Four Horsemen of the 3D Printing Apocalypse

3D Printing & Imaging

Cory Doctorow Make Free Volume 25
Cory Doctorow Make Free

Charles Stross’ excellent new novel, Rule 34 (Ace Books), is a futuristic police procedural set in a near-future Edinburgh, in which 3D printing has become boringly ubiquitous.

You can buy safe, prepackaged 3D printers at the local housewares shop, and they’re handy for whipping up generic replacement parts for broken appliances (at one point a character drops and cracks his wife’s cherished German onion slicer and realizes he’ll have to google for a 3D file to match the broken piece) or paid-for 3D files licensed from big media companies.

These printers are controlled by DRM that checks jobs against a blacklist of forbidden shapes and prevents them from being output if they match (presumably there’s some loose matching algorithm in use that can get past ruses like simple changes to the shape).

Of course, this doesn’t work. The bad guys handily outmaneuver the prohibitionists, and a black market springs up, producing such wicked marvels as solid-state meth labs, brass knuckles made from super-hard polymers, and X-ray-invisible, nonferrous stick-up knives.

I think Stross’ speculation on the future of 3D printing gets the shape right, even if the details might not match exactly. Since the early days of computer regulation, hysterics have made recourse to the “Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse”: child pornographers, organized crime, terrorists, and pirates. Invoking one or more of these terrible fellows is often sufficient to stifle further debate and end critical thought (“Won’t someone think of the children?!”).

It’s not that bad guys don’t use our beloved machines to do bad things. But a prohibition against running certain programs is a nonstarter. In practice, a computer’s owner can, with sufficient technical knowledge (or access to a large, searchable database of general knowledge, such as the internet), trivially unlock her device so that it can execute any valid program.

But when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. In Stross’ world, as in our own, the regulatory response is to build devices that have internal snitches that check to see if their owners are running naughty unlocking programs. And in Stross’ world, as in our own, the need to prevent the dissemination of snitchware countermeasures leads to widespread surveillance and censorship of the internet.

And in Stross’ world, as in ours, none of this actually works worth a damn at stopping bad guys. Instead, it creates a vicious cycle of more surveillance and more control to overcome the failings of the current round of censorship and surveillance.

Rule 34 abounds with imaginative horrors about the potential for technology to do bad, and as imaginative as Stross is, I’m guessing that the real thing will be even ickier.

We need real solutions to the bad stuff that people come up with when they get technology. The first step to finding a real solution is to stop doing things that don’t work.

Cory Doctorow’s latest novel is Makers (Tor Books U.S., HarperVoyage U.K.). He lives in London and co-edits the website Boing Boing.

NOTE: This column first appeared in MAKE Volume 27 (July 2011), page 31.

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16 thoughts on “Four Horsemen of the 3D Printing Apocalypse

  1. Anonymous says:    I recommend you see here! Perhaps you can find what you want!

  2. Seth DuBose says:

    Rule 34…seriously?

  3. Jim H. says:

    It saddens me to see Make continually promoting a demagogue.  CD has not provided anything constructive to the community besides his standard leftist rantings.  As a societal leech, we need to discourage his behavior, not give him a column.

  4. Jim H. says:

    It saddens me to see Make continually promoting a demagogue.  CD has not provided anything constructive to the community besides his standard leftist rantings.  As a societal leech, we need to discourage his behavior, not give him a column.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Technologists should think beyond the simple ‘because we can’ and consider the downsides of their tech. I, for one, applaud MAKE for being willing to look at the social impact. Cory does seem to have one drum at present. I encourage him to get a full kit, and maybe MAKE should get a band. (stretching metaphors)

    The current culture of surveillance, censorship and heavy handed control is NOT bringing about the publicly expressed goals used to gain initial support. (eg video cameras reduce crime) It is doing a lot of other things, including many of things the original opponents warned about (misuse of databases for personal gain).  Alternatives should be explored and promoted.However, I am not sure The Powers That Be would be all that willing to give up their new tools.  The initial anti-piracy goals may not succeed. Shoring up old busine$$ models just because they exist (and contribute to candidates) is not a good way to promote for future businesses (and new contributions).  But I fear TPTB may have seen “1984”, “Metropolis” and other works of fiction as model Utopias for the elite.

  6. Anonymous says:

    3D printing technology has become boringly ubiquitous. In the local household goods stores, you can buy safe, pre-packed three-dimensional printer.

    custom envelope printing

  7. Mark Wilson says:

    you can’t stop the misuse of a tool, the same mill that makes a hundred plows can make a sword.

  8. Jason says:

    Hm.  Sounds just like gun control laws.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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