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Controversy by Design

18 September 2013

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) recently acquired several 3D printed handguns. The so-called Liberator, designed by Cody Wilson, is now on display at the museum as part of the London Design Festival (until 22 September). It is tempting to dismiss this eyebrow-raising debut as a mere publicity stunt. However, the object itself demands further consideration.

At first glance, Wilson’s design seems rather artless. The dismantled and unadorned components, rendered in grey and white plastic, bear an uneasy resemblance to an Airfix toy. But this was always an exercise in simplification, and as such the Liberator has an undeniable, if utilitarian, elegance.

The ‘wiki weapon’ is a potent reminder that technology can outstretch social parameters and legal frameworks. It is also, irrefutably, an example of design at the cutting edge (or, rather, at the smoking barrel).

Britain has a less ambivalent relationship to firearms than America, and the prospect of ‘free guns for all’ is widely seen as the stuff of nightmares. But for this reason the impact of 3D printed guns on our society could be all the more profound.

(2013), Cody Wilson / Defence Distributed

‘Liberator’ gun (2013), Cody Wilson / Defence Distributed

The Liberator was a turning point for the 3D printer – a watershed moment when a new technology lost its aspirational sheen and the sheer magnitude of its potential, both good and bad, was laid bare for all to see. The same happened with powered flight, television and, of course, the internet.

This was also true of the original printing press. Johannes Guttenberg’s innovations were a landmark in the ongoing democratisation of the word. His efforts were widely praised, but they also struck fear into the hearts of his detractors. ‘The pen is a virgin, the printing press a whore’, declared Filippo di Strata, a particularly sceptical 16th-century Venetian monk.

Technologies that potentially relinquish power to the masses are cause for perennial panic because of a lamentable, but not entirely illogical, fear of a lack of individual responsibility and a belief in the banality of evil.

Due to the ever-increasing availability of 3D printers, the festival’s tagline, ‘Design is Everywhere’, now feels like a rather foreboding prophecy. But before we start burning printers in the street, we would do well to remember that society has always adapted, self-regulated and endured technological advancement.

I have no doubt that this particular prototype will become quickly obsolete, a curiosity of history and a peculiarly sharp needle in the V&A’s ample haystacks. But Wilson’s gun will remain a compelling symbol of our uncertain relationship to new technologies. As such, I can think of no better place to consign the profoundly unpleasant Liberator to posterity than the South Kensington museum.

‘The London Design Festival’ is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum and other locations across London until 22 September 2013.