The project of Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed gun – the Liberator – has once again blasted into national attention. This is because Cody’s company has (surprisingly) won a settlement with the State Department that had previously issued a restraining order against Defense Distributed, citing International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
There are echoes here with the long battle over PGP, which was ultimately won, to the great benefit of individual liberty and privacy. What saved the day was the cause of free speech. It might ultimately save the right to download and print a gun.
I recall the takedown order for the gun blueprint. Cody was now embroiled in a struggle at the highest levels. This was the battle he wanted. He got it. His life would never be the same.
That previous order against DD is now rescinded, thus permitting his company to release digital files that enable anyone with a 3D printer to produce a functioning handgun at home. This gun bypasses the usual regulations concerning serial numbers, registration, and regulation. That’s way more than enough to cause a gun controller to panic.
The panic is not only about the mass distribution of unregulated guns; it’s about the loss of control in general.
No More Control
This gun is a manifestation of the new digital reality: the physical world has become information-based. The only way to control it is to muzzle people, violate free speech rights, and fundamentally transform a principle we have come to believe about the relationship between the individual and state.
Keep in mind that Defense Distributed is neither producing nor distributing guns. It is only trafficking in information flows. It is a company and a website but maintains no proprietary relationship with the information it distributes. Every download can (and has been) duplicated and reproduced unto infinity using any digital platform: the mainstream web, the dark web, instant messaging, encrypted email communication, SMS, every manner of SMS-based application, or anything else.
You can try to control this distribution of information but not even today’s most totalitarian regimes have succeeded. Information is a multi-headed hydra indeed, but not even that quite explains what we are talking about here. The only way fully to control information flows in a digital age is to take full control of thought itself, which is an ambition unrealizable in this world, even by the most complete and efficient system of thought control one can imagine.
Which is precisely the point that Cody was trying to make.
The Heady Days of 2013
Cody is part of a generation of intellectuals and activists that saw this world being born after 2008 and following. Many previously unimagined and unimaginable things began to happen in the digital world. File sharing on distributed networks released vast amounts of copyrighted material online. Government cracked down but to no effect: the system of distributed file sharing grew through the decades and continued long after the government’s hammer fell.
Then in 2009, something incredible happened: money, the good and service that government had nationalized 100 years ago and largely dominated for thousands of years, entered into the realm of the information economy. This was the last piece of the puzzle, so to speak. We now had all the essential pillars of commercial and culture life ported over to the world of information, which is to say, migrated to the realm in which power was no longer effective.
The revolution, in those days, appeared to be unstoppable. In the first decade of the 21st century, these people were known as the cypherpunks, because they used code and cryptography to bypass and unsettle official channels of information production and distribution.
This later mutated and came to be crystallized in the movement known as cryptoanarchism. The point was not that we had to convince people of a philosophy. The point was to show how we had the tools today finally to make freedom a reality. We have learned how to bypass the two advantages of the state – its jurisdictional monopolies over force and its capacity to muscle and muzzle anything physical – and bypass it with tools of freedom that had no central point of failure.
There were 3D-printed guns before Cody Wilson. But his genius contribution was his willingness and desire to stand up and be the face of this paradigm shift. He knew that in order topress the point, the media needed someone to blame, someone to demonize, some one product (a gun!) to focus on, in order to write their stories and debate the implications. To inspire this debate was his whole pont.
Cody was and is not a gun nut; he was and is an information nut who saw what many of us saw. He chose to act on the new ideals. He was willing to be the poster child of a movement that, in fact, had no head whatsoever.
It’s Not About Cody
The journalists who write about this subject have universally failed to understand the point. They are used to covering issues by focussing on people, institutions, and products, discerning and ferreting out the good guys and bad guys based on the doctrines of the civic religion. They are not disposed to cover large-scale paradigm shifts in the relationship between in the individual and the state. They are uncomprehending of the implications of decentralization, the implications of the commoditization of information networks, and what this means for control of the world.
And this is precisely why the coverage of the first week of August 2018 has been so absurd. They want to focus on Cody and shine the light on this devil in our otherwise perfect garden of the neo-liberal, regulated, top-down social democratic welfare state. What they entirely missed was Cody’s central point: the physical world that was once controlling is migrating to a different realm, the world of information that no one can control. The world of the future is uncontrolled and uncontrollable.
This was his core point. It was not about guns as such. It was not even about 3D printing as such. His core point concerned information flows and unviability of power in a digital world. Nothing will ever be the same. This is our current reality; it is not, however, our current politics or journalism.
To be sure, he and we underestimated the resilience of the reactionary forces in the world today. The paradigm is shifting but not without friction, not without victims, not without profound disturbance to the status quo, which would fight back with tools we know and some we do not yet understand.
We live day to day, experiencing only the passing scene we see on social media. But there are larger forces at work. There is no chance of finally censoring the future with any of the tools that molded the past. It’s done, that great migration from a things-based economy regulated by the state to an idea-based economy regulated only by the choices of the individuals that make up society itself.