I stumbled across 3D printers the other day whilst watching an episode of “QI”. Stephen Fry demonstrated how an intricate moving object made of plastic had been printed using the technology in question.
At the time of writing this post, home versions of 3D printers may cost around $500 – though they can currently only print plastic objects. Industrial and professional printers are obviously going to be more expensive, but they can print very many more materials. And it does make me wonder what the implications are.
After all, anyone who could send a digitalised model of a real-world object from one computer to another, and then from the second connected to a 3D printer engineer it so that it printed out a stash of firearms, would surely be able to wreak havoc with the security of any community or state.
Couldn’t they end up eliminating the profession of smuggling altogether? Who’d need to smuggle practically anything if metal objects, circuit boards and machine parts various could be whizzed across the world in bits and bytes, only to be reconstituted at the other end using a $500 printing machine?
And what would this mean for the sovereignty and imperviousness of our national borders? How could the security services control such a technology so that localities weren’t turned upside down from the inside? Unless, of course, the regimes of Internet oversight were as vigorous and awful as the various snoopers’ charters whizzing round the world’s secret treaty negotiations do seem to be proposing.
Maybe copyright isn’t the technology which is driving government snooping after all. Maybe copyright is just smoke and mirrors. Maybe the real threat to our society’s integrity – or, at least, what the security services fear – is this technology that turns virtual images into real and potentially dangerous objects.
You can just imagine the tabloid headlines: “Has your teenage son become a bedroom terrorist?” or “Do you know what he really does after dark?”. It’s enough to scare anyone, contemplated thus; enough to terrify the least imaginative amongst us.
But if this is the case, what are the implications for our freedoms? Under the guise of ensuring that musicians, writers and film-makers can continue to earn a gainful living, all kinds of oppressive bills have been proposed and almost imposed. We need only remember the recent battles over SOPA and PIPA to realise that those in power may take any and every opportunity to restrict our freedoms to communicate and our rights to privacy, especially when such restrictions ensure they may earn a few extra dollars into the bargain. So just imagine the field day they’ll have when they describe to a wider populace the consequences of technologies that allow terrorist organisations to transmit weapons from one side of the world to the other in a virtual second. Just imagine how they might convince whole societies to give up any right to any kind of privacy whatsoever.
Of course, those very same leaders and security services will also be able to do exactly the same on behalf of the good guys: no further need to physically parachute freedom-fighting arms into a remote valley when all you need is to get such defenders of liberty a satellite connection, a 3D printer and some boxes of innocuous “toner”.
The age-old story of the sword and the shield verily repeats itself, right?
Even so, I do wonder if we’re thinking this properly through. For what will be the point of sovereign borders when we can smuggle 3D objects across the web?
Anyone got me an answer to that?