Imagine a world in which you are only ever a couple of mouse clicks away from making any object you desire materialise before your very eyes. It’s easy to dismiss the thought as science fiction. However, as the latest progress in 3D printing shows – the future is closer than you think.
In May 2013, a Texas Law School student named Cody Wilson made history – by being the first person to successfully assemble and fire a gun made entirely out of homemade printed parts. The ‘liberator’, as Wilson calls it, is made almost entirely of plastic and was produced using a 3D printer he purchased off eBay. A self-described ‘crypto-anarchist’, Wilson hopes the invention will lead to “a complete explosion of all available gun laws” and be the first-step to a hyper-libertarian utopia with “openness to the point of the eradication of government” . U.S-based group, Defense Distributed, funded Wilson’s project as part of their mission to create an open-source online database of weapons blueprints available to the masses (‘Wiki Weapons’, as they like to call them). On May 5th, they succeeded in their goal by posting the blueprint for the ‘liberator’ online for free download. Just four days later, the US State Department demanded they remove the content from the website, claiming it was in breach of global arms control treaties. The media frenzy that followed didn’t seem to know what to make of it – was this just another paranoia-fuelled government trampling of civil liberties in the post-9/11 world, or had we just witnessed the first shots being fired in the new age of conflict?
A 3D printer works to a computer aided design (CAD), which then instructs the machine to deposit layer upon layer of material, gradually building the object on the screen in front of you. Virtually any material can be used in the process – paper, plastic, metal – even human tissue. Although you’re unlikely to be printing the latter at home, you can walk into an American shopping mall and purchase a 3D printer for as little as $1600. Rapidly falling prices means that a democratisation of 3D printing is occurring on a massive scale – but if this means that anyone with a 3D printer is soon going to have the capability to become a small-scale arms manufacturer, are we truly prepared that this technology may bring?
Shortly after the ‘liberator’ made headlines, many were quick to point out the limitations of the technology itself. The plastic interior of the gun shattered after firing a single bullet, making it a rather feeble one-shot wonder. Moreover, the economics just didn’t make sense – isn’t it far cheaper just to buy a gun the old-fashioned way, either on the black market or from your local store? This healthy dose of scepticism seemed to prematurely silence the debate. Unfortunately, by August, 3D arms printing was already making headlines again – this time in Canada, with the ‘Grizzly 2.0’ – a printed rifle that was able to fire 14 bullets without sustaining any damage to its internal mechanisms. It’s clear that even if the technology isn’t up to scratch just yet, it won’t be long before it is.
Just as the cascade of small arms from the collapse of the Soviet Union have fed organised crime and sustained civil wars for the past two decades, it’s quite possible that this new technology will have seismic consequences which will be felt worldwide. The issue is whether any form of regulation will be able to stem the proliferation of printed arms. There are at least some tangible mechanisms for stopping the trafficking of arms – increased border security, sea patrols and metal detectors – that contain global weapon flows. The difficulty with 3D printing is that the area that needs to be patrolled is the intangible realm of cyberspace. When it comes to the internet, once a file is posted on a file-sharing network, it is very difficult to put the genie back in its bottle. Recognising this, the US Department of Homeland Security released a statement earlier this year conceding that “even if the practice is prohibited by new legislation, online distribution of these digital files will be as difficult to control as any other illegally traded music, movie or software files” . In light of such defeatist sentiment, do we therefore anticipate a global renaissance in arms deregulation – with governments worldwide conceding that its better its citizens hold traceable, quality-controlled arms with serial numbers, than purchasing counterfeits off the black market? Will the hyper-libertarian utopia promised by Defense Distributed come to pass?
I predict precisely the opposite. If the age of widespread 3D printed arms arrives, it is likely that we will see incursions on our civil liberties the like of which we have never seen before. Anti-terror legislation has already permitted massive government in-roads into privacy, and raised questions about just who has access to your internet history. It is not a stretch that a broad coalition of corporate interests – ranging from arms manufacturers protecting their bottom-lines, to pharmaceutical companies anticipating the advent of home-printed drugs – will mobilise and lobby politicians to instigate unprecedented levels of internet censorship and regulation. Operating under the guise of national security, the inroads into civil liberties have the potential to be astounding. Would a massive government department responsible for the deletion of blueprints and the prosecution of offenders be able to stem the flow of arms designs? Unlikely, but as we’ve seen in the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, attainable goals are not the forte of the US national security strategists. Whether this vision ever comes to pass is up for debate. However, there certainly would be a measure of irony if the libertarians who have lobbied hardest for the benefits of 3D arms printing, inadvertently brought about the dystopia they fear the most.