Not Print Print Bang Bang: 3D printed guns and the illusion of digital immateriality

We must come to terms with the systems and artifacts we build and, by understanding what they do to and for us, construct them (both materially and semiotically) in more liberatory and productive ways. But critical analysis of technologies is of limited usefulness if we cannot connect the results of this work to actual engagements with the technologies in question. Figuring out ways to bring material engagements with the technologies we study is of paramount importance – not just as a way of making better objects (though this will be an important outcome) but also so that we understand the objects that are made in a more concrete and comprehensive fashion. For me, this requires what I’ve been calling ‘critical making,’ (Ratto and Hoekema, 2009a; Ratto, 2011a and 2011b), materially productive hands-on work intended to uncover and explore conceptual uncertainties, parse the world in ways that language cannot, and to disseminate the results of these explorations through embodied, material forms.

Recently, in the Critical Making lab we printed a nonworking version of the Defense Distributed 3d model ‘liberator’ handgun. To be precise we printed a disabled version of the gun as part of a project on the increasing hybridity of the virtual/material world and the role of 3D printing more generally. We did so publicly (see here, here, here, and here) in order to initiate an open conversation on issues related to 3D printing and guns and to hopefully engage law enforcement, regulators, policy makers, and 3D printing advocates in developing a measured rather than a knee-jerk response to the perceived problems associated with 3D printing. That an open conversation is necessary was brought home to us by recent calls by both conservative and democratic politicians in the US for regulation of 3D printers.

We are certainly interested in facilitating and extending the current debates and are hopeful that we can work with authorities to address concerns. However, we also want to be clear that the gun is just a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for a whole slew of important theoretical and pragmatic information issues. Our work is not on firearms or the functionality of 3D printed guns per se, but addresses the limitations of our capacity to engage and think about them. We are primarily interested in the increasingly tenuous dividing line between our mundane and physically embodied existence and the seemingly separate and virtual modes associated with digital technologies. Recent debates regarding the material nature of information have been given a new locus given the development of working 3D printable guns. Our reason for printing the gun was simply to take note of this new recentering and to explore the issues from a number of different perspectives.

More specifically, the law and other formal and informal entities are used to treating ‘the digital’ and ‘the physical’ as two entirely separate worlds. We have been encouraged to think this way by a whole variety of individuals and institutions, including both libertarian (e.g. John Perry Barlow’s famous ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’) and conservative voices (e.g. reasoning regarding the DMCA in the US,) depending on need. Over the last few decades, a lot of work has been done to encourage the idea that information is immaterial, that form and content can be separated, that the medium is just a neutral channel for transmission. (McLuhan was prescient in calling attention to the limits of this idea!)

Our research on 3D printing includes work on its use to facilitate accessibility for the visually impaired, new forms of distributed productivity and design, and other socially beneficial attributes. Our printing of the gun model and exploration of its dimensions should not be taken as either a whole-hearted embracing of the cyber-anarchistic future articulated by its original creator, nor of a ‘won’t somebody think of the children’ reductive response. Instead, the project stands as part of our work as information scholars and as public intellectuals debating and exploring new information technologies and the patterns of life associated with them.

Matthew Kirshenbaum has noted that “computers are unique in the history of writing technologies in that they present a pre-meditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality.” 3D printing calls attention to this fallacy – and the 3d printed gun is only one example of this, albeit a particularly evocative one. Other examples of this fallacy include the idea that all information (not just the computational) is similarly immaterial. This results in the idea that once books and other textual materials have been scanned and digital versions have been created, the physical ‘versions’ can simply be thrown away since all value resides in the ‘informational’ content and that has been captured. While librarians, archivists, and critical scholars from a range of disciplines (Katherine Hayles, Matthew Kirschenbaum, JF Blanchette, and many others) have been speaking about the problems of this perspective for many years, 3D printing definitely highlights the pragmatic and not just the theoretical import of such issues.

This was originally posted on the Critical Making lab site.