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Page1of 1 Physical, Digital or Ephemeral: Your Choice
by Wendy Richmond

My brother loves techno gadgets, so I wasn’t surprised when he bought a 3-D printer. We FaceTimed so he could show me the slow buildup of one of his first experiments: a Lego block. After a while he said, “I have to get off the phone. I’m taking the kids on a hiking trip tomorrow.” He had a massive packing job and was worried about the weight of the luggage. I said, “Why not just scan the heavy stuff like boots, upload the files, then print them out on the hotel’s 3-D printer?” We both laughed and hung up.

I put down my phone and looked around my living room. My bookshelves and walls, plus my computer and phone, hold photographs, art, books, movies and songs. They reside as an assortment of digital, physical and ephemeral elements, representing the conscious and unconscious choices I make many times a day about the contents of my life. Do I want to own a DVD of Citizen Kane or stream it for one-time viewing? Would I rather read the novel The Goldfinch as a hardcover book or on my Kindle, or listen to it as streaming audio? Should I purchase songs for my jazz playlist or just go with Pandora? Do I want to share my vacation photos via Snapfish (physical prints), Instagram (digital photographs) or Snapchat (ephemeral snapshots)?

We have come to expect sophisticated and varied ways of obtaining, creating, managing and distributing our content. Looking ahead to the choices we will have in the future, the possibility of sending a file instead of packing a suitcase is completely logical, especially in light of the growth of the 3-D printing industry over the last couple of years. Companies that provide a range of 3-D services—from creation to distribution—are proliferating, and it’s clear that we, as designers and artists, will be creating our own 3-D objects, starting either with templates or from scratch. If this sounds far-fetched, think of a mere 30 years ago, pre–desktop publishing, when it seemed impossible that we would be typesetting our own publications, let alone publishing our own books, from writing to design to production to distribution. In our living rooms.

After talking with my brother, I was inspired to do some research. As I traveled down the Google wormhole exploring the future of 3-D printing, tabs about Skylar Tibbits started lining up on my Safari window. Tibbits is a TED Fellow and director of the Self-Assembly Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a TED blog video (posted December 18, 2013), Tibbits explained the concept behind the lab: “We wanted to add time to 3-D printing, where materials change shape and reconfigure over time. So when you 3-D-print something, it’s not done … that’s the beginning of its life, and it can evolve, adapt and respond to you or how you’re using it.”

An article in the MIT Spectrum (Winter 2014) describes one of the lab’s projects: water pipes that could contract and relax like muscles. “Unlike current pipes, which tend to break, require constant monitoring and energy input … pipes can expand and shrink in response to changes in water volume. … The goal is a self-regulating system, one in which pipes could even repair themselves in case of a puncture.”

In other words, the added factor of time gives 3-D printing an ephemeral option. The material can change, and the object can become something else, thus making its past forms disappear. Tibbits calls this 4-D printing, the fourth dimension being time.

The available choices among these three states of content—physical, digital and ephemeral—are growing exponentially. Three-dimensional printing gives us the ability to modify according to our individual needs and desires. What will our choices be when, with 4-D printing, we add the element of time? How will we “own” a jacket? We might want to keep its original form or choose to have its material physically change according to the season, fashion or weight gain (think Spandex with brains). Even more mind-blowing are the choices we will have in “managing” materials for our aging hips and knees.

I called my brother the next morning and asked if he had finished packing. “No,” he said. “We have to get new boots for the kids; last year’s are too small.” I responded, “Maybe you could just scan the old ones and add an algorithm that calculates the growth of their feet and tells the material to expand to fit.” We joked a bit more, one-upping each other about birthday presents of digital files and programmable materials that would transform themselves every year. Then I glanced at the bookshelves where I keep beloved objects: framed photographs of my nephews, piles of well-traveled sketchbooks and ancient, musty type catalogs. Sometimes the best choice is history. ca

© 2014 W. Richmond Richmond
Wendy Richmond ( is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.