3D printers manufacture three-dimensional products by laying down a series of thin plastic or metal in one layer at a time. The 3D printing technology is stunning in its potential to empower individuals. Unfortunately the state knows its power as well. The race is on.
Whose Hand Will be on the Power?
On February 1st, Ars Technica ran the headline, “Robohand: How cheap 3D printers built a replacement hand for a five-year old boy.” Two men – one in Washington State and the other in South Africa – used open source software to design a series of mechanical hands for a boy whose family could not afford a commercial prosthetic. The men published the design as a digital file to be used by 3D printers in order to benefit others in need.
As generations of 3D printers improve in quality and decrease in cost, average people will become private manufacturers who fill their own needs. One need might well be a gun, which could make gun control all but impossible to enforce efficiently. Indeed, a group called Defense Distributed have already “printed” a plastic high capacity ammunition magazine (pictured here) – the sort the government is threatening to ban; the group claims to have successfully fired at least 86 rounds through it.
President Obama is noticing. In his recent State of the Union address, he declared, “Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio…where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” (Several tech commentators have noted that Youngstown is almost unknown to pioneers of the technology.) Meanwhile the Department of Defense has shelled out $30 million to promote 3D printing and the sum is being matched by a group that includes crony-capitalist corporations such as Boeing.
Nothing could be more disastrous to the technology than being championed by government promoting the technology, especially in league with crony corporations.
One Peril of Government Championship
Government support always means government control. Thus far 3D printing has been closely associated with either free or open source software; in other words, with software that is freely available or provided with minimal terms attached. For example, the longstanding and successful RepRap project is attempting to produce and refine 3D printers that can manufacture most of their own components. This means the machines could ‘breed’ themselves for domestic use throughout the world. RepRap employs open design – that is publicly shared information – which draws on both open source software and hardware. The project releases its designs under a free license that allows users to share and modify the software. One of RepRap’s printers reportedly sells for $1,000.
Open software and hardware are the political opposite of copyright and patents. They rip open the world of ideas and of possibilities for individuals. Obama and his Intellectual Property (IP) Czar have strenuously sought to expand draconian IP policies, often to the benefit of ‘supportive’ industries such as the large music and movie producers. Open design is a direct challenge to cronies. Consider the earlier example of mechanical hands being printed for a fraction of what they would cost from big medical firms. Every printed prosthetic represents a loss of income to medical corporations. Every one is a threat to the relevance of their patents. In order to protect monopoly profits, crony-corporations will attempt to co-opt and to use the burgeoning technology to their own advantage through IP enforced by the raw muscle of the state. Medical corporations could care less if children cannot afford prosthetic hands; they want a spiked-up profit off every medical device sold.
(The backlash by Big Pharma will be intense if a report from Glasgow University chemist Lee Cronin is accurate. On July 26, 2012, the Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence news site announced, “The ‘chemputer’ that could print out any drug.” In the article, Cronin claimed to be able to turn printers into chemistry sets. The article stated, “Nearly all drugs are made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, as well as readily available agents such as vegetable oils and paraffin.” Cronin added, “With a printer it should be possible that with a relatively small number of inks you can make any organic molecule.” Of course, the cry against this machine will come also from the drug warriors in law enforcement. NOTE: this discussion may be irrelevant as erudite readers have expressed skeptism about chemputers.)
Like crony corporations, government could not care less about one-handed children or the immense benefits of downloadable drugs. Obama will protect IP. Remember it was in the name of a trivial IP offense that government officials drove Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz to suicide through their life-destroying persecution. Arguably, his acts was not even a violation but Swartz had vociferously opposed some of government’s key moves to control the Internet. For example, he campaigned effectively against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that would have allowed government to close down internet sites upon the mere accusation of violating IP. Upon SOPA’s demise, Swartz exclaimed, “We won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom.” Government would value highly an expanded ability to rein in or to destroy as many Swartzs as possible.
Expect money to be thrown at people and projects that can be controlled by government and corporations. The money will be portrayed as beneficent and needed to promote technology that could ‘save’ the economy; the opposite is true. The IP Czar will argue for protecting business; she will advocate copyrighted software and patented hardware into which back doors for government access can be installed. Expect to hear frightening tales of how criminals and the psychotic will print AK47s. Homeland Security and the DoD will chime in with calls for national security.
If Obama is successful, then the 3D development will stagger and be burdened by furthering the goals of the state, not of the individual. The most damnable thing is that the printers could well become the greatest economic boom since personal computers and the internet. But government eats whole whatever wealth comes its way.
Murray Rothbard spoke frequently of the never-ending battle between authority and liberty, between the state and the individual. Technology such as 3D printing is the single brightest hope for individual freedom and prosperity in a dismally political world. The research and development is widespread enough so that the printing cannot be stopped on a global basis. Whether it grinds to a halt in America depends on individuals making themselves the heroes of their own future.