“Printing” happiness

The Consumer Electronics Association’s yearly expo recently unveiled the latest and wackiest in wearables, smart technology (all creating the infamous “internet of things”) and the craze sweeping the mainstream gadget market, 3D printing. Among the most intriguing new 3D printers were those that created not mere “things” but… food. (CES 2014)

3DSystems launched ChefJet, a 3D printer that creates sugar concoctions good enough to eat. Yet, one might ask, why would a company that calls itself “the leader in complete 3D content-to-print solutions,” that targets industries from aerospace and defense to healthcare, from energy to education, create sophisticated technology that makes … candy? Don’t we have enough sweet delights to spread the obesity pandemic to unparalleled proportions?

 

The point, of course, is not candy, but its customizability. The fact it is candy also highlights that another important consideration here is “playfulness.” So really, the raison d’etre of printable candy is “tailored fun”. As 3DSystems puts it, their business is to unleash “design freedom.” It is no longer about buying what everyone else might want or have. It is about actualizing—even, quite literally, consumingmy wildest dreams… what everyone else does not have and thus, cannot enjoy.

Of course, there’s a bit of a paradox in this new craze that is anything but irrational. The reason we crave to be unique is because we are not. In our interconnected new world, we become so profoundly connected to each other that we lose all sense of “self”, of “identity”. Yet, we want to stand out and be seen and nowhere does this desire for uniqueness emerge as strongly as in the rise of the “semantic web” and of technologies that can be completely customized to my personal needs and wants… to the extent of creating new needs and wants just-for-me.

It starts with the smartphone … or rather with the revolution of apps “just for me”. While no PC/laptop is quite like the other, I have still to see a “traditional” machine with no word processor, excel sheet or other typical “Office” application. The point of such applications was the assumption that the machine was for “work” and—since until recently the notion of work was bound to the industrial revolution model—that we all work

in the same way. Not so with a smartphone or a tablet. What I do with my tablet is my own business. The way I use my smartphone reflects my likes, interests and lifestyle. Indeed, handheld technologies are as much toys as they are tools, essentially conducive to be “played with”. More to the point, a handheld is my toy, my tool that I use the way I want, in the process, actually recreating a self “as” me. Of course, it also has the all-too-human side effect that it makes me wish everything else were just about me as well.

Hence the craze for personal 3D printing (I want to create my own dreams); wearables (I want machines to monitor everything about me—from how much I exercise or sleep, to how much sun exposure my skin gets); and a smart web and machines that tell me all about my wants and needs.

Bringing together these different technologies, and allowing for their exponentially enhanced sophistication as time goes by, will eventually allow me to customize not just things around me, but everything about me: from the exact combination of carbs, protein, fats, minerals and vitamins that my body needs at any moment, thus creating “food”/”medicine” just-for-me; to creating just the perfect look through clothes/accessories that maintain my body at exactly the right temperature; to the precise combination of activities that will permit me to function optimally and be entertained… etc. etc. etc.

The list is endless because our desire for absolute bliss is endless.

And that’s precisely the point.

Irrespective of culture, creed or technological “evolution”, the human remains the same… desiring absolute bliss, pursuing complete fulfillment. The fact our appetite is insatiable points to the very reasonable possibility that what we desire is (in itself) infinite, complete or absolute. And—unless we are cynical enough to believe that our desires are merely a sick joke created by our brains to be inevitably frustrated—such desired infinity, completeness and absoluteness, not only exists… but must be reachable by human beings too.

In other words, the reasonable claim would be that authentic human transcendence is knowable and–at least sometimes–possible. And if knowable and possible, then it is also the standard, the purpose for everything we do, for everything we create, for our life in its totality—in particular in eras of radical change, where not only is everything up for grabs, but humanity is at its most vulnerable precisely because we are at our most disoriented.

The new technological revolution of playfulness, creativity and experimentation has a well-defined purpose. Human happiness—understood not merely as more things and comfort for me, but as allowing for the possibility of achieving our fulfillment, (since I am happier, when you and I are happy together)—recovers a philosophical conversation brusquely interrupted since the “death of God”. In raising our eyes and minds from navel-gazing to recovering infinite possibility, it brings back to our consciousness, our very desire for transcendence and what this implies for our voluntary action.

From this perspective, the dawn of a new digital era reflects not merely extraordinary human technological prowess, but the challenge for a true moral and spiritual renaissance… quite literally, a new age of becoming “human”.

Nadia Delicata received her theological formation at the Toronto School of Theology, an ecumenical consortium affiliated with the University of Toronto. Her research has deepened progressively on the question of human flourishing: first, on how the desire for flourishing is a natural law grounded in our being created in the image of God, through the dissertation, “A Christology for Christians in the World: The Challenge of Inter-Religious Dialogue as Ethical Praxis”; later, a study of the holistic vision of Christian moral and spiritual formation in the early church, titled, “Scriptural Exegesis in Early Christian Formation: Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of John as a Case Study”; and most recently through her doctoral work, “On Becoming a Christian: Towards a Renewal of Contemporary Christian Formation.” Through two Research Fellowships at the University of Toronto, she has explored two pertinent themes on the role of the Christian life in the global village: a hermeneutics of digital culture through the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, and the role of religion in the public sphere through the Centre for the Study of Religion. Through the years, Nadia has presented several papers at conferences and public lectures, in particular on her primary research interest, the challenges to a Christian moral and spiritual formation in the digital age.

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