Every now and then there are glimmers of Washington’s inability to keep pace with the speed of social, economic and cultural change, and there was a good example yesterday. As the Sunday shows were full of talk about another try on gun legislation, news broke Monday that a company has manufactured a plastic gun with a 3-D printer. The manufacturer gushed, “Anywhere there’s a computer and an Internet connection, there would be the promise of a gun.” Well, not quite. You still need the printer, which costs about $8,000. But, as with all other electronics, the price probably will fall dramatically. Critics already perceived the recent gun bill to be inadequate to the challenge of gun violence; criminals and psychopaths need only wait for the printers to get cheaper before they can make all sorts of evil in their basements. And Congress will still be chasing the gun shows.
The 3-D printers are just one example of the acceleration in change that is upon us and that threatens to overwhelm our capacity to manage. These printers promise all sorts of revolutionary changes, including the ability to “print” human tissue to create a living, transplantable ear that could help those disfigured by burns or other accidents; another project has successfully used printers to help create small human livers as a step to creating the real thing, ready for transplant. The economic, ethical and social implications of our ability to manipulate human life and reproduce it wholesale is profound. Is government ready for this? It seems no; too often our democratic institutions are still tilting at windmills that long ago became turbines.