When I first started using computers in the early nineties, I was amazed that you could use the shiny new technology to print greeting cards right in your own home. Now, in a clear sign of just how far our tools have come, you can "print" a working hand gun.
The weapon in question is the Liberator, and can be created using something called a 3-D printer, a machine that uses computer blueprints to produce three-dimensional objects by layering plastic. Though the process was first employed to make the simplest of objects, as a long and deeply disturbing piece from Forbes recently described, it has now advanced enough to be able to create an actual, deadly firearm.
The implications are obviously huge. Like many digital files, blueprints are easily available online, and though 3-D printers capable of making the gun are still comparatively expensive, less advanced devices are already going for a mere $2,000. It sounds like science-fiction or scaremongering, but a reality in which guns can be downloaded and printed at will is shockingly close.
Rather than simply entering some nightmare vision of the future, however, the idea of printing guns is actually a sign that digital tech's Wild West era is now over. We will increasingly see our computers, phones and other forms of technology like 3-D printing subject to a variety of new laws and rules. And far from being an unfortunate sign of over-regulation or the end of the unfettered Internet, judiciously controlling when, where and how we use tech will only make things better and safer.
Thus far, we've mostly been enamoured with the do-it-yourself feel of digital technology because it's so often felt empowering. You can now use the Web and computers to do everything from filing your taxes or teaching yourself French, to reporting on the news or making apps that reach thousands. It often seems digital has enabled individuals to retake control of their own lives and, as a result, the free-for-all, hands-off approach to technology has remained popular, especially among technology geeks themselves.
However, all new technology has to eventually be subject to some restraint. Just as the printing press gave rise to copyright and expanded libel laws to deal with the new capacity to spread ideas, so too must digital tech face similar legal control. The stark example of a plastic gun has already prompted lawmakers in America to call for the ban of such technology, and though it will be very complex and difficult to implement effectively, such thoughts are step in the right direction.
Several recent trends and news items have served to heighten the feeling that digital tools must be subject to some kind of control. The awful events around Rehtaeh Parsons' death have prompted Nova Scotia to look into preventing or criminalizing the malicious circulation of explicit images. Google's forthcoming Glass product, which will have an inconspicuous camera in its eyeglass frames, is prompting calls for controls over when and where the device can be used. There has even been talk of musicians banning smartphones from concerts so that people simply enjoy the moment. As digital machines become more common and more powerful – and their effects extend beyond just convenience and individual empowerment – it's clear that people are starting to recognize that simply saying "anything goes" no longer suffices.
It is not true, however, that simply because people call for the regulation of technology out of fear or misunderstanding, it should happen. Nor should we try and legislate against the use of things simply to maintain a familiar status quo. Instead, what the 3-D printed gun example shows is that lawmakers should look to criminalize certain uses of technology, rather than banning certain devices outright, or attempting the impossible task of erasing certain things off the Internet. Balance is key, and certainly, it will be extremely complicated and require a remarkably deft hand to juggle the demands of liberty with legitimate concerns about safety, privacy, policing and law. By the same token, doing nothing simply isn't an option.
Because ultimately, what guides our discussion about the regulation of technology should not be "what technology wants" or "how the Internet works." Such ideas often assume that the Web has a logic of its own that we must submit to, as if the nature of the Internet isn't a result of people making real choices. Instead, our concern should be how our use of technology should be adapted, constrained and channelled to help us, the people whom these tools are meant to serve.