In the midst of London Design week, a spectacle of innovative modernity, artisanal endeavour and a veiled proclamation of British stylistic superiority, you could be forgiven for overlooking one of the V&A’s latest additions, the ominously titled “Liberator”: the worlds first fully functional 3D printed gun.
Containing several ‘original’ prototypes of the weapon (original in the sense of ‘used iterations’ in the development of the liberator; what is original when it’s freely disseminated), one fully assembled, several component prints and one model with severe explosive damage from a high calibre misfire.
It’s a forgettable sight weighed against Omar Arbels fantasia like chandelier hanging in the lobby or the 5,000 paper windmills of Najla El Zeins Wind Portel. Yet this humble object has sparked furious moral, legal and inevitably political debate.
The V&A from its conception was tasked to collect, curate and preserve the zeitgeist of craft and design to part reflect the social attitude of the time.
The admission of the Liberator gun therefore, according to curator Kieran Long, deserves a spot in this historical framework for it is an analogue of the unchecked expansion (and risks) of personal manufacturing technology of the last several years.
This new social power is granted by the rise of FABLABS, domestic 3D printing, more accessible design interfaces and the growing open source community.
“Museums should be topical, responding quickly to world events when they touch our areas of expertise,” states Long.
Cody Wilson is the creator of Liberator, named for its virtue of being accessible to almost anyone with access to a 3D printer, be it children or terrorists; the gun itself costs $35 in print material, comes in 15 easily assembled pieces and requires only a nail for the trigger pin.
Successfully fired in May this year, Wilsons company, Defence Distributed, has achieved rights to manufacture and distribute the weapon freely, though the gun is not licensed for US Export or sale within other states.
So Cody turned to the Internet to get around this: uploading and disseminating the CAD blueprints across the planet with the click of a mouse, rendering the Take Down order issued by the US state department to remove the files from the website utterly futile; the Liberator had been downloaded 100,000 times within the first 24 hours.
Herein lies the resounding global implication of this innocuous looking object, and one which both the V&A, by exhibiting this item, as well as Cody Wilson for purposefully creating this catalytic object, hope to bring to the forefront of global social awareness.
In an age where information can be disseminated and rendered physical by advanced machinery such as 3D printers or laser cutters by anyone across the globe, the concept of traditional government regulations regarding import, export, copyright ownership and legality become inept. Put another way, it’s like bringing a knife, to a gun fight.
“The Liberator shows how the systems of order, with all their grandiosity, fall on its face, You just have to find the right pressure point to prove it’s all a farce,” explains Cody Wilson.
It’s a view reflected by the V&A: “[The Liberator] sparked intense debate and upended discussions about the benefits of new manufacturing technologies and the unregulated sharing of designs online.”
Such is the confusion over the legality of this “wiki weapon” that Wilson turned down an invitation by the V&A to present his work in person fearing he could be arrested by British Customs Officials the minute he landed.
Yet there has been no statement from the Police or HM Revenue & Customs. Identifying the ineptitude of governments to regulate emerging technologies is the “ultimate win” for Wilson; the “unregulated sharing of designs online” is rapidly becoming a thorn in the side of traditional economics.
There are party’s who are fortunately (for those on the wrong end of a plastic pistol) looking to create a legal framework to regulate this new maker movement culture, if at least providing censorship of lethal designs.
The New South Wales Constabulary demonstrated a test firing of the Liberator as a deterrent to all would-be garage gun manufacturers, showing how the pistol has the tendency to explode in the face of the wielder.
This led the German Police force to purchase a 3D printer in July this year to test 3D printed weaponry.
Beyond the police force, companies are taking a stance to the matter, with Thingiverse removing CAD files considered to be weapons and the 3D printing bureau used to print some of the Liberator parts for the V&A refusing to print the entire model out of plastic, instead printing some critical components out of plaster powder, essentially decommissioning the weapon.
It is perhaps an irony that Samuel Colt, creator of the first mass manufactured revolver hand gun, was a fellow Texan, just like Wilson, and in both instances, their contribution to the arsenal of the world brought huge social upheaval.
In Colts instance, his cheap, reliable and far more deadly revolver provided longevity to the US Mexcian war and later the Civil War by selling arms to both sides.
Colts 21st century doppelgänger, suffering a hangover ideology from the colonial period, has found a way to drag his protectionist ethics into the circulation of ideas, designs, and holsters of the modern age.
Yet to label Wilson as a hardcore insurrectionist would be narrow minded. He has bought issues with domestic fabrication technology and open source culture to light that were long overdue.
American Senator Charles Schumer of New York, says it right for the wrong reasons: “Now anyone — a terrorist, someone who is mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon — can essentially open a gun factory in their garage. It must be stopped.”
To Schumer, Wilson is the problem. But if not Wilson, another person would have generated the idea, printed the model and pulled the trigger.
What is most critical is not to instigate a witch hunt on its creator, but to begin a global introspection into how we as a single culture (the Internet crosses all boarders and connects all creeds) should handle, regulate and apply these rapidly emerging technologies and networks.
In this case the task falls on the shoulders of Kieran Long, the V&A and all involved in London Design week as they are the self proclaimed stewards of future design.
Kieran Long sums up the attitude we all need to take regarding the new and innovative: “Ugly and sinister objects demand attention just as much as beautiful and beneficial ones do.”