On the fourth floor of the Soho House on Wednesday night, in the screening room, away from the noise of the city at dusk, it would have been easy to miss him. Hair closely cropped, dressed in a button down pale blue shirt, taken in, like everyone else in the room, by the wide velvet embrace of his armchair, quietly munching on a sandwich, sat the 25-year-old we had come to learn more about: Cody Wilson, law student, Zizek fan, self-declared “principled anarchist”, and, according to Wired, one of the 15 most dangerous people in the world. If this was the revolution, it came with very unassuming hair.
Standing near Wilson was a small group, some of them filmmakers who were there to screen Click. Print. Gun., the documentary they have just completed for Vice’s tech channel, Motherboard, on Wilson’s ambitious and controversial project to distribute, via open source, the file needed to create a printable 3D gun. “Do you think I should stop eating this sandwich?” he asked them. “Yeah, it’d probably look weird if people started walking in and you were eating a sandwich,” one of them replied. Wilson nodded and packed his dinner away. Anarchism, it seems, is no match for conventional sandwich etiquette.
A couple of viewers filed in. The Vice group turned back to their conversation. At one point, Wilson interjected that he’d like to make a documentary about the people staffing the entrance to the Soho House. “They were so self-important!” he said, suddenly brightening.
That rage — against, not for, order — filters through into Click. Print. Gun., which has now reached 2 million views on YouTube and sets Wilson’s techspeak-inflected jeremiads against government and regulation against a soundtrack of pulsing, Irreversible-like menace. Sprinkled through the film’s hard rain of political invective are multiple scenes showing Wilson, in open countryside, testing the semi-automatic rifle he and his Defense Distributed collective have succeeded in printing.
The film screened to a mostly silent room, with the occasional, isolated outbreak of staccato, slightly terrified laughter. Wilson’s project is an exercise in classic libertarianism: The objective is to defeat the intrusion of government’s apparatus of surveillance and control into the realm of personal liberty. Wilson wants, he says, to make a point about the porousness of “legal regimes of control”, to show that the gun control debate as presently conceived is futile, since technology will always be more nimble than regulation. This general point about regulation has been made before, in many other areas (most recently, within the context of government’s ability to regulate the financial industry). So why bother making it again?
“This is a symbol of reversibility, that you can never eradicate the gun from the earth,” Wilson told a slightly taken-aback Glenn Beck during an interview earlier this year. “I do it because I don’t believe process is the way to preserve liberty. I don’t believe in Romney versus Obama — I believe in real politics. That’s a real political act, giving you a magazine, and telling you that that will never be taken away. That wasn’t true [before], and now it’s a fact of life. It’s a fact of history. That’s real politics. That’s radical equality. That’s what I believe in.”
Um, what? Much of what passes for dialogue in Click. Print. Gun. unfolds in a similar mold to this Beck extract: a multiple-round concatenation of anti-government rage and windy paeans to personal freedom. This is the traditional rhetorical eyrie of the angry, disenfranchised single white male. But that’s the thing: Wilson, in person, does not seem angry. On the contrary, he seems astonishingly self-assured, quick-witted, normal, even affable.
As the lights came up at the end of the screening, Wilson bounded from his armchair and challenged those in the room to ask “whatever you want”. In his interview with Wilson last year, Beck had concluded, “I can’t tell whether you’re my friend or my foe.” (It’s a rare achievement when you leave the darling of the Tea Party unsettled.) Here a similar sentiment prevailed: The questions were polite, or obscure, or somehow cautious (don’t piss off the guy with the gun!).
Wilson described his project as a “non-utopian” attempt to show, quite simply, that a printable gun could in point of fact be made. He spoke with great confidence and at great speed, the speed perhaps lending his speech an air of deceptive profundity; often, Wilson came across as a man who has mastered the art of speaking very quickly while saying very little.
At one point he cited Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher of simulation and hyperreality best known for his 1991 book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, as an inspiration. Listening to this, it was hard not to feel, as The New York Times reporter Nick Bilton suggests in Click. Print. Gun., that Wilson’s project is a straightforwardly predictable quest for youthful celebrity — with Wilson himself as the Honey Boo Boo of the Second Amendment brigade. Amid the babble of Post-structuralism 101 references (“There’s a guy named Michel Foucault; I recommend that you read him some time,” Wilson had counseled Beck), a suspicion emerged: Here is a man who speaks of Baudrillard with the zeal of someone flush from first contact with the Wikipedia entry on postwar French philosophy.
But scan the internet and you see that Wilson cannot be dismissed so lightly. Or can he? In one video, he labels himself, borrowing from the work of Slovenian philosopher-iconoclast Slavoj Zizek, as a “virtue-terrorist”. It’s one thing to drop a name; it’s another to have genuine, deep knowledge of an intellectual school that goes beyond the superficially impressive. Just as anyone with a 3D printer can make themselves a gun, anyone with access to google can style themselves a Zizekian virtue-terrorist. The democracy of the internet’s a bitch.
But this philoso-babble may be beside the point. New technologies, as even the laziest student of history will know, are eminently corruptible, susceptible to diversion into ends far beyond those originally sought. The invention of the 3D printer has elicited considerable excitement, as the notion of disrupting traditional chains of manufacturing, product supply and consumption surely must. President Obama referred to 3D printing as “the next revolution in manufacturing” in his recent State of the Union address. But according to Wilson, the 3D printer shouldn’t just be about producing “innocuous trinkets and garden gnomes”. Someone, he says, needs to unlock the printer’s truly revolutionary potential, and demonstrate its capacity for violence. And that someone is Cody Wilson. Does that make him more Gutenberg than Honey Boo Boo? The documentary, perhaps wisely, leaves this question unanswered.
Beck, in his January interview, asked Wilson an obvious question: Does he have any concerns over the ends to which this kind of technology can be put? “We’re doing this project and using this tech as a form of resistance,” the virtue-terrorist replied. “Of course we have concerns at the end of the day, but we see liberty under threat; we see sovereignty under threat. We must respond.” We must respond. It’s easy to laugh at Wilson when he comes over all Rosa Luxemburg on us like this, mouthing, with the urgency of the drastically undersexed, lines that would struggle to make the grade in a Steven Seagal script.
But in an “Ask Me Anything” forum hosted by Reddit on Thursday, Wilson claimed this was all part of the act. Elsewhere he was keen to dial down the apocalyptic, anarchist action hero movie rhetoric. He stressed that monetary gain is not a viable objective for his project, which relies on donations for support (“I don’t see a clear path to money, to be honest”); forum users pointed to the other, more benign uses (pharmaceuticals, prosthetics) that Wilson-style open source democratization of 3D printing could enable. But his venture’s innate theatricality returned as a theme throughout the thread. One Reddit member asked: “I understand your point, but you kind of seem like a douche. What, exactly, are you trying to prove?” Wilson replied: “Being uncompromising and douchey is, to be honest, a decision I made early about the personality I thought this project should have. Unapologetic, open to discourse sure, but contemptuous of politicians in the extreme.”
We come back to Baudrillard. I’m a douche, but I’m a douche on purpose. This is the failed high school playwright’s defense: “My play’s not funny but that’s the point: The fact that it’s not funny is funny in itself. It’s satire, man.” Technology has liberated Wilson to build a public persona as a renegade, sneering douchebag because, well, that’s the point.
The 3D printer, in this iteration, might not just spark a revolution in manufacturing; it might also end up providing the crutch to the greatest piece of political performance art of this new century. But that still leaves undisturbed the common revulsion that many people feel when confronted by the idea that you may soon be able to download a file off the internet and print, with no independent labor or real effort, a semi-automatic assault rifle in the privacy of your own living room.
“So, how do you sleep at night?” one Reddit user asked on Thursday. “Like a baby,” Wilson responded, no doubt with an ominous, heartbeat bassline thumping dimly in the background.