The world took a sudden leap into the future recently, when a law student from Texas built - and fired - the world's first printed gun. Moments later, the blueprints were online and, by the time the Government ordered them to be taken down, had spread across the known internet. In other words, Pandora's Box has now been opened, and the results may not be pretty.
First, some background: 3D printing has been around for years, but has only recently caught the public eye. As with any technology, it was largely ignored until progress rendered it cheap enough for the middle class, at which point it exploded. Now a decent 3D printer is available for around $8,000 - with the price no-doubt set to drop sharply over the next few years.
Initially, reactions to the technology were entirely positive. Aside from offering a new, neat diversion for the home, the implications were staggering. Some forecasted the end of shipping - as blueprints were simply uploaded at one end and downloaded elsewhere in the world. A world where anyone with a handy $1,000 and a computer could print white goods for the home seemed a distinct possibility. And these utopian dreams may yet come true. But, right now, we've been offered the first glimpse of the dark underbelly of this future world - a world where anyone with a grudge can download an untraceable weapon and exact revenge for the cost of the materials only.
A Moral Grey Area
Printed weaponry pioneer Cody Wilson obviously intended to create a stir with his innovation. A self-described anarchist, his online posts and various interviews paint a picture of someone totally committed to the dual ideas of freedom and publicity - or at least his interpretation of them. His vision seems to be a world where everyone is armed: when the spectre of the assault weapon and high-capacity magazine ban reared its head, he began printing his own at a furious rate. This isn't to say he's a garden-variety lunatic. Clearly intelligent, his ideas are rooted in theories of revolution and keeping the state firmly out of people's lives. In the online narrative that sees the internet as the new Wild West, he's clearly a form of modern folk hero.
He also knows who his enemies are. Already, senators are scrambling to ban printed guns - a bill that could have potentially zero effect, considering the plans are now online. Predictably, this has led to instant, polarised debate. On one side are gun control advocates who dislike the idea of anyone being able to get a weapon of mass-destruction even easier than they already can. On the other are gun supporters, who see Wilson's efforts as part of a larger emigration toward total freedom. It's interesting to speculate, however, what their reactions might have been had the first printed gun been designed by, say, an Al-Qaeda operative hoping to advance the spread of global-jihad. Once the plans are out there, there's nothing to stop anyone using them - including the very enemies of the â€˜freedom' you're hoping to espouse.
All this is just a roundabout way of getting to the central point: no-one knows what the future holds. Perhaps this will mark a turning point, where Southwestern American ideology is forcibly exported to the rest of the world. Thanks to the global reach of the internet, the ability of anyone to now print a gun in, say, relatively gun-free Europe may mean an unstoppable spread of American ideals of â€˜freedom' unseen since the â€˜liberation' of the Middle East.
On the other hand, Wilson may yet see his dream blow up in his face. Faced with a deluge of printed weaponry - perhaps spurred on by an atrocity committed with one such weapon - global governments may seize the chance to enact the sort of internet-monitoring laws they've long hoped for. What we may yet see is a world where all internet activity is consistently monitored to stop the downloading of such weapons. If that happens, Wilson may yet come to regret his actions.
In the end, we can't say what the future of 3D printing will bring. But it will no doubt be as earth-shattering as the invention of the internet, if not even more so.
Ben Forrester is a technical analyst and writer at online office supplies and printer ink cartridge stockists, PrinterInks.com.