Recently, the U.S. federal government settled a landmark case.
Back in 2013, with the advent of mainstream 3-D printing technology, Texan Cody Wilson came up with a way to literally print a working firearm (if the necessary metal components were added). He made the schematic free on the internet.
Within days (but after 100,000 downloads), the federal government ordered the plans taken offline. Wilson obeyed but sued the government for infringement of First (and Second) amendment rights.
Under the terms of the settlement, he won.
In response, Wilson tweeted an image of a gravestone marked “American Gun Control.”
It’s hard to not believe him, and this specific issue of gun control is in line with a host of others that will need to be reassessed with new technologies.
It’s long been understood that when there’s a social ill, the government should impose a law to curb the occurrences of the ill. The problem with this system today is that technology is undermining the power of law — in increasing fashion.
Three-dimensional printing is just one technology weakening the power of governments.
Consider how the internet has complicated efforts to regulate gambling, prostitution and music/film piracy. In the days of backroom card games, alleys to find a lady of the night and CDs to burn, laws had more power because law enforcement officers had places to get the perpetrators or confiscate the goods. But now such arrangements — if not the illicit activity itself — can be done without leaving one’s home.
The list goes on: drug laws in these days of synthetic drug production and darknet transactions, campaign finance laws in the days of anonymous cryptocurrencies and immigration laws in the days of teleportation. (Just kidding about that last item. We’re not there — yet.)
So, what good are anti-piracy laws, if I can download a movie of my choice with minimal risk?
And what good are anti-gun laws, if anyone can make their own firearm at home?
To be sure, such areas of law haven’t lost all their teeth. Anti-piracy legislation has slowed what once was a tidal wave of song- and video-sharing. And perhaps the U.S. government (or specific states) will write new laws regulating 3-D printers. Who knows?
But the writing is already on the wall (despite scrambling congresspeople trying to prevent the release of Wilson’s gun schematic).
In these days of rapid, vast, decentralized communication, the idea of policing information transference (whether financial, data or conversation) is becoming impractical. As our lives migrate onto the internet, government as we know it — as a shaper of social activity — is showing its age. Compared with the pace at which such technology is advancing, government can’t keep up. As such, and accelerating its declining importance, government is an institution that has also ceased attracting the best and brightest among our population.
This alarms some, because a weaker government means people with bad intentions getting away with bad actions. It alarms others, because our political systems are less able to shape society in ways these folks wish they could. (Those who like to say, “There should be a law against that!”) Finally, for many people, this may alarm them because it presents a paradigm shift in the way we will need to look at our society.
If government can’t work to make problems go away, where does that leave us?
I believe it leaves us, as citizens, responsible for doing our part to keep our communities safe and clean, to donate to causes in need or projects we enjoy, and then to see the accumulation of our positive actions do more to address persistent social ills than a law could.
We already know government has failed at fixing social ills such as drug abuse, poverty, violence, etc. (In some of these cases, government action has made them worse.) I believe we civilians can collectively step up to the plate and make a real difference. This new era of technologically induced, de-emphasized government will require us to do so.
At the same time, representing perhaps the other side of this coin, technology will make some laws unnecessary by fixing social problems as well.
Rather than debating the legal limit to drink and drive, as well as how to handle perpetrators, we get to instead see how ride-sharing smartphone apps and self-driving cars remedy this social ill. The same can be said about the prohibition of selling one’s bodily organs when we can 3D-print kidneys, or fishing regulations in the days of lab-grown meat.
Instead of having to write laws and debate morality to try to change behavior, technologies will simply remove the need for debate altogether. This phenomenon, combined with a population more responsible for their communities and for each other, means the future looks bright.
Brandon Ferdig is a Minnesota writer, videographer and speaker. He shares his work at ThePeriphery.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.