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Why The Debate Over 3D Printed Guns Is Much Bigger Than You Think

2013 June 5

As most people are aware by now, a man named Cody Wilson has developed a gun design that allows anyone with a 3D printer to manufacture their own firearms. Just download the file, press a button, add a firing pin and you’re ready to go.

This has touched of a huge ethical debate and, as Jill Krasny reported in Inc, many online platforms such as Makerbot, Indiegogo and even Kim Dotcom’s controversial Mega file-storage service, have refused to distribute the design.

However, there’s more at stake here than the gun control debate.  As digital technology makes it possible to spread ideas with astounding speed across ethical, geographical and political borders, we’re going to have to deal more often with ideas we don’t like.  How we choose to do that will greatly affect our way of life and our ability to innovate.

The First Technology

In a sense, we shouldn’t be that surprised at Cody Wilson and his plastic guns.  About 1.8 million years ago in Africa, a tinkerer much like Mr. Wilson designed the very first technology by chipping away at a piece of stone until it formed a sharp, ragged edge. The result was the Acheulean hand axe, the killer app of the Stone Age.Achulean hand axe

Unlike Mr. Wilson’s gun, however, the Acheulean hand axe was much more than a weapon.  It was used to chop wood, butcher animals and scrape hides from carcasses.  Archeologists suggest that it was also used as an emblem of social status ( in that way, perhaps, very much like the plastic gun) and used to attract a mate.

We can imagine that the knowledge to make an axe in those days was something that had a significant amount of value and the design spread, first to Asia and eventually to Europe.  Within a million years, it was everywhere early humans lived, becoming an integral facet of life, culture and survival.

A Dinner Fit For A Sun King

By the 17th century, we had evolved far past stone tools.  The adoption of metal tools had led to far greater specialization.  As Matt Ridley notes in The Rational Optimist, King Louis XIV of France had 498 people preparing 40 separate dishes for his dinner.

Today, as Mr. Ridley also points out, the average urban dweller has far more than 498 people preparing our dinner and far more than 40 dishes to choose from.  Step out into the street and you literally have thousands of people waiting at your beck and call, ready to cook an almost unimaginable variety of sustenance.

Ridley was, to a large extent, riffing on an earlier 1966 essay by Leonard Read called I, Pencil in which he describes how in today’s modern world we have become so interdependent that there is literally no person alive capable of making a simple writing implement.

Add up the specialists that cut down the trees to supply the wood, mine the graphite, design machines, operate them, ship the materials and so on and you have such a multitude of people involved in manufacturing that even the simplest artifact of modern life is the product of an unimaginably complex web.

The Maker Economy

The appearance of 3D printed guns is not a one-off event, but part of a larger maker movement, which combines the collaboration among the thousands of people described in Read’s pencil essay with the self sufficiency of the Acheulean hand axe.  The value of things doesn’t lie in their manufacture anymore, as much as in their design.

Today, someone can come up with an idea at breakfast, design a product on CAD software, use a 3D printer or a CNC router to make a prototype, contract a service bureau to manufacture a batch of any size, then use a crowdfunding site to finance and do marketing research, all before lunch.

Increasingly, we live in a semantic economy in which the primary driver is not scale, but connectivity.  Like minded people do not need sanction from a large organization to bring their ideas to market, only the ability to find each other.

On the other side of the equation, with a reasonably small investment in maker technology, everyone can not only access the sum total of the world’s knowledge, but also the means to make ideas a physical reality.  Unlike the Stone age or even the Industrial age, it doesn’t take years to spread ideas around the globe, but seconds.

So we shouldn’t be surprised by the appearance of 3D printed guns.  If Cody Wilson didn’t do it, somebody else would have and, once they did, the viral effect would have kicked in.  That’s not an aberration, it’s the new normal.

Control Is An Illusion

In The New Digital Age, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and his colleague Jared Cohen describe a world in which plastic guns are the least of our worries:  Weaponized consumer drones, hacker-driven cyber attacks, social media enabled revolutions and a host of other technologies will undermine the rule of states.

At the same time, as the quick apprehension of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing showed, our means to enforce laws will increase as well.  Schmidt and Cohen postulate that, in the future, attempts to avoid attention (such as a lack of an online presence) will itself be used as pretence for scrutiny.

It has long been the prerogative of civil societies to regulate the use of force and those who seek to create means of violence that avoids detection show a clear intent to do that which is unsanctioned.  And that is the key to how we should handle 3D printed guns.  They should be made illegal.   Then we should move on and worry about other things.

While there is surely a dark side to technology, we are clearly better off than our hand axe wielding ancestors and even enjoy much more convenient, productive and, in many ways, luxurious lives than Louis XIV.  Despite our ever increasing efficiency in building the machinery of murder, violent deaths are very much in decline.

So let’s accept that there will always be a certain segment of the population, hiding in garages and basements, who will endeavor to bootstrap together guns, bombs, biological agents, among other things and enjoy lives that are longer, healthier and richer than any generation before us could scarcely imagine, call ourselves lucky and leave it at that.

– Greg

3 Responses leave one →
  1. June 9, 2013

    Another great post, Greg! Very educational and timely.

    I wonder – do you think innovator’s need to be ethical? If ethics were built into the process of innovation, would we have even half of the technologies we enjoy today (considering that so many of them are borne out of militaristic needs)?

  2. June 9, 2013

    I think everyone should be ethical, but some real bastards have proven to be great innovators:-)

    But I think you make an important point. Much of out technology comes from military budgets (i.e. Internet, GPS, etc.). It would be nice if we could must up the will to invest in technology when the primary aim isn’t killing people.

    btw. I’ve written about this before:

  3. August 19, 2013

    It is why we need to put funding into NASA.

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