A science fiction short story written many years ago narrated the efforts by human colonists to eradicate vermin they found on their newly settled world. The environment on that distant planet were so harsh that the evolution of its indigenous species were orders of magnitude faster than on earth. But no one was worried. The colony had weapons.
Yet each time the settlers would create a new extermination device the vermin would mutate to something more formidable. The story ends with the colonists suspending their anti-vermin campaign in dismay. The reason? The vermin was evolving into something very like a man.
The final line was something like “we can beat this. But it’s what comes after that worries me.” That phrase should have occurred to the State Department officials who have ordered the removal of downloadable plans to print 3D guns. “Defense Distributed, an organization that recently released open-source plans for a 3-D printed gun, received a letter from the U.S. State Department to remove the plans. ”
The end product, a plastic firearm with the lethality of a World War 2 era zip gun, was not especially formidable. Yet the unspoken thought of authorities must have been ”we can beat this.But it’s what comes after that worries me.” These forebodings must apply even more pertinently to any advanced process of transforming abstract ideas into physical objects. It is that technology rather than the specific application of earliest forms to firearms manufacture that should be of concern.
A plastic zip gun isn’t much of an objective threat. You can buy something much more lethal and far cheaper at your neighborhood sporting goods store. However the horizons opened up by the underlying technology are truly consequential. For knowledge is application-neutral. Anything that can be used to build can be used to destroy, every agency of healing is potentially a lethal weapon. From the day Prometheus seized fire he acquired the means to burn himself. The Center for Strategic and International Affairs described the general problem of knowledge using biochemistry as an example:
Research with dangerous pathogens is inescapably dual-use. Any effort to create countermeasures to anthrax or smallpox, for example, requires intensive work with that pathogen – work that could easily be a precursor to the creation of biological weapons. The ambiguity between civilian and military research was the Soviet cover for their extensive biological weapons program, and this fine line continues to arouse suspicion among some about U.S. biodefense research.
Distributed manufacturing techniques, including cooperative chemistry and incidipent nano-technology are inescapably dual use. In fact the worst recorded cases of modern terrorism never used a firearm. The attackers on September 11 used box cutters. Jim Jones used a poisoned Kool-Aid. Shoko Ashara manufactured Sarin. Timothy McVeigh’s weapon of choice was fertilizer. The Boston Bombers wreaked their mayhem with nothing but pressure cookers and black powder.
Their real weapon was not the box cutter. It was knowledge. For a choice of enemies pick a paranoid illiterate holed up in a mountain cabin with a rifle and six cases of beans over an MIT engineering graduate out to kill the world any day of the week. The MIT grad doesn’t even need a background check to get the knowledge. You download the information from one of America’s flagship universities with government money — and then you are the 3D printer.
Aafia Siddiqui is a Pakistani who studied neuroscience in the United States. She emigrated to the U.S. in 1990 and obtained a Ph.D. in 2001 from Brandeis University … Siddiqui returned to Pakistan in 2002, before disappearing with her three young children in March 2003 … Her whereabouts were reported to have been unknown for more than five years until she was arrested in July 2008 in Afghanistan. Upon her arrest, the Afghan police said she was carrying in her purse handwritten notes and a computer thumb drive containing recipes for conventional bombs and weapons of mass destruction, instructions on how to make machines to shoot down U.S. drones, descriptions of New York City landmarks with references to a mass casualty attack, and two pounds of sodium cyanide in a glass jar.
We can handle Siddiqui. We can handle the plastic gun. But to paraphrase the science fiction story “it’s what comes after that worries me.” The problem with knowledge is that its proper employment is not a function of pure science. It is a function of cultural morality and governance. Why do people worry about a North Korean nuclear bomb and not a Canadian one? Canadian technology is far superior to North Koreas, but there is general confidence in its ethical capacity to control the employment of that capability while there is probably none whatever for North Korea.
Just as it is not the gun but the man that kills, it is the man and not knowledge that provides safety. When J.Robert Oppenheimer ruefully watched his creation the light up the New Mexican desert he reflected that the only remaining bar to our self-destruction was intent, not capability. That will be truer in 2045 than in 1945.
The question is either how to prevent 2045 from rolling around or discovering a way to live with our dangerous minds.
What technological advancement has done is shifted the problem of proliferation downwards. Where formerly we used to worry about proliferation among states we must now worry about the spread of means among individuals. And yet we have almost completely dismantled the human context of modern Western life.
Every man is a client. Only the crazies still think “you built that”. People now expect to be stopped since the capacity to stop ourselves is increasingly disparaged with each passing year. We have right to be stopped. The modern cry is “why didn’t you keep me from buying a gun at Walmart and shooting my kids?” Well, why indeed.
Stop me from eating trans-fats buying big gulp cokes. Defend me from myself.
People expect to be saved during an emergency crisis. In fact many urban dwellers don’t even know if there’s a nurse, a doctor or a serial killer who lives in their apartment building. Why should they care? It’s someone else’s problem, isn’t it?
People expect to be defended. If two homicidal Chechen teenagers are on the loose, then the logical thing to do is “shelter in place”. That’s what any ‘resilient’ society should strive for.
At every turn it’s someone else’s lookout. One of the most disturbing aspects of the Boston Bombing was no one in the Tsarnaev’s immediate circle of friends or family seemed to think it was their job to blow the whistle on the bombers. Why should it be different for anything else?
Anyway attempts to ban the storage of 3D gun printing plans will be defied by peer to peer sharing network almost as surely as they will be hosted on some offshore server or transferred to some thumb drive the likes of Aafia Siddiqui had. Gone are the days when some guy with a fedora would intone, “one thing’s for sure. Inspector Clay’s dead … murdered … and someone’s responsible.”
Nobody’s responsible any more. WH Auden knew what it felt like to fall into a pit. Not a physical but a virtual one. Into a dark shaft bereft of handholds and which we have never repaired.
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!” A killer angel.