"I tell you, if one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes."
I must confess to something. I once had in my possession for a few days an Objet machine. There were several canisters of free material and a colleague and I could make whatever we wanted to. For free. I was overwhelmed with all I could create. My mind raced, boggled, bubbled. I searched for inspiration in the things surrounding me, wracked my brain for things I found beautiful or wanted. I searched high and low through Thingiverse for other creations I could print out or adapt. Then I listlessly sat before 3Dtin, caught in the headlights of infinite possibility.
We ended up printing a few things but didn’t even finish one canister. And the liquid gold (or should I say mercury for modern day alchemists transmute mercury into gold with some regularity) went back to the nice people from Rehovot. 3D printing had given me the ability to create all I wanted — for free — but on the day the best I could do was print out some sunglasses and leave layer after layer of unrealised dreams, litres of unmade thoughts.
I’d previously written about the Blank Canvas Problem and had participated in many a meeting to try to resolve it, but here I fell victim to it for the first time. The ability to create everything you want, and everything you could want just as you should want it, is one of the core dreams our industry can fulfill. It is the dream being sold to millions as we speak. But, “Botcave, we have a problem.” Standing in the way of this dream is not so much hardware, more so software but most of all the Blank Canvas Problem.
In order to explain this phenomenon, I refer you to Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo written on the 2nd of October 1884, quoted from Vincent van Gogh—The Letters, emphasis is in the original.
I tell you, if one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes. To be good — many people think that they’ll achieve it by doing no harm — and that’s a lie, and you said so in the past that it is a lie. That leads to stagnation, to mediocrity. Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with some sort of imbecility.
You don’t know how paralysing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerises some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.
Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares — and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t.’
Vincent touches on a number of problems that all creators or people that want to create suffer from. We are all in some way afraid of failure, of not doing well or not accomplishing a task. This limits our creativity while our fear of the limits of our creativity paralyses us. Yet this fear actually keeps us in our comfort zones, keeps us from experimenting and keeps us from excelling. At the same time we are frozen by the endless possibility of it all — just like I was. Vincent suggests a rather simple “just do it” solution to this problem. We must all embrace failure and learn from it in order to grow. And since we have a technology that is ideally suited to letting us all fail quickly and often this should be a wonderful guide to us.
It is this Blank Canvas Problem that will keep everyone from 3D printing on the desktop or in businesses. It is this issue that keeps companies from using services or people from designing things. We need the machines to work, materials have to be better and cheaper, software has to be easier but above all we need to be able to get people to actually make things without inhibition or fear of failure. If someone is inspired enough to create their own belt buckle, triggered enough when they freeze up and guided inappreciably in this process then we will all be successful. If they feel confident they can do it, then many will do it. There are perhaps 2.4 billion Internet users. These could all be our customers; these could all make things in some way using our technology. But, not if they are not inspired or do not have the right tools. On the other hand we could make a perfect self-replicating multi-smaterial metal printer for $500 tomorrow and still only a few million CAD & 3D modeling experts would be able to use it. This machine would still sit idle in the dens and workshops of many who bought it and this machine would still be practically unusable to the vast number of home and business users. And even if the perfect intuitive 3D modeling application were available for free then still most people would sit idle, staring at the ideal 3D printing app and the ideal 3D printer unable to come up with anything to make.
Creativity comes about through constraints. Dilbert can be consistently funny for decades because it is a cartoon constrained to a few panels, a few characters and constant themes and recurring responses. If Dilbert creator Scott Adams was given a full page of a newspaper to express himself on every week he would not be able to sustain this creativity. We have a technology were you can make so many things that people feel inhibited to make anything at all. We will depend for ultimate success on changing core human behavior and letting people overcome their fear of failure while letting them get inspired. If we are successful in ameliorating the Blank Canvas Problem we will be successful. It is this issue rather than anything else that is holding back 3D printing.
The tragedy of the quote on the previous page is that Vincent goes on and equates the blank canvas experience to life staring man in the face like a blank canvas and explains how he won’t succumb to this. He then outlines how the buying public for art could increase tenfold, how painters should sell directly to the public and encourages his brother to “act young and be daring” before closing off with, “do a great deal or die.”
At this point you might look at this quote as one of a romantic and passionate artist striving to create. There are some issues with this however. In the same letter Vincent refers several times to Mouret, a character in the Émile Zola novel Au Boneur des Dames. “Were a few Mourets to emerge who bought and sold other than the old routine”, and “if you aren’t an artist in painting be an artist as a dealer, just like Mouret.” The excellent Van Gogh biography Vincent: The Life equates much of this to a “fantasy of self” by Vincent based on literary character Octave Mouret’s capacity to act (much of my thinking here about van Gogh is take from The Life but I’ve also read The Letters so its difficult for me to tell where one idea ends and the other begins). According to Vincent: The Life “Vincent even adopts as his own motto Mouret’s leering slogan: “Chez nous on aime la clientèle” (Here we love our customers).” Mouret is a seductive salesman who creates a fantastic department store, a true icon of consumerism set up to seduce women into needlessly purchasing more and more things while bankrupting other local businesses.
From Au Boneur des Dames:
Of supreme importance, more important than the facts he had already given, was the exploitation of Woman. Everything else led up to it, the ceaseless renewal of capital, the system of piling up goods, the low prices that attracted people, the marked prices that reassured them. It was Woman the shops were competing for so fiercely, it was Woman they were continually snaring with their bargains, after dazing her with their displays. They had awoken new desires in her weak flesh; they were an immense temptation to which she inevitably yielded, succumbing in the first place to purchases for the house, then seduced by coquetry, finally consumed by desire. By increasing sales tenfold, by making luxury democratic, shops were becoming a terrible agency for spending, ravaging household, working hand in hand with the latest extravagances in fashion, growing ever more expensive. And if, in the shops, Woman was queen, adulated and humored in her weaknesses, surrounded by attentions, she reigned there as an amorous queen whose subjects trade on her, and who pays for every whim with a drop of her own blood.
So yes Vincent is urging us on in being creative, in overcoming the blank canvas but his main motivation comes forth from an intense desire to conquer and subjugate, to get his due from markets, to be successful. In perhaps being a type of hero that would appeal to Ayn Rand or a “call to power” type of character as we find in the novel The Cloud Atlas. For much of his life Vincent was obsessed with creating an iconic image, with creating that one perfect image. Part of this was an artistic ambition, part had to do with acceptance by his parents and part had to do with an intense desire to be successful.
He wanted his creations to be admired and loved. His tireless practicing, his lust for invention, his experimentation with technique, they were all functions of this. He wanted to be loved. Mouret’s devilish appeal and success appealed straight to Vincent’s vanity and ambition. In other words just because no one buys your paintings, you’re the original starving artist, you make beautiful work and you cut your ear off doesn’t mean you can’t be a prick. Also, just how prescient can one be? Just how stunning is Zola’s paragraph in predicting our current mass consumption and mass manufacturing society? How clairvoyant are his predictions on the temptations of marketing, desire, “ever more expensive”, “the ravaging household”, all of it, aren’t we all now “adulated and humored in” our “weaknesses” an “amorous queen whose subjects trade on her.” How incredible for something like that to have been written in 1883.
In a sense it is we who fight the Mouret’s of this world now. It is our technology that can let consumers take back the ability to make things and resist consumerism. 3D printing is a possible solution to much of the waste occurring in the world today. If we can recycle our own 3D prints and recycle waste and turn it into 3D printing material then we could accomplish closed loop recycling in the home. The initial steps of this are being taken by such inventions as the Lyman Extruder, Filabot and Filament Maker (filament extruders or grinders combined with extruders).
By letting people consume and make whatever they want and recycle what they no longer want we could reduce our impact on this planet and truly change the world. It is we that could break man free from the chains of consumerism and over-consumption. Not by saying “no you can’t do that” but by saying, “go ahead make whatever you want, guilt free.” With regards to having your cake and eating it too, we are the only party in town. To me this is the central promise of our industry and the most significant thing we have to offer the world. Love the new geometries we can make, love the ability to customise your own things, love patient specific medicine, love faster to market, love better product development, love low volume production all of that is wonderful. But, people we have a shot at saving us from ourselves. If we just don’t screw it up.
In a sense there are Mourets among us. In taking a dim view of myself I might classify myself as more that kind of an individual than the shopkeepers around the corner. These Mourets in our industry can be our salvation or destruction. They can be the people that push the needle, push the envelope and really increase demand and adoption of this technology. These persuaders are a different breed to the researchers, inventors and engineers that have hereto predominated in this industry.
They promise what they can get away with, rather than what they can deliver. They can push your company out of business, out fund raise you, out-compete you with razzle-dazzle and naked ambition. They can crush your well-intentioned solid work with over-claim while dreaming of private jets. These people could actually roll out this technology worldwide, give it billions in investment and millions of more customers, or we could, due to their unrealistic promises collapse like a bad souffle.
Welcome to Au Boneur des Dames, where we Love our customers.