society, it was the engineers who were best qualified to take informed decisions about the future of mankind. Writing shortly after the revolution in Russia, he famously called for a ‘soviet of technicians’ in America (Murphree, 1959; Veblen, 2001, p.83). Veblen had a decisive influence on the Technocracy movement that surged in the wake of the Great Depression, whose acolytes asserted the imminent downfall of the price system and advocated emergency preparations to accommodate a more rational society based on the principles of science (Adair, 1967). Traces of the Technocracy movement remain in hobbyists-engineer communities to this day (cf. Wallace, 2007).

If truth be told, Veblen’s agitation failed to inspire the wider community of engineers. This can probably be put down to the fact that their occupational standing was closely tied up with that of industry and the business community. In their practices, engineers had become attuned to efficiency as the purpose of their professional endeavours. Efficiency and functionality were facts of life with which there could be no quarrel, leaving them at the mercy of a received definition of efficiency. After all, the supreme test of the soundness of an engineering solution was the market (Zussman, 1985, p.121). The internalisation of the rationales of the business community began with the first day of training for a career in engineering. This situation was underpinned by deliberate efforts to place the engineering schools, as soon as they had been established in the nineteenth century in America, under the influence of local business communities. For the historian David Noble, the education of engineers was key to ensuring the reproduction of engineering subjectivity. The potentially disruptive practices of engineers could thus be channelled towards entrenching existing relations of domination and exploitation (Noble, 1977). From time to time, the engineering professions attempted to assert their autonomy against the influence of the business community. This can be seen in periodic struggles for control over the engineering federations in the US in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, or in the creation of an initiation rite for Canadian engineers at the same period, scripted by no less a writer than Rudyard Kipling. Ultimately, however, the profession’s independence was undermined by the revolving doors between engineering jobs and the upper echelons of management. Edwin Layton concludes his study of engineering ideology with the observation that it was not free market forces that angered the engineers the most. What truly vexed them was bureaucracy in their workplaces. Once more, we can trace a lineage going all the way back to Saint-Simon and his opposition to state bureaucracy, which he associated with the vested interests of the ancien régime. He railed against the unproductive members of society, by which he meant the nobility, the clergy and the military, who were exempted by state bureaucracy from contributing to the overall advancement of mankind (Saint Simon, 2012).

Engineering ideology meets cyber-politics in the Rep-rap project

The Rep-rap project grew out of and has subsequently recruited many of its followers from mechanical engineering departments. At the same time, the values and methodologies behind the development project rely heavily on software engineering. The Rep-rap project sees a reconnection between the emergent field of computer programming and a more classical engineering tradition. I will limit my discussion of the history of software engineering to a few continuities reflected in the Rep-rap community, especially relating to its anti-bureaucratic thrust. The influence of the 1960s counter-culture on the then nascent computer profession has been explored in many earlier works and needs no reiteration (Markoff, 2005; Flichy, 2007). A couple of media scholars have stressed how this strain of utopianism espoused the free-market in an opposition to both hierarchies and bureaucracy, a phenomenon that Alan Liu disapprovingly refers to as “cyberpolitics”. He argues that the potential for cyberpolitics to be diverted into a form of high-tech libertarianism was present at its inception. The main accomplishment of scientific management was not the subjugation of blue-collar workers to factory despotism, he writes, but the creation of a new stratum of white-collar workers with a persona perfectly fashioned by the dogmas of scientific management. This product of Taylorism merged with its radical Other – countercultural  “bad attitude”. Thus was created the strange amalgam that is cyberpolitics (Liu, 2004). While finding Liu’s argument compelling, I ask myself if cyberpolitics are more culpable than any other of the post-1968 digressions of the Left. For instance, Nancy Fraser has made similar observations about second wave feminism, arguing that the ideas espoused by feminists of this generation were, from the outset, vulnerable to appropriation by an ascendant neoliberal world order (Fraser, 2009). Be that as it may, the centrality of communication networks in late capitalism is indisputable and bestows a heightened importance on the cyber-political imagination. The software engineer has become the vehicle of an inverted, nightmarish form of the dreams of 1968, in which opposition to bureaucracy translates into an attack on those institutions that guarantee stable employment conditions. The anti-authoritarian penchant of the counter-culture is gratified when the challenge is directed against allegedly undemocratic experts and the liberal professions. Foreshadowed in Saint-Simon’s tirade against the state, cyber-politics takes aim at the employment security that shelters professionals from exposure to the “democratic” test of market demand (Turner, 2006; Barbrook, 2007).

Removing the demand for the labour of others was always part of the engineer’s job description. In the heyday of the mechanical/industrial engineer, however, this task was accompanied by a word of regret or apology. Perhaps it might be claimed that new jobs would be created elsewhere in the economy or that overall wealth would grow thanks to labour-saving machinery (Bix, 2000). Not so with the cyberpolitical avant-garde, whose attack on employment security is pursued with messianic zeal. The file sharing debate is a case in point. Although the music companies are the designated target of politicised file sharing activists, there are consequences for professional musicians too. The busking artist is often heralded as evidence of the fact that money can be made in music without contracts and legal protections. The impact that file sharing may have had on the market for music and, subsequently, on musicians, is a lengthy topic that I cannot enter into here (Oberholzer‐Gee & Strumpf , 2007; Anderson, 2011). What I want to suggest is that the employment situation of musicians is indicative of the direction of the job market for many other professions. One such group is industrial designers, who have already begun to wonder what will remain of their profession once a consumer market for 3D printers takes off (Atkinson, 2010). In the meantime, 3D printing enthusiasts anticipate a democratisation of design, as the field is emancipated from “experts” (Nipe, 2009-12-23). When I asked Adrian Bowyer if the fulfilment of the Rep-rap project’s goals would not result in massive downward pressure on salaries, he concurred. That would not be such a terrible thing, he added, since the people affected would not have to buy so many things when they have a 3D printer in their home (Bowyer, 2009-11-24).

Adrian Bowyer’s answer must be anathema to anyone with a trade unionist perspective, not least when we consider that the predecessors of 3D printing technology, that is, numerically control machinery tools, were introduced into heavy industry in the US with the explicit purpose of undermining the metalworking union (Noble, 1986; Scranton, 2009). In a more charitable interpretation, Bowyer’s answer testifies to the fact that the Rep-rap project has set the bar higher than the mere redistribution of wealth that characterises ‘trade union consciousness’. Nothing less will do than the abolition of commodified labour, a future of wealth-without-wages. Of course, everything hinges on atoms too – not just labour – being set free (free as in gratis). In defence of the hobbyist-engineers, it must be granted that they have not exempted themselves from the forces which they are partly responsible for unleashing. Indeed, their collective existence as a community of hobbyists is presupposed by an ongoing crisis in the engineering profession, a crisis on which the historian Rosalind Williams, a former dean at MIT, is well placed to reflect. In the ever more insubstantial engineering curriculum taught at MIT, she sees a foundering of the identity of the profession as a whole. She offers several explanations for this, but stresses one in particular: the disappearance of the institutional settings within which lifelong engineering careers used to unfold. Granted, precarious labour demand is a condition that students at MIT share with many other young workers. However, engineering students stand out for having so completely internalised the contemporary imperatives of working life. Williams is concerned that the entrepreneurial outlook adopted by her students erodes the public engagement that was part and parcel of the old identity of the engineering profession (Williams, 2003).

The crisis in the identity of engineers is reminiscent of the prognoses made in the 1960s and 1970s of a proletarianisation of the “middle levels”, with the prediction that engineers would follow in the footsteps of craft workers. As the ranks of engineers swelled, their jobs would be routinized, their salaries and status would fall, and their level of unemployment would climb. In this bleak prognosis lay a glimmer of hope that engineers would then be driven to side with blue-collar workers (Holbrook-Jones, 1982; Zussman, 1985; Braverman, 1999). If I hesitate to agree with the proletarianisation thesis, despite some supporting factors, it is because engineers are likely to be doing a lot better than most other precarious entrepreneur-workers. The same brushstroke by which technological change undercuts labour markets, revives the demand for technical expertise. It is noteworthy, though, that there are now more trained engineers than the industry can absorb, of whom a trinkle spend their surplus time and energy on community-centred projects, for instance developing an open source 3D-printer. A minority of them do so in pursuit of idealistic and utopian goals. For the latter, their position as outsiders from corporate bureaucracy is experienced as something enabling them to develop a technology at odds with institutional logics and constraints. This position resonates strongly with the ideas of the 1970s Alternative Technology movement (Smith, 2005). While Rosalind Williams’ terminal diagnosis on the professional identity of engineers sounds plausible, the conclusions she draws from it require qualification. Even when engineering identity was bracketed within lifelong institutions, the profession vacillated between, on the one hand, representing itself as a defender of public interest and/or human reason and, on the other, internalising the particular interests of the business elite and the personal aspiration of joining it. The labour historians mentioned above attributed this ambiguity to the indeterminacy of the engineer’s class position. Like the blue-collar worker, the engineer is subjugated to the discipline of industrial organisation; like the manager, he/she exercises discretion and authority over others. That being said, the engineer’s ambiguous position is further exacerbated by entrepreneurialism. The anticipation of one day being bought out by venture capital turns the most radical and sincerely felt enunciation  into ex-ante market hype.

In the paragraphs above, I have argued that the intellectual and political legacy of mechanical/industrial engineering and the more recent influx of ideas from software engineering and cyber-politics have come together in the Rep-rap project. Those ideas can be mobilised against the irrationality of the price mechanism, or they can be flown as a banner of free market doctrine. This ambiguity is exacerbated by the foundering of the engineering profession’s institutional frameworks. Engineering ideology was formulated at a time when the profession was asserting itself against both workers and managers. Nowadays, the avant-garde position among engineers is to be found at the frontline of deprofessionalisation. Nothing illustrates this better than the figure of the hacker, from which the Rep-rap project borrows extensively. By definition, the hacker is an outsider vis-à-vis institutions and professions. The hacker, having “liberated” software development from the constraints of corporate hierarchies, is himself set free from contractual employment. What hackers have done to themselves and to software development, hobbyist-engineers are striving to do for everyone else, i.e. to everyone working in the design and manufacture of physical goods.


This article started out by observing that there are two related but partially opposed conceptions of revolution and, by extension, of politics. One idea prescribes social change through the development of new technology, whereby clashes between opposing interests can be short-circuited. The other stresses popular mobilisation and articulation of conflict, possibly culminating in violence followed by the depravation of the original values. In reality, neither has a particularly promising track record. On the subject of technology-driven revolution, David Noble identified the key question more than 30 years ago: How is it that everything seems to change constantly while nothing essential moves? He sought an answer in the engineering schools and their reproduction of a certain engineering subjectivity. Assuming that Noble was right, what is one to make of the current deprofessionalisation of engineering practices, evidenced in the existence of an ever-expanding community of hobbyist-engineers? The same observation holds for education. The hacker personifies a learning process that has escaped established engineering curriculums and the associated educational institutions. As the Mentor put it in his famous 1986 manifesto, the hacker rejects the pre-chewed chunks of knowledge spoon-fed to him by teachers.

The Rep-rap project sets out to provide one piece of the puzzle in a larger peer-to-peer manufacturing infrastructure. With such an infrastructure in place, engineers can bypass fixed capital. It is a roadmap for the “exodus” of engineering practices from wage labour relations and (which is the same thing) from commodity production. The role assigned to “self-replication” in this larger scheme of things, although framed within a conceptual framework of evolutionary laws and technical determinism, testifies to the very opposite, the importance of design choices. The kind of 3D-printer that can reproduce itself (in symbiosis with human beings) is designed to ensure the community’s functional autonomy from corporations and venture capital. The counter-scenario unfolds if the community relies on a Rep-Strap, that is to say, on a 3D printer where critical parts can only be made with large capital investment. This generates the need for for a return on investment, which prompts rationalisation, which leads to hierarchy, employees, and so on. Optimistically, it could be said that the open source Rep-rap 3D-printer, when combined with other tools in a larger peer-to-peer infrastructure, meets the criteria set out by Herbert Marcuse for what would constitute a new technology:

“The technological transformation is at the same time a political transformation, but the political change would turn into qualitative social change only to the degree to which it would alter the direction of technical progress – that is, develop a new technology.” (Marcuse, 1964, p.227).

The Rep-rap project, for all its pragmatism, began with the goal of transcending capitalism. In contrast, when social movements have endorsed pragmatism and micro politics, they have typically come to terms with the present as an unsurpassable horizon for their politics. Insulated from post-modernist self-doubt, students in engineering departments never stopped dreaming of a radically better tomorrow. This Enlightenment legacy might prove important because, from environmental science to computer hacking, we are beginning to see the growing influence of engineering cultures and geek publics on traditional social movements. Activists belonging to social movements as well as social scientists have something to offer the geek public in return. Social theory is required to articulate conflicts that unfold behind individuals’s backs. State and corporate bureaucracies are clearly visible targets for hackers and hobbyist-engineers. Those institutions, which seemingly arise spontaneously out of the aggregation of individual choices – i.e. markets – are not always so easily identified. At times, engineers have denounced the price system as contrary to a rational and scientific organisation of society. At other times, price is seen as just a fact of nature, from which evolutionary laws can be deduced and the efficiency of a technical solution measured. When the latter standpoint wins the day, the market disappears from view, and all the fervour is directed against bureaucracies, state regulation and, with them, employment security. There is then an overarching risk that the dream of wealth-without-money will be fulfilled in its nightmarish form, as work-without-wages.

The research behind this paper was jointly funded by Learning and Media Technology Studies and Centre of Globalisation and Development, both located at the University of Göteborg. The article has been improved thanks to feedback from my two reviewers, Carl Cassegård, Bertil Rolandsson, Magnus Eriksson, John Crisp, and my collegues at LATTS . A special thanks to the people in the Rep-rap project who shared their stories, invited me to their homes, and even climbed a volcano with me, in the course of this case study.

Johan Söderberg
Laboratoire Techniques, Territoires et Société (LATTS), Institut Francilien Recherche Innovation et Société (IFRIS).


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Adrian Bowyer, 2009-11-24. Initiator of the Rep-rap project, Bath, UK.

Batist Leman, 2009-11-12. Promoter of Rep-rap in Flanders. Initiator of a hackerspace in Ghent, Belgium.

Bre Pettis, 2011-09-20. One of three founders of Makerbot Industries, the second oldest company selling Rep-rap derivatives. New York, USA

Chris Palmer, aka Nophead, 2010-03-17. Made key contributions to the extruder head, among other things. Holds the record in selling Rep-rap printed parts. Manchester, England.

Ed Sells, 2010-05-07. Former PhD student of Adrian Boweyr at Bath. Principal architect of the Mendel Rep-rap design, Auckland, New Zealand.

Erik de Bruijn, 2009-11-11. Core developer of Rep-rap and founder of the firm Ultimaker, Eindhoven, Netherlands.

Forrest Higgs, 2011-11-03. Former core developer of Rep-rap, initiator of Tommelise 3D printer.  phone interview.

Gustav Nipe, 2009-12-23. Promoter of Rep-rap in Sweden. Initiator of the Swedish Pirate Partys‘ “Pirate factory“, Lund, Sweden.

Ian Adkins & Iain Major, 2009-11-26. Founders of Bits-from-Bytes, the first firm based on selling Rep-rap derivatives, Clevedon, UK.

Josef Prusa, 2011-09-19. Principal architect of the Prusa Rep-rap design, New York, USA.

Lambert Anders, 2011-09-19. One of two founders of Techzone, New York, USA.

Lawrence Kincheloe, 2009-11-10. Promoter of open manufacturing. phone interview.

Markus Hitter, aka Traumflug, 2011-09-11. Maintainer of Gen 7 electronics. phone interview.

Nick & Bruce Wattendorf, 2011-09-18. Promoters of Rep-rap in the New England area, built the third Rep-rap Darwin machine in the world, New York, USA.

Rhy Jones, 2009-11-26. PhD student of Adrian Bowyer at Bath. Developes multiple materials for printing. Bath, UK.

Vik Olliver, 2010-05-04. Built the first proof-of-concept of Rep-rap, among many other things. Auckland, New Zealand.

Internet resources cited in the article

Clanking replicator

Open 3DP/University of Washington