Not Print Print Bang Bang: 3d printed guns and the illusion of digital immateriality

Recently, in the Critical Making lab we printed a nonworking version of the Defense Distributed 3d model ‘liberator’ handgun. To be precise we printed a disabled version of the gun as part of a project on the increasing hybridity of the virtual/material world and the role of 3D printing more generally. We did so publicly (link to Globe and Mail story here) in order to initiate an open conversation on issues related to 3D printing and guns and to hopefully engage law enforcement, regulators, policy makers, and 3D printing advocates in developing a measured rather than a knee-jerk response to the perceived problems associated with 3D printing. That an open conversation is necessary was brought home to us by recent calls by both conservative and democratic politicians in the US for regulation of 3D printers.

We are certainly interested in facilitating and extending the current debates and are hopeful that we can work with authorities to address concerns. However, we also want to be clear that the gun is just a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for a whole slew of important theoretical and pragmatic information issues. Our work is not on firearms or the functionality of 3D printed guns per se, but addresses the limitations of our capacity to engage and think about them. We are primarily interested in the increasingly tenuous dividing line between our mundane and physically embodied existence and the seemingly separate and virtual modes associated with digital technologies. Recent debates regarding the material nature of information have been given a new locus given the development of working 3D printable guns. Our reason for printing the gun was simply to take note of this new recentering and to explore the issues from a number of different perspectives.

More specifically, the law and other formal and informal entities are used to treating ‘the digital’ and ‘the physical’ as two entirely separate worlds. We have been encouraged to think this way by a whole variety of individuals and institutions, including both libertarian (e.g. John Perry Barlow’s famous ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’) and conservative voices (e.g. reasoning regarding the DMCA in the US,) depending on need. Over the last few decades, a lot of work has been done to encourage the idea that information is immaterial, that form and content can be separated, that the medium is just a neutral channel for transmission. (Mcluhan was prescient in calling attention to the limits of this idea!)

Matthew Kirshenbaum has noted that “computers are unique in the history of writing technologies in that they present a pre-meditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality”. 3D printing calls attention to this fallacy – and the 3d printed gun is only one example of this, albeit a particularly evocative one. Other examples of this fallacy include the idea that all information (not just the computational) is similarly immaterial. This results in the idea that once books and other textual materials have been scanned and digital versions have been created, the physical ‘versions’ can simply be thrown away since all value resides in the ‘informational’ content and that has been captured. While librarians, archivists, and critical scholars from a range of disciplines (Katherine Hayles, Matthew Kirschenbaum, JF Blanchette, and many others) have been speaking about the problems of this perspective for many years, 3D printing definitely highlights the pragmatic and not just the theoretical import of such issues.

Our research on 3D printing includes work on its use to facilitate accessibility for the visually impaired, new forms of distributed productivity and design, and other socially beneficial attributes. Our printing of the gun model and exploration of its dimensions should not be taken as either a whole-hearted embracing of the cyber-anarchistic future articulated by its original creator, nor of a ‘won’t somebody think of the children’ reductive response. Instead, the project stands as part of our work as information scholars and as public intellectuals debating and exploring new information technologies and the patterns of life associated with them.

Test of Arduino – Pachube link

September 22, 2010matt.rattoUncategorized0

Self-Sensing and Health – a critical making experience

I ran a critical making session with the designers at Cooler Solutions on July 15.

In the session we discussed concepts related to embodiment, health, and sensing, referring to articles by Clark, Viseu, and Wolf, and building wearable data loggers and simple bend sensors. I plan to post an instructable on the simple data logger which used an RBBB arduino-compatible from Modern Device.

Very successful event for me and provides more info on how to curate critical making events – in particular how to manage the weaving in and out of conceptual and material exploration.

More details are below:

Self-Sensing and Health – a critical making experience

The positive and negative potential for digital sensing and tracking technologies is well known. Such technologies make it possible for institutions and organizations to track and monitor individuals in a variety of ways. Much has been written about the potential for a ‘surveillance society’, with the state or private interests increasingly intervening in personal lives in both productive and destructive ways. CCTV cameras that may both increase public safety as well as the possibility of state control are a good example. Another example is the Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor or “SCRAM” bracelet famously being worn by Linsay Lohan.

What makes these technologies useful as well as problematic is the way they monitor personal information (presence and location, or blood alcohol levels) and then relay that information to a central source for processing and decision-making. But what about personal usage of monitoring technology and the data that results? There are a few examples in the market that have been extremely successful, in particular medical technologies such as blood glucose meters, and sports/health devices such as the Nike+ipod pedometer system.

In this workshop we will use both conceptual exploration and material prototyping to think through some of the possibilities of ‘self-sensing’ and digital technology. We’ll refer to some academic work on the relationship between technology and the body in order to construct a shared vocabulary on this topic, and to open up the conceptual problem space beyond the current state of the art. Some of the terms we may explore include:

augmentation, ‘functionality without virtuality,’ pervasive (from Viseu, 2003)

plasticity, ‘profound embodiment’, natural-born cyborgs (from Clark, 2007)

self-knowledge, data-driven, personal data (from Wolf, 2010)

We will then use a prepared selfsensor kit to build personal self-sensors, explore their use, and discuss future innovations and possibilities.

10AM-10:15AM: Intros, brief discussion of critical making, plans for the day

10:15-10:30: Discussion of interests around health, data, and sensing

10:30-11:00: Brief overview of potentially useful concepts (from readings):

11:00-1: Making selfsensors

1:00-2:00: Lunch

2:00-3:00: Discussion

DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media

July 16, 2010matt.rattoevents2

We are holding a small conference at U of Toronto in Nov. More details here:

We’re finalizing the program now, but if anyone is interested in participating in the ‘maker space’ that will be ongoing during the event, please contact me directly.


Talk on material prototyping and collaboration

Yesterday I gave a brief talk on the above topic at the Identity, Privacy, and Security Research Symposium. More info available here:

Critical Making Course Final Show 2010

We held the Critical Making Final Project Show last night in Rm. 119, Bissell Building, University of Toronto.

The course uses design-based research on physical  computing as an adjunct to information scholarship, exploring critical information issues related to intellectual property, technological bias, technical skill, and identity. It is offered yearly as part of the Masters of Information Degree in the Faculty of Information.

The projects that were shown last night address questions of wearable computing and explore how they potentially change the relationship between private information and public space.

The Sphinx Helmet –

“Open Wide Goggles”

Sensi-Safe –

Pseudonymity –

iKu575 –

Standards –

To view pictures from the event –

Behind the Headlines interview

February 4, 2010matt.rattoevents0

I did an interesting interview with Jennifer Hsu from University of Toronto’s Office of Research:

I think it comes off as a little over-critical of Apple, but I do worry about the consumerist model that seems embedded in the itunes system. Perhaps Jobs will surprise us with free access to public domain texts. Actually, come to think of it, I’ll be interested to see whether ebook software currently running on the iPhone will be customized for the iPad…

Ignite Toronto 2009

January 11, 2010matt.rattoUncategorized0

In December I gave an Ignite talk on Critical Making at the Drake Hotel. I want to thank the organizers Michelle Perras and Peter Horvath for inviting me to participate! Click on the image below to watch the video (link to Vimeo).

Ratto at Ignite 2009, picture by Kate Hartman

Ratto at Ignite 2009, picture by Kate Hartman

Christmas Trees and 3D printers

I’ve been playing with the new 3D printer – a Dimension 1200ES by Stratasys. Quality is very high, build area is significant, and quite easy to use. I’ve run off a few orange (that was the ABS color that was loaded) christmas trees, based on this model. Here’s a picture of the whole forest. nectarine_forest

First DDiMIT Workshop – Twittering Infrastructure for Making Basic Internet of Things (TIMBITs)

November 23, 2009matt.rattoevents, IOT0

The first workshop in a new digital media consortium was held on Friday, Nov. 20. The Faculty of Information/KMDI-led group, which includes members from four local universities, eight digital media content companies, and the Ontario trade organization Interactive Ontario has been organized to address the movement from screen-based digital media to more environmental and embodied forms of digital interactions. Relying on a ‘hands-on’ approach, members of the Designing Digital Media for the Internet of Things (DDiMIT) consortium met Friday to explore the notion of digitally-enabled ‘things’. Together, they constructed simple sensors that used Twitter to send and receive information as to their current status. The workshop highlighted new open source hardware and software tools that encourage experimentation by people from a range of different technical backgrounds. Despite a lack of familiarity with physical computing by most workshop participants, all groups successfully assembled a ‘tweeting’ digital device.

Hard at work on the Internet of Things

Hard at work on the Internet of Things

The circuit diagrams used in the workshop included simple led and sensor circuits. We also used the tutorials created by Limor Fried and those made by Tod E. Kurt.

Intro to MI at Faculty of Information

November 16, 2009matt.rattoevents0

Below is a short introduction about the faculty to a group of CCIT students at UT Mississauga:

Coach House Salon talk on Authenticity

November 13, 2009matt.rattoevents0

Last night I participated in a ‘salon’ style event at the new Coach House institute. This is located in the coach house building that was Marshall Mcluhan’s office during the 1970’s.

The conversation last night was ‘catalyzed’ by short talks given by myself, and my colleagues in the Faculty of Information, Heather McNeil and Matt Brower, as well as Ian Lancashire from the Department of English.

Here’s a link to the Prezi presentation I used to structure my thoughts:

Within the presentation, clicking on the arrows at the bottom of the screen will take you forward and back through the images and quotes.

My thanks to Jennifer Esmail (Rutgers & UofT), Steve Hockema (UofT), Jun Luo (UofT), Stuart Murray (Ryerson), Dominique Scheffel-Dunand (York), and Brian Cantwell Smith (UofT) for organizing this event.

Cory Doctorow ‘Makers’ signing – Nov. 12 at 7pm

November 12, 2009matt.rattoRelated Work0

This is happening right down the street from the University, at the Toronto Public Library:

Coach House Salon

November 6, 2009matt.rattoevents0

I’m participating in an event at the Coach House on Nov. 12 – see below for more information.

Coach House Salon

November 12, Thursday, 6-9pm
The McLuhan Coach House
39A Queen’s Park Crescent East
(See detailed directions below)

Topic: Authenticity

Invited catalysts: Heather MacNeil (iSchool, UofT), Ian Lancashire (English, UofT), Matt Brower (iSchool, UofT) & Matt Ratto (iSchool, UofT)

Potluck supper starts at 6:00 and catalytic speeches start at 6:30.

Organized by the Salon team at the Coach House Institute: Jennifer Esmail (Rutgers & UofT), Steve Hockema (UofT), Jun Luo (UofT), Stuart Murray (Ryerson), Dominique Scheffel-Dunand (York), Brian Cantwell Smith (UofT)

The Coach House Salon:

The Coach House Salon is an informal monthly meeting that gathers together an interdisciplinary group of scholars in the Greater Toronto Area who are interested in the impact of digital technologies on culture, society and the world. Each salon focuses on a different topic and features informal short talks to generate discussion among attendees. The Coach House Salon aims at providing a forum where people feel safe to listen, inquire and wonder together.

Inspired by the Technoscience Salon (, the Coach House Salon coordinates schedule and topics with the Technoscience Salon while maintaining a focus on the transformation by digital technologies of the world and of our understanding of the world.

Format of the Salon:

Three to four catalytic speakers, for only ~10 minutes each, to address a topic T of relevance. Each speaker is suggested to address, with emphases of their own choice, four questions with respect to T:

(1) How do you understand T? What matters about it?
(2) How is T being transformed by the rise of digital technology & culture?
(3) What have you come to know or understand about T, that others here might be interested in?
(4) What do you not know or understand about T, which others here might know about or have insights into?

The floor is then open for general discussion, where every participant is reactant.

The Coach House Institute:

The Coach House Institute (CHI) is a new research centre at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto. Built on the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology and revitalizing the historic Centre for Culture and Technology of Marshall McLuhan, the CHI functions as a laboratory for discursive engagements on ultimate questions in the information age and changes in the intellectual landscape. It aims to extract researchers from the maelstrom of daily life and usher them into an environment of communion and conversation that allows them to unfetter their imaginations and rethink the digitally mediated world.

Directions to the McLuhan Coach House:

The McLuhan Coach House (39A Queen’s Park Crescent East) is in the Southeast corner of the parking lot behind 39 Queen’s Park Crescent East, which is a UofT Faculty of Law building. Access to the McLuhan Coach House is available from Queen’s Park Crescent East by going around the 39 building towards the East and from St. Joseph Street by going around Muzzo Family Alumni Hall (121 St. Joseph Street) towards the South. The Museum station (on the University-Spadina subway line) and the Wellesley station (on the Yonge line) are within walking distance to the McLuhan Coach House.


October 28, 2009matt.rattopapers, projects0

Here is an chapter titled FLWR PWR: Tending Walled Garden, written by Dr. Matt Ratto and Dr.Stephen Hockema. It was originally published in Walled Garden, part of the E-culture book series in 2009. It is a publication by Virtueel Platform.

Tending the Walled Garden

This has been converted to PDF and has a separate page containing the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 license.

Aberdeen Workshop

October 28, 2009matt.rattoevents1

On September 7, 2009 there was a three day workshop held at the University of Aberdeen entitled Design Anthropology: Understanding, Utility and Engagement. The workshop focused on anthropological methodology and how it can be of use to professionals in other fields of research. It emphasized collaboration in developing what design anthropology can offer to other disciplines as well as creating a new educational program at Aberdeen. I discussed critical making during Making Things 1 on the first day at 2:30 PM. Here are some photos from the workshop as well as the instructions and code from the Origami Tagger.

Here are the instructions for the origami tagger:


Here is the code for the Origami Tagger:

#include <Servo.h>
#include <IRremote.h> ////the library assigns pin 3 to the IR LED

Servo myservo;  // create servo object to control a servo
int pos = 1;    // variable to store the servo position
int IR_power = 12;    //set pin 12 to power IR receiver without breadboard
IRrecv irrecv(7);
IRsend irsend;
decode_results results;

void setup() {
myservo.attach(9);  // attaches the servo on pin 9 to the servo object
pinMode(IR_power, OUTPUT);
digitalWrite(IR_power, HIGH);     //set this HIGH to power IR Receiver
irrecv.enableIRIn(); // Start the receiver
Serial.println(“Origami Tagger started!”);

void loop() {
//for (int i = 0; i < 3; i++) {
irsend.sendSony(0xa90, 12); // Sony TV power code

if (irrecv.decode(&results)) {
/* Uncomment for more specific remote control
if (results.value>0) {
if (pos>180) {
} */
if (pos>180) {
irrecv.resume(); // Receive the next value

Traxler’s “The idea of a Tree”

The Idea of a Tree

I find this project by Thomas Traxler to be a wonderful articulation of a sort of mechanistic notion of a tree, complete with inputs (sunlight, yarn, dye) and outputs (color, shape, speed). The title is necessary here, and really sets the frame for our unpacking of the artist’s concept. Mechanically I really like the way a simple mechanical transformation – sunlight into electricity that then powers an electrical motor at differing speeds – is translated in various ways. The dripping dye differently colors the yarn that moves past it – lighter if faster, darker if slower. The material is wound thicker or thinner depending on the speed at which the motor turns. Both result in a complex aesthetic , despite the initial simplicity.

Strategy and network approaches

September 4, 2009matt.rattoMarginalia0

I’ve been struggling for a while with approaches to social networks and the way the often impose a somewhat strategic and managerial perspective on sociality. This has obviously been noticed by a variety of scholars, most notably Star who did a wonderful job of articulating this issue in regards to actor-network theory. While Latour and others have since responded to this issue, most recently in Reassembling the Social, I think the critique and the response are a great introduction into the ongoing balancing act between structure and agency within social theory. One good resource for this debate is Eric Monteiro’s overview from ‘The Social Study of Information and Communication Technology’. I just found a version of this chapter online.

Ideas are tested by experiment

August 17, 2009matt.rattoMarginalia0

Some recent XKCD webcomics

and of course:

FI2241 – Critical Making course

August 17, 2009matt.rattoevents0

Here’s some more context:

Re: critical making. It’s a attempt to link up STS and design methods and skills. Our goal is not to make devices but to use ‘making’ to enhance our critical thinking about complex socio-technical issues. There are a number of ‘open’ technologies developed initially for artists and designers that make it now possible to get non-technical students productive quickly. These include an open hardware microcontroller and development environment called arduino (, and an open source software development  called Processing ( Both of these have rich communities of developers associated with them, lots of tutorials and code online. As the semester progresses, I give the students articles to read as well as assignments to build specific objects. The first 1 1/2 hours of the class we discuss the articles and relevant topics and in the second 1 1/2 hours we move to the lab and make stuff.

The current assignment is to build a ‘biased voting machine’ (define bias as well as voting.) In this assignment, we’re addressing issues of delegation and bias, as well as the infrastructural nature of technologies. Voting machines seem such a good case for thinking through these questions, since they represent a double-whammy of delegation-  both their purpose (electing representatives) and their function (delegating authority/accountability). Groups are posting – take a look and feel free to comment!

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