Monday, May 11, 2015

Printed Guns and Siren Servers

Cody Wilson is in the news again.  Two years ago this week he made headlines (and my blog) by posting online plans for making a working gun with 3-D printing technology.  When the U. S. State Department found out, it sent him a stern warning to take down the information or face severe penalties for exporting controlled weapons technology.  According to the New York Times, Mr. Wilson tried to comply at first, filling out reams of paperwork with the aid of lawyers.  In turn, the State Department was supposed to issue a ruling about whether he could go back online with his plans within 60 days.

That was two years ago, and Mr. Wilson still hasn't received a decision from the State Department about his application.  Now Mr. Wilson's company, Defense Distributed, has sued the government for restraint of free speech.  Saying that he has been singled out for political reasons, he wants a Federal judge to lift the State Department online ban on his 3-D-printing plans for guns. 

On the face of it, this looks like a fairly straightforward free-speech issue with a techie twist:  a libertarian-inclined individual trying to make information free, versus the backward-looking giant regulatory regime of the government.  But Jaron Lanier would say otherwise. 

Who is Jaron Lanier?  It's hard to summarize him.  He looks like one of those dreadlocked ne'er-do-well musician types you see around Austin who eke out a living doing something like playing ancient reconstructed musical instruments such as Greek lyres.  And that is indeed one of his favorite activities.  But he was also an early player in the field of virtual reality back in the 1980s, hanging around with the likes of MIT artificial-intelligence whiz Marvin Minsky, and eventually becoming a consultant to the Silicon Valley crowd and a high-tech entrepreneur.  He has written a book called Who Owns the Future? which I'm still reading, but I've gotten far enough to recognize in Cody Wilson's doings a pattern that Lanier describes very well. 

It's a pattern that helps explain a lot of things, ranging from the success of network giants like Google and Facebook down to why you can't find a good manufacturing job in the U. S. anymore.  Lanier calls it the domination of the "Siren Server."

A server, of course, is the set of machines that power network presences such as Google and Facebook.  The Sirens, as the ancient Greek poet Homer described them, were beautiful women who delighted in singing intoxicatingly sweet songs to sailors who strayed near their island, which was surrounded by treacherous waters littered with wrecked ships.  To fall victim to a siren song is to get pulled into a scheme that looks attractive at first, but turns out to be disastrous in the end.

Lanier calls a Siren Server any networking scheme that ends up enriching the server operator who concentrates information gained from a large population at the expense of that population, who initially think they are getting something for free.  But sooner or later, it turns out that somebody—usually a whole lot of somebodies except for the Siren Server operator and a few of his friends—is indirectly harmed economically by the Siren Server's success.  The classic example Lanier uses is the transition from a music industry based on mechanical copies of CDs to one based on digital copies.  After the dust settled, many of the middle-class types who were formerly able to make a living in music were out of jobs as the industry shrank to about a quarter of its former size, and the only people still earning substantial sums in the industry were a few superstars and Siren Servers such as iTunes. 

What has all this got to do with Cody Wilson?  It's pretty clear that Mr. Wilson wants to run a Siren Server of his own devising.  His goal is to be the iTunes of 3-D-printed weaponry.  And in his view, the stupid State Department is sitting on his plans and blocking his way.  So he's suing, and claiming that his First Amendment rights of free speech are being violated.  Under the popular Silicon Valley slogan of "information should be free," Wilson portrays himself as a nimble good-guy David, the libertarian freedom fighter, versus the slow-moving bad-guy Goliath of government regulation.

Lanier would say, "Not so fast."  It usually turns out that when information is "freed" in the sense usually meant by wannabe Siren Server operators, it means that they want to offer information in exchange for learning tiny bits of data about their user base.  The real money comes from aggregating these bits of data into a form that attracts advertisers and others who will pay for the use of that knowledge. 

Let's imagine that Mr. Wilson does indeed become the iTunes of the business of weapons 3-D-printing.  Instead of lots of little and medium-size gun makers around the world, you might have Defense Distributed and a proliferation of steadily cheaper 3-D printers that can make guns.  Eventually, the gun market collapses as weapons that formerly cost hundreds of dollars to make now go for much less because of the competition from 3-D printed guns.  Why buy one when you can print it yourself?  But to make them, you have to pay Defense Distributed, either directly to get the plans or indirectly through fees charged for the right kind of printer, etc.  One way or another, the dominant Siren Server cashes in on its dominance at the expense of risk and unemployment radiated to the wider economy.

Should Cody Wilson be allowed to post his gun plans online?  I personally think it's pointless to stop him, if for no other reason than somebody else in a less regulated country is going to do it sooner or later (or maybe already has), and we might as well keep the new form of gun industry local.  (Austin is only 35 miles up the road from where I live, after all.)  But according to Jaron Lanier, it's an oversimplification to see in this conflict nothing more than a free-speech issue, or a freedom-of-information issue.  It's one more example of an infant Siren Server trying to grow up and disrupt an entire industry.  And as I hope to finish Lanier's book and find out his solution to the problem, you'll probably hear more about it later in this space.

Sources:  The article "Cody Wilson, Who Posted Gun Instructions Online, Sues State Department" appeared in the May 7, 2015 online edition of the New York Times at  Jaron Lanier's book Who Owns the Future? was published in 2013 by Simon and Schuster.  My blog post "Printing Guns" appeared on May 13, 2013. 

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