Jacques Attali: 3D Printing and the Crisis of Proliferation

Jacques Attali

Jacques Attali says 3D printing will revolutionize manufacturing. Why should we listen? Because he foresaw the demise of the music industry.

Jacques AttaliBack in the 1970s, a man named Jacques Attali predicted the collapse of the recorded music industry. This was, of course, long before the internet, before the MP3 format, and before the arrival of Napster, iTunes, and Spotify.

Today, he makes similarly grand predictions about the manufacturing industry; that it will be hit by an identical crisis to the music industry — and this time it will be caused by 3D printing. In a programme by Radio BBC 4, he says:

“With 3D printing, people will print their own cups, furniture. Everyone will make their own objects, in the same way they are making their own music.”

So who is Jacques Attali, and why should we care what he thinks?

Jacques Attali made some Noise

To understand, a brief detour into the history of the music industry is in order. In his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, published in 1976, Attali demonstrates that changes in how music circulates have preceded other, larger social upheavals throughout history — but the examples he uses might be less than familiar.

In the mid 1700s, for example, composer G.F. Handel began writing operas that were ticketed events— unthinkable in an age when music mostly existed either in the royal court or at church. The repercussions of Handel’s actions were huge: the royal court and church lost power, not only in their monopoly on how music was produced but in general. Handel choosing to make and distribute music outside these existing industries anticipated the rise of global capitalism and the wane of the divine right of kings.

Based on this historical evidence, Attali reasoned that there is something about music itself that is decentralized. Music itself disrupts existing industries, whether it’s a system of royal patronage or the studio system of recent years.

Attali bet, based on history, that people would keep making music and sharing it. He bet that this surplus of music would overtake — and eventually bring down — any industry that tried to keep limits on how much music is produced and how it circulates.

And as we now know, Attali was right.

The term most journalists use to describe Attali is ‘polymath’. To the BBC, he refers to himself as a “slash guy,” which is a humble way of saying economics professor slash key advisor to Francois Mitterand slash micro-finance NGO president slash author. Foreign Policy magazine voted him one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world.

Attali isn’t a studio executive or music historian or even a professional musician: when he predicts that the rise of shared music will revolutionize the industry, he is speaking with the bird’s eye view authority of a philosopher and economist. So when he connects these predictions about the music industry to larger economic and social trends — well, it’s worth a listen.

3D Printing and the Crisis of Proliferation

3dbenchyThe struggles faced by the music industry are only a warning sign. The real issue, to use Attali’s phrase, is “a crisis of proliferation” that will affect all industries, not just the music industry. And 3D printing is his next prediction for a big change from industry to individual.

Attali uses the phrase “crisis of proliferation” to describe this unmanageable surplus of creative content, but he is dogged in his idealism: he’s imagining less a crisis and more of a revolution. A massive surplus doesn’t make objects less powerful — for Attali, they become even more so.

Attali’s writing sounds more like poetry than economic theory: having so much creative content on the market breaks the “unavoidable monologue” of monopolies on production and signals “the advent of radically new form[s].”

As he tells the BBC:

“In a few years it will be a quick process to print something, and scan something. By then we’ll see prints of pretty much every object you can visualise, out there on the internet. Every industry that distributes objects will be put in the same place the music industry has been in the last 10 years. I don’t believe that the majority of them understand the extent of what’s going to happen. It’s coming pretty fast.”

When it comes to big predictions, Attali’s not pulling his punches: “the object [as a commodity] is going to wither and die.” Will the music industry’s Nostradamus get it right again? For the answer to that question, we’ll just have to wait and see.