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The Professor Who Printed a Handgun

3d-gunPeople have often seen cyberspace as separate from the physical world. But technologies like the augmented reality of Google Glass or the desktop manufacturing of three-dimensional printing are blurring that line. As the digital and physical converge, the results will have “a transformational effect on the nature of human experience,” says Matt Ratto, a critical-information scholar at the University of Toronto.

For starters, people will be able to print gun parts.

Mr. Ratto drove home that reality recently in an academic project that has provoked widespread discussion across Canada. Using the 3-D printer in his critical-making lab, housed at the university’s Robarts Library, he printed a nonworking handgun. It’s called the “Liberator.” Mr. Ratto and his colleagues assembled it from plastic components that were produced from a blueprint downloaded off the Web.

They built the gun as part of a project on “the increasing hybridity of the virtual/material world.” But the scholars also had another motivation: to engage in a debate about problems associated with the 3-D printing of weapons. The “techno-fetishists” enamored with the technology have mostly ignored those issues, Mr. Ratto says, even as policy makers talk about regulating 3-D printing.

“The issues associated with these things are having real-world importance,” Mr. Ratto says. “How do you regulate a 3-D-printed gun? What counts as possession of a gun? Does ownership or possession of the 3-D model of a Liberator handgun count as possession of a handgun? Probably not. But does possession of the model and possession of the infrastructure necessary to print one count? Where do we draw the dividing line?”

He adds, “This is just the start of a whole set of issues that go beyond 3-D printing, but basically have to do with this increasing hybridity of digital and material worlds.”

The gun itself is not new. Mr. Ratto got the blueprint from Defense Distributed, a widely publicized nonprofit group founded by a University of Texas at Austin law student named Cody R. Wilson. The Liberator was successfully test-fired in May.

But before folks get too anxious—they’re printing guns on campus!—a couple of caveats.

One: The gun, which has been removed from the library, is a deliberately disabled version of the Liberator. And two: Printing a gun is not easy. Attempts to do so have faced technical difficulties. Mr. Ratto’s project took 27 hours, a fair amount of computer know-how, a $50,000 printer, and $300 worth of plastic.

“This type of 3-D printing equipment—it’s not the Star Trek replicator,” says Mr. Ratto, an assistant professor and the director of the critical-making lab in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.

So what’s “critical making”?

The idea is that, in order to study emerging technologies, people should physically engage in creating them. The goal is not to build better gadgets. It’s to understand how technologies fit into society. Mr. Ratto sees critical making as a bridge between the study of technology that goes on in humanities and social-science circles, and the engineering work typically conducted outside that world. He’s part of a group of scholars pursuing similar approaches. Their work goes by a variety of names: critical design, adversarial design, participatory design, speculative computing.

“We’re really interested in the claims that are made about 3-D printing,” Mr. Ratto says. “The 3-D printing of the gun—we did that in order to take ourselves through the process, not just to examine what other people had done but to see from our own embodied perspectives what it felt like, what types of work were required, how was the result seen and experienced. And what kind of conversation would it kick off.”

[Photo courtesy of the critical-making lab, Faculty of Information, U. of Toronto.]

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