Join the Debate: 3D Printed Guns or Government Regulation?

Here's the question: in a world where the design of a 3D printed gun is freely available on the internet, can we—or should we–regulate open source design? Or are limits impossible in a world of anonymous file sharing? Does any attempt at control go against the whole spirit of open source, decentralized innovation?

"We cannot limit open source design, even when we do not support the consequences."

That was the argument made by Cody Wilson at a debate held at the Museum of Modern Art last week. Wilson, you might remember, is the guy who designed a working, entirely 3D printed gun and then uploaded the CAD files to the Internet.

At the start of the evening, the majority of the audience agreed with Wilson's position: we simply cannot—and should not—limit open source design, even when it leads to the spread of a lethal, untraceable weapon.

Then, in classic debate format, Wilson was given five minutes to make his case.

For: We Can't Stop It, Even if We Wanted To, and That's a Good Thing

Join the Debate: 3D Printed Guns or Government Regulation?

As a Brit who cannot for the life of me understand why so many Americans willfully misinterpret the 2nd Amendment to allow private gun ownership, despite the resulting predictable and tragic violence (yes, I know I will pay for this in the comments), I had previously dismissed Wilson as just another National Rifle Association nut.

I couldn't have been further off the mark. In fact, the NRA won't have anything to do with the Liberator, as Wilson's gun is called. Meanwhile, in addition to bearing a striking resemblance to Justin Timberlake, Wilson is clearly an extremely well-educated and highly polished speaker who name-dropped more Continental philosophers in his five-minute speech than I encountered throughout my entire graduate degree.

His rhetoric was seductive. With this gun, he said, "we dared the security state to become real—and it could not." The Liberator was printed using white plastic, Wilson told us, so that it would seem spectral—like an artifact from beyond history, come to reveal the impotence of the U.S. government, itself "the largest terrorist machinery in the world."

Join the Debate: 3D Printed Guns or Government Regulation?

But when Paola Antonelli, MoMA's fabulous senior curator and the debate's moderator, brought Wilson down to brass tacks, his argument turned out to be relatively straightforward. The 3D printed gun, as Wilson described it, was just an opportunity to demonstrate that "we cannot introduce a center into the fundamentally center-less structure of open source"—that there's simply no way set limits when even the tools of open source design are open source.

The Liberator, in other words, was a giant finger, pointing out that the Emperor (a.k.a. the government) no longer has any clothes.

And that's good news, from Wilson's crypto-anarchist point of view. "Utopia is now," he explained: technology has brought us to the point when advanced encryption and the decentralized architecture of the Internet have combined forces to strip the state of its (immoral, in Wilson's eyes) power to limit individual freedom.

Join the Debate: 3D Printed Guns or Government Regulation?

Though DEFCAD, Wilson's anonymous search engine for 3D-printed models, is still online and, he added, "fabulously successful," he has since moved on to develop Dark Wallet, which he described as a money-laundering service for Bitcoin, and is working on a book for Simon & Schuster. Titled Negative Liberty, it will apparently explain the "principle of freedom from external restraints in libertarian political theory."

Against: Technological Innovation Needs its Fetters; We'll Figure Out What They Look Like Later

At this point in the evening's debate, technology and design writer Rob Walker was left with the unenviable task of arguing that government regulation over the Internet and the open source movement was both possible and good. This is not, as Walker pointed out right away, a super-trendy position right now, in an era marked by the Occupy movement and Edward Snowden's PRISM revelations.

Walker began by admitting that he's actually a huge fan of the Liberator—precisely because it is an incredibly powerful example of the use of a designed object to force a debate.

Both 3D printing and the open source movement are always described in Utopian terms, Walker said, as "the ultimate hack of top-down power structures." It's a seductive line of thinking, but, as Walker reminded us, no technological progress comes without the potential for misuse, abuse, and unintended but harmful consequences.

Join the Debate: 3D Printed Guns or Government Regulation?

What Cody Wilson has kindly done, with both the Liberator and Dark Wallet, is create a tangible provocation: a thing that is also a lens, pulling the tensions between innovation and existing social structures into sharp focus.

When you confront The Liberator or Dark Wallet, you have to also confront the fact that, if you are in favor of a completely free Internet and open source movement, you are, by definition, in favor of its more abhorrent uses: child pornography, gun violence, fraud, and more.

"Technological innovation needs its fetters," Walker argued, in his concluding pitch for the rule of law. "Just because open source is set up to be a participatory system and democracy is set up to be a participatory system does not mean they are same kind of participatory system."

Though Wilson shook his head, I found it hard to argue with that. Where Walker was a little less convincing was in making the case that we can put limits on open source design—or, rather, that we can enforce those limits. After all, although the State Department successfully forced Wilson to take down The Liberator CAD files, they had already been downloaded 100,000 times. The plans are, Wilson assured us, still freely available—and not even relegated to the deep web's darkest corners.

Join the Debate: 3D Printed Guns or Government Regulation?

Rather than propose a solution, and turn the evening into a debate about its workability, Walker simply argued that we should put limits on open source design, and thus we can and will figure out how to do that.

For, Against, Or On The Fence?

I'm not sure I'm quite as optimistic as Walker—but his argument was compelling enough to win over at least half the audience by the end. The real goal, according to Paola Antonelli, who co-created the Design and Violence project with Jamer Hunt of Parsons The New School for Design and her colleagues Kate Carmody and Michell Millar Fisher at MoMA, is "exactly to explore ambiguity, to understand the manifestations of violence, which sometimes come in disguise."

In the debates, as in the project's online design case studies, Antonelli is clear: "There is no moral judgment a priori, that's left to readers, listeners, and commenters. We want to provide the context and the tools."

Join the Debate: 3D Printed Guns or Government Regulation?

Susana Soares' speculative design for a vegetarian tooth, interpreted by Maria Kalman, is one of the Design and Violence case studies.

Join the Debate: 3D Printed Guns or Government Regulation?

Another Design and Violence example: Glassphemy! by Macro Sea, is a glass-hurling, cage-fighting-style spectacle that would allow people to embrace the violence of recycling.

The entire Design and Violence project is a brilliant reminder of one of the most useful things design can do. Design is not just the art of arranging type on a page, or even the clever thinking that structures your interactions with your phone—design, alongside fiction, is perhaps the best tool we have to imagine and talk about the consequences of technological innovation. Ideally, before they come back to bite us.

Cast Your Vote

Add your thoughts on the debate here and in the comments, below: can we and should we put limits on open source design—and, if so, how might we go about doing it?