Crowdsourced gunsmithing: 3D-printed guns raise unsettling questions

“Information wants to be free.”

This is the motto of the Internet. At this moment I can go to one of several shady websites and download a fully functional copy of almost any film – in some cases within minutes.

In 2007, when the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) sent legal notices to websites publishing an encryption key used by Blu-ray and the now-defunct HD-DVD discs, users responded by posting the key on hundreds of thousands of websites. You could even buy T-shirts. Once something is online the best you can do is hope no one notices it. Attempts to suppress it invariably backfire and cause it to be disseminated more widely than it otherwise would be. This new way that information tends to behave in the Internet age is called the Streisand effect, after an early example involving pictures of Barbra Streisand’s home in Malibu.

Now, what happens if (when), through the wonders of modern technology, information can be freely converted into stuff? If, rather than downloading a file off the Internet that tells you how to bake a cake, you can download a file off the Internet that gives instructions to a cake-baking machine, which bakes a cake for you? Well, one inevitable result is that your birthday party will be somewhat cheaper and easier to plan. Another inevitable result is Defense Distributed.

The technology to change information into stuff already exists. It’s called 3D printing, and though it’s expensive, it’s getting cheaper. Defense Distributed is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating and distributing open-source files that will instruct a 3D printer to make a functioning plastic gun. Most recently they have successfully printed the lower portion of an AR-15 rifle (the design that the U.S. Army’s M16 is based on) and test fired over 700 rounds of ammunition with it.

The organization’s public face is American law student and firearms enthusiast Cody Wilson. Wilson, a self-described libertarian, is well-spoken (though somewhat prone to ready-made slogans). He’s clearly an intelligent man, and he understands the deep implications of what he’s doing. For him, at least, that’s the whole point.

“I see a future of federal communities and slowly disintegrating and reactionary states,” he said in an interview with the libertarian magazine Blink. Defense Distributed would make gun control virtually impossible because anyone could make their own fully functioning gun in a matter of hours.

This eats away at what is often considered a defining feature (or even the defining feature) of the state: the monopoly on the use of force. In this sense Defense Distributed continues in the vein of several other high-tech projects that seek to take over functions traditionally performed by the government – such as Bitcoin, a digital peer-to-peer currency with no central regulating bank (which Wilson enthusiastically supports).

The idea is scary – not just the readily available guns, about which the Canadian mind is instinctively squeamish, but also the apocalyptic political philosophy. Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the files that have been developed so far are already out there, and we’ve seen that once something has been posted online, it is archived quasi-permanently. You can’t take it back any more than you can unring a bell.

If it is any consolation, this was inevitable. 3D printing is making steady advances, and radical forms of libertarianism are widespread in high-tech circles – for example, the influential programmer and open-source theorist Eric S. Raymond has voiced support for Defense Distributed. Sooner or later someone would have made the connection between 3D printing’s applicability to gun manufacturing and the Internet’s culture of open information.

The question is: where can we go from this point? 3D printing will cause a lot of our assumptions to become obsolete. It will do for everything else what The Pirate Bay did for movies and music. We still haven’t found a really good way of dealing with the problems of intellectual property in the Internet age. When this uncertainty is expanded to include all forms of property – then things will get interesting