3D Guns Advocate Cody Wilson is About More Than Weapons and That's What Most Frightens People About Him


Like the rest of the world (see J.D. Tuccille's copious coverage), the New Yorker is pretty alarmed by the possibilities of 3D weapon printing, but writer Jacob Silverman in expressing his confusion and fear is at least more perspicacious than most about the ideas and goals of leading 3D weapon printing spokes-gadfly, Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed.

Defense Distributed

I interviewed Wilson by phone for an hour or so for this December 2012 article for Reason, which also fed into a speech I delivered that month about 3D printing to the Extreme Futurist Fest. I noted that Wilson was far more than just a "gun guy."

As Silverman notes, with alarm, the most important thing about Wilson is not the specific gun he and his compatriots have now designed, printable at home, but "the fusion of ultra-libertarian politics and a prophesied manufacturing revolution fuelled by 3-D printing."

Wilson is simply calling the maker movement—the scattered coalition of tinkerers and manufacturers, such as Brooklyn-based MakerBot, who believe that affordable, ubiquitous 3-D printing will herald a new industrial revolution—on its bluff, daring it to move beyond clothespins and garden gnomes (a popular design for MakerBot's printers). In a presentation at this year's South by Southwest Interactive, Wilson said that 3-D printing "hasn't tried to do things that make a lot of people mad."

Wilson has.

Silverman gets it: Wilson is a full service provocateur for what liberty really means, even if that means being initially a snake-oil salesman of sorts, hyping possibilities beyond their apparent reality at the moment. It's not what a 3D gun can do right now that matters. It's the idea that anyone can make anything they want at home, beyond most of the obvious points where they are interacting publicly with others where they can be most easily obstructed, licensed, regulated, taxed–that's the important part.

Silverman's alarm continues:

Wilson…and his collaborators hope that new technologies like bitcoin and 3-D printing will do nothing less than abrogate government, returning power to individuals and small sovereign communities. To him, 3-D printing presents "a world where you can have a firearm if you want. This is a world of equality."

Silverman thinks he's got Wilson and his wooly ways, though: "What's notable about this kind of talk is how divorced it is from any practical reality."

Really? After noting, as I did, Wilson's propensity for high-falutin' French literary theorists, and how other more mild Makers are annoyed at the negative attention his provacateuring brings to their quirky little tech-craft movement, Silverman veers off course, as if merely stating that Wilson is the one divorced from practical reality makes it so, because he knows most of his readers aren't necessarily the types to think like Wilson or act as he and his supporters do. But believe it Mr. Silverman: the technologies Wilson relies on, and their plastic end results, are as much a part of "practical reality" as it can get.

Silverman seems to think that merely noting something that his readers will be disturbed by is sufficient to mark the disturber as the delusional one. But everything about the rest of his article–which rightly points out that no likely means of stopping 3D printing of weapons or anything else will likely be effective–puts the lie to that glib declaration that Wilson is the one divorced from practical reality.

I noted re: Wilson after my December interview:

Wilson doesn't want you to think he's just a gun guy, a Second Amendment guy, a political rights guy, or some kind of insurrectionist seeking the overthrow of established power via weapons. His group's intriguing web site reads semiotically more like an intensely ironic art project than a flamethrowing techno-political manifesto—"The apocalypse already happened." "The Unconscious is structured like a language." "Tell your mom we're printing guns." He bears down on the techno-anarchy, "information wants to be free" aspect of 3D printing, straining it possibly to its breaking point by grounding the grand promise of decentralized cheap ways to make ideas physically real in something as troubling as weapons…..

"We're using progressive language about information to confuse the prohibitionist impulse about certain objects," he says. Though he mentions a yen for Ron Paul, Wilson ultimately sounds more like a prankish French literary theorist, talking of how despite the "permissive liberal myth" too many are "really about building an entire social structure around a carceral panoptic culture."

There are bigger questions about political reality raised by Wilson. For the most part, restrictions only work on those who want to be restricted–or who see the costs of not being so as too high. How high those costs have to be are different for different people, and statists may well just be happy to cow or make things really hard for enough people–not to actually achieve what they claim to want to achieve. (Some people haven't even bothered to learn how to encrypt their online talk, find free online TV shows, or jailbreak their smart phones, and never will.)

Wilson is an interesting character, a remarkably successful provacateur to both sides of the debate over 3D printing (or digital in general) liberty. It's bracing watching a new technology shake up the world of ideology and politics in real time. But I'm pretty sure Wilson is right about how it has to end: the people will have the power. And as far as the core power at issue in the 3D gun debate, the power to possess a weapon that can kill people, that is of course nothing new. So what are people afraid of? That actions can occur with more privacy, less traceability, less visibility, less manageability, more privacy (if they encrypt their digital actions smartly enough). Even homemade weaponry was always within the hands of the handy home craftsman; 3D printing just makes it easier and quickly cheaper.

As I said in my talk to the Extreme Futurist Fest, the future is going to feature a whole lot of: "What are you going to do about it?" to which the only sensible answer is: "Nothing to be done." Despite what Silverman thinks, that is the practical reality governors of all sorts are facing.