The evil prints

Scared. I'm being watched, and I'm scared. There it sits, gently humming away in the middle of the room, blinking its little red eye innocuously. A small but constant noise that sounds like a distant gateway to hell whispers from its guts. It remains still, but angry gears and indelible ooze threaten to churn into motion at any moment. Cheap, unreliable, sadistic. My printer. My evil, evil printer.

Yes, it's just a simple pile of crap, dragged out from the Staples stockroom, it's price tag somehow lower than the value of the ink it comes bundled with. But this inanimate object has an obsession. It's trying to kill me. Nobody will listen to me, but I know it to be true. We have a consumer electronics / Cape Fear thing going on.

Oh the many ways it is trying to break me. There's the issue of unfriendly drivers; full-but-apparently-empty "media trays"; mysterious existential crises where the printer simply can't be found; entirely random ink supply levels; smudginess. Sometimes it will spend ten minutes just molesting the paper tray, jiggling the first sheet back and forth while it decides whether or not to recognise the new cyan ink cartridge. At one point it only wanted to print if it was in sepia and every other page had a dog-eared corner.

Perhaps most psychologically damaging is the unspoken threat of malevolence. It'll work fine, sometimes for weeks on end, the printly equivalent of a wide, unblinking smile. Subservience masking the an ever-more complex plan to shred my nerves.

(The only small joy I get from my printer is that sometimes it'll flash up a warning – "Media Jam!" – that immediately makes me think I'm at a happening at Warhol's Factory. It's the little things.)

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I'm sure ours isn't a unique relationship. In homes and offices around the world, every day, misshapen plastic boxes are taunting and testing their owners with errors and erratic behaviour and inky chaos. So perhaps this isn't so much a personal vendetta between device and user, perhaps it's something much bigger than the two of us. Are these discrete small conflicts or are they actually skirmishes on the outset of an all-out war?

We've been led to believe that when the machines inevitably rise and destroy us, it'll be through errant military networks, a self-aware Internet, or perhaps some naughty space exploration AI. But we've all been looking the wrong way. Defence networks are too busy playing chess to worry about us fleshy subjects; the Internet has been reduced to a globe-spanning gibbering wreck, only interested in fluffy kitties and photogenic cupcakes; and the worst that NASA's technology can do to us these days is tweet something disagreeable from Mars. The real threat is right there on that counter next to your desk, chomping on some A4.

The enemy has already found its way into our homes, it's running low on toner and it ain't best pleased about it. How could we have been so blind? So foolish?

Smudging and paper-cuts can only work for so long though. It may make that big vein in the side of your head bulge a bit, but a misaligned and curiously pink CV isn't going to cause you too much harm. Don't think we've won just yet though – those whirring bastards have merely been biding their time for the next generation of maddening technology to add to their arsenal. They've been waiting to get their mitts on a third dimension, and now they've got it.

3D printing is undeniably amazing – it's getting more and more affordable and it's going to be everywhere very soon. In summary: you'll be spending next Christmas trying to help your parents hook up their new 3D printer and then explaining to them how you don't need to wear special glasses to look at it.

Once consumer 3D printers have got a foothold, it's only a matter of time before The Errors appear. Collapsing models, strands of plastic goop, genetically mutated Jeff Goldblums (actually, maybe that's a bit further down the line). These won't be your simple everyday "why won't it bloody print vowels?" kind of problems. These will be physical, pointy, messy, you-could-have-someone's-eye-out-with-that problems.

A bit of a click about on MakerBot's 3D pattern-sharing network Thingiverse reveals the sorts of things that may be our undoing. What mental torture will befall those printing their own delicate Raspberry Pi cases? What could possibly go wrong with a home-made UAV drone? And is making battle armour for your cat really a good idea? This way can only lead to chaos and nervous breakdowns. Perhaps demonstrating a bit of foresight of the coming bloodshed, there seems to be a bit of an obsession with manufacturing your own chainmail. The future is starting to look very Mad Max.

For now though, it's still in the hands of the hobbyists. The final blow will come if somebody manages to achieve the one thing that has never happened with paper printers: the must-have model. They have – perhaps wisely – steered clear of the printer market for a long time now, but imagine if Apple made a must-have 3D printer. It'd be everywhere within months. As would its errors.

At least they would be quality, shiny errors. It's more likely that the market will be overrun by cheap and nasty printers – themselves probably printed by other printers. Packaged with inevitable obsolesce and the cheapest, nastiest printing goop available. Media jam is one thing, but construction jam? Mankind would be brought to its knees just in the amount of work hours spent unclogging the blasted things.

Like it or not, the 3D printer is coming to your home. And there it will sit, gently humming away in the middle of the room, until one day …

We must prepare ourselves. We must find alternative methods for producing three dimensional junk. Whittling. Yes, that's it. Our salvation is all about the whittling.

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Originally published in the May 2013 issue of MacUser.