The 3-D Printer Of The Mind.


I just attended an art show where all of the work was produced using 3-D printing.

Picture indescribably intricate sculptures made from delicate layers of interlocking filigree, strands as narrow as a hair.

Huge white polyamide shapes reaching into each other with hundreds of slender appendages, woven and entwined in ways that defied logic.

Tiny and ridiculously complicated objects composed of overlapping and intersecting spirals, creating the appearance of phantasmagorical creatures bursting strange horns and disturbing probosces.

The impossibility of the pieces gave the exhibit a surreal otherworldly effect, as if I had entered a different place entirely, a universe of imagination unconstrained by the restrictive properties of existing materials and techniques.


Judging from the results on display at this exhibit, huge leaps have been made in translating human imagination into physical reality in ways that were previously inconceivable. It will be fascinating to see how artists take advantage of the technology as it becomes more prevalent.

A million possibilities spring to mind.

But what if you could bypass the computer design process entirely and hook up a 3-D printer directly to your imagination? What would you create then?

For the sake of discussion, let’s say you wanted to create an apple.

I’m relatively good as visualizing things. Do it inside and outside my head all the time.

I’d say that the apple I create in my mind seems pretty complete.

However, I predict if I hooked up a 3-D printer and output my mental image of an apple, it would likely have fatal flaws. Gaps. As in, well, the color is pretty accurate, and I captured that weird hairy dimple on the bottom, but the backside is full of gaping holes.

Like the artist creating the computer program for their sculpture, I would have to go back and check my design for missing information.

I would spend more time visualizing my apple, trying to capture the totality of it, and then plug into the printer a second time. Hmmmm…this time I got the holes filled, and I nailed those translucent things around the seeds that remind me of fish scales. But I completely botched the flavor.

Back to the drawing board.

I would eat, sleep and dream apple until finally I’d have the complete essence of that sucker down to the tiniest subatomic detail, from the exact curve and composition of the stem to the memory of time spent as an apple blossom. I’d have the heft and the feel and the being of it so thoroughly established in my mind that when I hit the print button, a fully formed red delicious would drop down onto my tabletop.

I had a fascinating conversation with an 11 year old in which I asked him what he wanted for his birthday. His answer led us into philosophical territory much deeper and more insightful than I’ve confronted with most adults.

The conversation went as follows:

11-Year Old: For my birthday I want a parakeet. Or an iPod touch.

Karmic Spiel: Which one do you think you’d use more?

11: Well, obviously the iPod touch. But the point of a parakeet isn’t to use it.

KS: Then what’s the point of a parakeet?

11: You can’t compare something biological to something technological.

KS: What if Apple made a parakeet?

11: It wouldn’t be a parakeet.

KS: What if it looked identical to a real parakeet? Moved like one, sounded like one, acted like one…you couldn’t tell the difference.

11: You could if you cut it open.

KS: What if they grew it like those ears they grow on the backs of mice, and when you cut it open it was full of biological parakeet organs?

11: It would still be technological, because we made it.

KS: What about the ear? We made it but it functions just like a biological ear.

11: You can’t compare a part to the whole thing. The parakeet would have to be programmed. It could only do what they put in its database. It wouldn’t have parakeetness.

KS: What is parakeetness?

11: The thing that makes a parakeet a parakeet.

KS: Why do you think it wouldn’t have parakeetness?

11: Because it could never choose to do something new. Or react in a way that was unique. It could be programmed to do everything every parakeet has ever done for a million years, and make every choice a parakeet has ever made, but it could never come up with something on its own.

KS: So if one day a real parakeet suddenly decided to start making patterns out of seeds, or made a sound no parakeet’s made before, that ability to create something new is what separates it from the technological parakeet?

11: Yeah, they could program the technological parakeet with the new thing, and every time a real parakeet did something new, they could program it in, but they’d always be one step behind. The technological parakeet would always just be a lame copy. It would be dead inside.

KS: What if they programmed it ahead of time to do something no parakeet has done before? Or programmed it to come up with new things on its own, something parakeets don’t usually do?

11: That would be stupid. Then it wouldn’t be a parakeet at all.

I’d be willing to bet that some team of tech heads at MIT is working on a parakeet cyborg prototype even as I type.

And I have no doubt that at some point soon it will be possible to print out an apple that appears indistinguishable from the ones that grow on trees.

But I wouldn’t want to eat it.

No matter how accurate and sophisticated the cunning folks that develop these types of technologies become in their ability to link up amino acid chains and recreate fragrance and texture and taste, the apple they would print would still be synthetic. A dead imitation.

It wouldn’t have appleness.

Still, it will be interesting to see what 3-D printing is capable of when it fully comes online.

But I’m not waiting around.

It’s just another tool, and I manage just fine without it.

Each and every painting I make is something I’ve imagined into physical existence out of nothing. They are not an imitation. They are alive.

All of us have the ability to create directly from our imaginations, we do it all the time. We create this world into being every minute with our thoughts and our beliefs and our intentions and our actions. We don’t need technology to do that. We are the technology.

Who knows what else we can create?

I’ve been spending a lot of time with apples these days, getting to know them on a very intimate level. I’m picturing one right now. Except the one I see in my mind is much more than a mere combination of atoms and elements and complex chemical interactions. It is alive, and unlike any apple that has ever existed before.

It might take me 10 or 100 or 100,000 years. But one of these days I will imagine that apple with enough appleness that it will appear out of nothing and land with a thump on the saucer I plan to have ready and waiting.

And then I will pick it up, cradle it gently in my hand, and take a big freaking bite.

One Comment

  1. Brenda Litman
    March 19, 2015 at 2:41 pm // Reply

    Fascinating! Where was the exhibit? Interesting conversation with the 11 year old, but what I liked best of all is your observation:

    “Each and every painting I make is something I’ve imagined into physical existence out of nothing. They are not an imitation. They are alive.”

    Wonderful and so true!

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