"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Gun reform is no longer the major political issue it was even a few months ago, and much of the debate around guns now revolves around ones that would not be found at a gun show. Rather, this current discussion of guns refers to a new worry whilst simultaneously giving a sense that the gun-lobby won the last round in the debate. Granted, many things have happened in the world since the mass shooting that led many politicians to vow action, and one of those things was that people stopped focusing on the issue.
Yet even as the traditional firearm issue has been given another pass (until the next tragedy that will inspire another play out of this whole sordid and sorry affair), guns have received a fair amount of new attention of late. The current concern focuses around a new class of firearm: those that can be created using a 3D-printer. This is not a particularly new issue, even though it is fairly recent, and this site treated this matter in some detail a while ago (“Hit Print and Pull the Trigger”). But things have changed since that initial posting, including the unveiling of a fully printable single-shot gun, and the government insisting that the plans for 3D-guns be removed from one site.
As should come as little surprise the revelation that 3D-printers can make guns has resulted in multiple groups attempting to release their own plans (groups other than Defense Distributed), has resulted in the plans spreading across the Internet (despite their having been removed from some websites), and to provide a final kicker there are now some groups who have figured out how to create bullets using a 3D printer. The Department of Homeland Security is concerned, as are many people, and this concern is understandable.
After all, 3D-printing of guns brings with it the threat of untraceable weapons that can be obtained with a level of ease that makes visiting a gun show in Texas seem onerous (though 3D printers do remain somewhat expensive). For some this untraceable aspect represents the exciting appeal of printable guns (as was discussed here – “Freedom and Technology are not the same word“), as such weapons are seen as the definitive way to avoid government regulation of weaponry. What increasingly becomes lost and muddled in the discussion of printable guns is the extent to which this is less about guns than it is about the Internet and 3D printers.
Indeed, guns are guns, and one of the lessons of recent (and not too recent) history is that those who want to obtain guns (and high capacity magazines) are generally able to do so. Even in cases where a given weapon type or magazine size may be banned in a particular region, those who want such items can generally obtain them. You can no longer buy high capacity magazines in New York, but even if the “Cuomo” weren’t available for download, such items could still be purchased by crossing a few state lines.
3D-printers; however, are something of a technologenie and though it may seem to fulfill some wild wishes, the tradeoff is the way in which the granting of these desires reshapes our world. There is a certain extent to which 3D printers are a poster technic for Neil Postman’s questions for technology (more on those questions here) as such printers are a perfect example of devices that may create as many problems as they solve (as the printable gun case evinces). In this spirit, here are 3 quick concerns to consider when wishfully thinking about the 3D printed world. For we will not be getting 3 wishes…
1. Despite the hopes of some libertarian minded individuals (such as some of those who have been making and disseminating the plans for printable guns) that these devices will fight government regulation, exactly the opposite may occur. While one option that could certainly be considered (and which might not be a bad idea) would be for regulation of 3D-printers, what could also occur is a step-up of online surveillance and tracking. If the Department of Homeland Security is truly concerned about the threat of 3D printable guns, such is the perfect cover for new measures of tracking online activity. Thus an idea that began with an attempt to put these plans in the hands of many individuals may serve as an invitation and cause for increased surveillance of online activity.
2. 3D printers are relatively new, especially in the larger consumer market, and as with most consumer technologies it is quite conceivable that the price will drop over the coming years even as quality improves. Thus the 3D printers of today will look lackluster and expensive when compared to those that are available in ten years time. The things that are produced on 3D printers today may be decried as somewhat flimsy, and not permanent, but this will change as the technology improves. So little comfort should be couched in the fact that things printed out on 3D printers do not last particularly long. This, still, should raise another concern regarding the amount of plastic waste that will potentially be generated by these machines. Might some of it be recyclable? Certainly. Yet these devices threaten to churn out a stream of more throwaway plastic. Even as quality increases, 3D printers will still be churning out plastic throwaway material.
3. There is an element of standard fear mongering going on in the media reports regarding printable guns, yet within these fears is a certain discomfort with 3D printers. It seems to many as if these are devices that came out of nowhere and now they are going to be used to create untraceable arsenals. 3D printing has a greater threat than just a printable bullet, for it carries a distinct possibility of social and economic dislocation as new forms of power become increasingly entrenched. While “self-reliance” may be a part of many culture’s mythology, 3D printers may represent a deeply isolating technology – one that encourages people to rely ever more on their devices instead of their communities. In the guise of giving people the “liberating” tool to create things on a home printer the 3D printer pulls a bait and switch, for it does not make us more self reliant but makes us ever more reliant on technology. Particularly on a complex proprietary form of technology. Thus it is in embracing such a tool as liberating that we wind up enslaved to it. A 3D printer may manufacture “all we need” but it also manufactures a greater need for the 3D printer.
When the character in an ancient legend rubs the magic lamp and unleashes the spirit within, most of the risks and fortunes accrue to them. Yet in our society when a group unleashes a technologenie, everybody bears the fallout, even if the wishes of the groups doing the unleashing (printable guns) may be quite the opposite of that for which others wish. Yet these are not technologies that we can wish away, even if we might want to. What is therefore required is a reckoning with the given technology as a given technology instead of a narrow focus on just some of its less appealing uses.
For, to think that we can just address the problems presented by 3D-printers by talking about printable weaponry is really just wishful thinking.
Definition of new term:
Technologenie (noun) a technology unleashed by wishful thinking, that once released cannot be “put back in the bottle.”