#190: Harold Faces the Future

July 15th, 2013

“Can anyone tell who this is?” the gray-haired librarian said, holding up a thin, purple sheet of plastic with two mussed-up faces burnished in.

The two middle-aged ladies and I shook our heads. I guessed “The guy from ‘The Hangover,’” but it was not Zach Galifianakis. The librarian, a smiling man with a plaid shirt and a CPL lanyard hanging around his neck, waited for a few more guesses that never came.

“It’s Harold Washington,” he said.

We looked again and it indeed was the city’s most tragic mayor, burned by laser into a small sheet of plastic.

I was in the Harold Washington Library’s new 3D printer lab. A new, grant-funded project open less than a week when I visited it is, shall we say, a work in progress.

A long table in the center of the lab had various successes and failures printed in thick striations of melted plastic. A inch-tall octopus featured in the newspaper turned out well, as did several chess pieces, a few of the small mounted antlers and a recognizable face of a different one of the library staff.

Several pawns as thick and useless as dollhouse trash bins were also scattered on the table. One set of antlers decided the back part of the mounting would look better a centimeter to the right.

A woman named Yvette had “homed” her phone dock wrong and it was printing in thin air. She was soon called away to help a young woman with a bookmark that wasn’t coming out right. Pedro tried to explain how the printer could make a chain with the links pre-locked.

Classes start this week, so the librarians were scrambling to learn.

“We have to stay about a week ahead of the classes,” the gray-haired librarian confessed to me.

The laser etcher was an easier learn for the staff, which is why the librarian was showing off the Harold faces.

As he did, along the wall behind him, a boxy machine spread layer after layer of plastic, building what looked like the feet and dangling arms of a ’50s robot.

“I think it’s a Minion from ‘Despicable Me,’” the librarian said.

I watched the machine deposit layer after layer of plastic on the children’s movie figure. I shuddered as it clicked for me: This room on the third floor of the downtown Chicago Public Library spewing out striated octopi and botched pawns is going to change the world.

Count the plastic on you right now.

From the sunglasses on top of my head to the aglets on the tips of my shoelaces, I was wearing 40 pieces of plastic in that little room in the library, and that’s counting the god-knows number of intricate plastic parts that make up my phone as one thing.

Buttons, collar stays and the library card that got me in there in the first place — all things that would be a mild annoyance to lose, but, with this, the push of a printer button to replace.

An arm breaks off my sunglasses? The back of my phone pops off? Do I toss the damn things or print up new ones? And what’s so special about the glasses hinges being metal, if it’s going to cost me to replace it?

Let’s go beyond that. My crappy, self-paid health insurance won’t cover replacements for the 10-year-old orthotics that keep me from getting shin splints. If I could scan my feet with an Xbox and print up new ones fitted to my exact medical needs, I would do it in a second. All Dr. White did was put my feet in plaster, sent the mold to a lab and charged my insurance provider $500.

That Minion being printed at the library? That’s a children’s toy. Parents, what’s the most you’ve paid for a piece of cheap plastic crap your kids squealed for? $20? $50?

Wouldn’t it be nice to pay a few cents for a coil of plastic and some pirated files online?

I assume pirated, because we would be in the Napster era of things. What will happen when you can pay $2.99 for the schematics to print up that Minion on the officially sanctioned 3D printer version of Hulu? Or when it’s a free download with purchase of the film?

I could do with a free toy. Or free orthotics. Or new grips for my bike handlebars.

Hell, why stop at buttons? Even the relatively shoddy machines at the public library printed a plastic chain mail that moved and swayed like heavy cloth. Imagine the best machines, the best material and the best designs you downloaded from RalphLauren.com.

Look at the poly count of the shirt you’re wearing right now before you scoff. Look up the labor laws of the country where it was made. Has “cheaper” ever stopped us from anything?

Are you reading this sentence through contact lenses that should have been replaced months ago?

Sounds great, right? Grand new future.

Unless you’re a seamstress, a clothing store clerk, an optician, a podiatrist or work at a Toys R Us.

I was going to spend my whole life in newspapers until information got democratized. What’s going to happen when products become a form of information, everything you own a file and a heap of plastic away from being a reality?

This won’t be jobs going overseas. It will be jobs going into thin air. Look at the jobs lost after everyone could be a publisher. Thanks to this, everyone can be a manufacturer too.

Maybe it’ll be great — screw you, Chinese factory conditions. I’m trying to visualize the modern Internet by looking at the telegraph here. I’m trying to extrapolate the global satellite network from “Come here Watson, I need you.”

And this future won’t come to us from the high-tech Santa’s Workshop 3D print shop I went to for Friday’s story. That’s too elusive, too expensive.

The future will start here in this weird, broken and publically open library room, with Harold Washington faces burned on plastic sheets.

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