'The New Radical,' a documentary about 28-year-old Cody Wilson, premiered at Sundance, but not without contention. We spoke to Wilson and filmmaker Adam Bhala Lough to find out why.
For the past three years, documentarian Adam Bhala Lough has been trying to figure out how to tell the story of Cody Wilson, the brash founder of Defense Distributed, an organization dedicated to 3D printed guns. It's an ongoing narrative as Wilson, 28, has steadily gained notoriety as a vocal proponent of 3D printed guns and other decentralized technologies, appearing in a Motherboard documentary in 2013 entitled Click, Print, Gun.
That same year, Defense Distributed showed off and test-fired the world's first functional 3D printed gun, and is currently developing open source gun designs—often referred to colloquially as "wiki weapons." In short: Wilson is advocating for the proliferation of firearms through newfangled technology, pitting him against lawmakers who want to ban or restrict 3D printed weapons.
It's no surprise then that the new documentary about Wilson, The New Radical, triggered varying responses when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017. Bhala Lough's film is equally frustrating and illuminating, ping ponging back-and-forth between adoration and skepticism for its central subject. Some attendees didn't find the portrayal to be so even-handed, though. In fact, Bhala Lough said at one screening, a psychiatrist in the audience "wanted to commit Cody to a mental institution." Cody's response? "Come on down, give me an examination."
As the following conversation reveals, Wilson tends to gleefully invite controversy. He's an Austin-based "free-market anarchist" at heart—an erudite polemic whose rhetoric often borders on outright nihilism. When we sat down with Wilson and Bhala Lough in Park City, Utah, we discussed the future of 3D machinery, the looming specter of a Trump administration, and why Wilson believes all activism, is fake activism.
Motherboard: Let's start with this: Cody, despite being a self-proclaimed anarchist, it seems like in your business practices, you want institutional support. Aren't those ideologically conflicting ideas?
Cody Wilson: Everything's conflicting, man. You have to have it. It doesn't matter if you want it or not. If you want access to the credit world, it's what you have to fucking do. Not just ISO stuff but like ECI compliance, all this stuff. If you're employing people, you just have to run to institutions if you're going to do it.
Adam Bhala Lough: During filming I asked, "Why don't you just sell these ghost guns using Bitcoin?" and he's like, "Well, the gun community doesn't use Bitcoin."
Wilson: The gun community is like 50-year-old dudes in California who you've got to teach to use their email. That's half of our support. I have a full-time support guy who's like, "Alright, this is how you install Windows." They don't use Bitcoin.
[Editor's note: Cody Wilson is a co-founder of the Dark Wallet platform, which started as a Bitcoin wallet, but recently added the capability to exchange the cryptocurrency for cash.]
Do you think we have a government institution in place that is vigilant enough to examine and ban downloadable files?
Wilson: There's a question of whether what we did would be expressly legal. Obviously, it's going to happen regardless, but the question is whether it's going to be a targetable activity or if it's going to be more or less allowed to happen. From my point of view, I'm the only person who's been actively legally targeted by the State Department under these regulations.
Does the future seem dangerous to you two?
Wilson: The present seems to be dangerous.
Bhala Lough: Hasn't it always been though?
Motherboard: Sure, but the future hinted at in the movie feels Blade Runner-like…
Wilson: I wish it was. I wish it was as dangerous as Blade Runner. I wish the hypothetical was a possibility. I don't believe that it is. As [Julian] Assange says, there are, like, these cycles of securitization that happen. I don't believe technology is able to move as rapidly as has been suggested, and I'm the one suggesting it. I also don't believe that what we're talking about is too different from the current situation. There's been solid models for every gun concept on the internet for years.
Bhala Lough: You know what's going to happen? I can tell you this from talking to DOJ prosecutors. They're going to hammer a few people hard, like Ross Ulbricht style, in the downloadable file case, right? They're just going to make an example out of a few people to try to scare the rest.
Wilson: This is horribly Silicon Valley in its reasoning, but if Napster lost and iTunes won, and we're the Napster of downloadable guns, then there's going to be an iTunes of downloadable guns.
Motherboard: That seems like a false equivalency. Illegally downloading music is fairly innocuous in comparison to downloading a gun, right?
Wilson: Downloading albums is fine on that level, but think about vendors, machine shops. All these people in this world of work and industry, they send flats and files to each other all the time, download them from common depositories. There's already this whole world of this stuff happening, it's simply that the common person hasn't been introduced to that world. It's already there.
Motherboard: Do you think the American citizenry is responsible enough to handle the information of an open source weapon?
Bhala Lough: I do, yeah. Absolutely.
Wilson: They are by definition, by being an American citizen, because that's how this shit's set up, right?
Bhala Lough: I have a lot of faith in people.
Wilson: Are they responsible enough to vote?
Motherboard: Sure, but we don't. Fifty-eight percent of people voted. I'm not talking about constitutional rights.
Wilson: It's a question of human nature.
Bhala Lough: I'm not talking about voting and shit. I'm optimistic about people being able to make responsible choices for themselves on a day-to-day basis.
Wilson: I'm not. I actually think the common anarchist position is that people are fundamentally good, blah blah blah. I don't believe that. I'm a Nietzschean about human nature. The bulk of humanity is exhausted and superfluous, miscreant, confused, latently criminal, opportunistic. I rely on that. That's leverage, man.
Motherboard: You not trusting people is leverage?
Wilson: Any democratic sentiment propels my politics. Sure, we can fight for something in the name of democratization, although I don't use that word a lot anymore. Come on, man. We hate democratic capitalism. I don't believe that it's inconsistent, though, to be suspicious of people and also be totally comfortable with deploying the technology, because you know its fractal potential. It's a vote for politics. It's a vote for the will to politics. There will be people, a one percent of people, that can use this stuff effectively, develop it, implement it. That's why it's necessary. That's why civilization exists, so those few people can exercise incredible techniques.
Motherboard: Whether we like it or not, it seems you both are going to have your way in the future. Some of this feels inevitable. In fact, in twenty years, it may not be you Cody, but there's going to be another version of you.
Bhala Lough: Well I can tell you one thing I've said lately is that in twenty years, the Silk Road is going to look like the most normal thing. That's how we're going to get drugs. We're going to go to a website that looks exactly like the Silk Road, and hopefully Ross Ulbricht won't still be sitting in prison, because we're going to look back at Ross Ulbricht and say, "That guy was just ahead of his time."
Motherboard: To purchase drugs through a black market primarily affects the buyer and the purchaser. There will be ancillary parties damaged, but that's about it. The prospect of an isolated, insulated world in which someone can sit at home and download a weapon is unnerving.
Bhala Lough: It's the guns thing, right? That's what trips you up.
Motherboard: Yes. If they were going to keep the gun in their home and not do anything with it and just shoot targets in the backyard, that'd be great. But that's not what will happen.
Wilson: I don't disagree with you. I see you describing the coordinates of the political when you're saying, "Well, jeez, it would be terrible if more people had the threat of violence." But that's like its own shit.
Motherboard: I'm actually not talking about politics. I'm talking about human beings dying.
Wilson: You're describing a political reality that you wish wouldn't be.
Motherboard: That's part of it, but my comments come from a fear of people dying.
Wilson: When people access the use of force for the threat of violence they have, by definition, a new political power. An unwanted political power. So I'm agreeing with you but I'm disagreeing with this description. Like, yeah, is there this component of it that's just going to enable a level of violence that wasn't enabled before?
Motherboard: We're disagreeing on emotion. You seem to be unfazed by this.
Wilson: I'm just hearing you say, "It's regrettable that there's going to be this kind of shit in accordance with what people can do, and isn't it so sad that people can do this now?" And I'm saying, "Oh, no, that's the possibility."
Bhala Lough: I have to admit, I took this for granted. I told Cody this when the film was done and we started screening it for people. The gun thing fucked everyone up so hard, and I told him, "Man, I didn't think it was going to be this bad, maybe because I grew up in Virginia around guns." Guns were just part of the culture. I don't own a gun. I don't necessarily like guns. I never got into this because of guns. For me it was more interesting just from a First Amendment issue, but I didn't think it was going to be this intense.
Motherboard: Given the last five years of the countless, publicly documented shootings, did you really not think people would respond to this?
Bhala Lough: Let me explain further. There was a fierce debate between the programmers, and that's when I called them and I was like, "Dude, I thought this Sundance family would get 100 percent behind this film." I didn't think there'd be any debate. There were a good faction of programmers who did not want this film in the festival, even though they thought the filmmaking was exemplary, and that shocked me. That I took for granted, and I think that's because of where I grew up in Virginia. I think depending on where you're coming from and how your family feels about guns, you're going to have a difficult time. I liken it to two things. The most difficult screenings I've been to in my life, just as a viewer, have been either abortion or Israel/Palestine. I have seen fistfights at screenings of Israel/Palestine issue documentaries. Guns is right there on that list now. There's an emotional reaction when you're a woman watching a movie about abortion.
Motherboard: You personified guns. And Cody, you're the personification. There's a face, your face, attached to this conversation. I don't think it's unfair for me to say that you scare people.
Wilson: That's not unfair. I used to actively court that.
Motherboard: It seems like you invite it at times.
Wilson: Yeah, yeah. That was the method in the beginning. We weren't anybody, we had no money, we had to be like, "Look, here's a future that you can choose. What are you gonna do about it?" You know, that's the method.
"Look, here's a future that you can choose. What are you gonna do about it?"
Motherboard: What's the ideal version of how this plays out, twenty years from now?
Wilson: You can only place your faith in devolution, you can only place your faith in balkanization. That's it. That's the only thing we have to hope for. This is about faith in ironic destiny of the power itself. The power can be turned in on itself, it starts to eat itself, it starts to suicide, it's terrible, terrible. Like [Slavoj] Žižek said, Hillary Clinton represented an impossible coalition of all power. It wasn't going to work. Trump won because we're allergic to the idea. Things have to fall apart, and oh, thank god that they do. If I can contribute toward…
Motherboard: Things falling apart…
Wilson: Absolutely, that's all we have right now.
Bhala Lough: Thomas Jefferson says every five years we need a new revolution. We need to completely remake the government. It's certainly happening right now.
Wilson: I love the example of Jefferson because he's willing to murder his government and then he becomes a president and then his face is in a mountain. Just because he exercised his power. History should be about every generation's will to power. It's sad that as crushed Millennials we live in the shadow of our parents, our fathers. We aren't willing to murder our government. It's like, come on, why is this scary? Jesus, every generation before you was willing to kick ass. Amir [Taaki, programmer and Wilson's Dark Wallet co-founder] thinks in the same way. Sometimes you have to piss on the roses, he says it all the time.
Motherboard: Do you think electing Trump is moving toward the direction you want?
Wilson: Maybe. No. The sad thing about Trump is that everybody is secretly really relieved he got elected, of the people I know—the professional left and academic left.
Motherboard: Adam, are you relieved?
Bhala Lough: Am I relieved Trump got elected? Oh, hell no.
Wilson: Dude, it puts the left back into its proper orientation.
Bhala Lough: I can't. My mom is an immigrant, my whole half of my family is from India. A lot of them are here.
Wilson: (laughs) I'm still thinking of the kids. Every one of these kids loves it, because they finally get to be thrown into inauthentic protest movements. The anti-war movement can come back, no DAPL and all that shit. "Finally we get to have our fifteen minutes of activism." That left had a difficulty explaining the last eight years of neo-liberal world order. It couldn't find a place. It had to turn in on itself, start eating itself with intersectionality and all that stuff. It's bitter.
Motherboard: Do you think it's fake activism?
Wilson: All activism is fake activism.
Motherboard: Does that include your activism?
Wilson: Well, I really try not to be like, "I'm an activist." But you're right. There's more roles now to fill since Trump's in. There's this refusal of power. I think progressives are actually literally uncomfortable with the exercise of power, because of what you learn. When you're too educated you understand the total disconnect of the exercise of power. Power belongs to the intelligence of evil. It's totally unreflective, like Donald Trump. It belongs there. I think progressives are happy losing it at a state level, losing it on this level, losing it on a national level. It's comfortable. "Oh, thank god. We're not in a position where we have to actually exercise this shit. We just get to play a role now." I do think it's working that way for a lot of people. Like the Women's March, right? This was at least more liberal and more concrete, it allowed for a lot of different views to be expressed, but it was mostly just a way of being seen. Enunciating an other of opposition, which is fun. Everyone took selfies.
Wilson: But you know what I mean? There were people here at Sundance picking up "the future is female" off the bottoms of the bathroom floor that some nonprofit was taking selfies because they felt obligated. Sorry, I don't think I'm being super edgy or cynical here. The academic left will have a critical faculty. It was eating itself. It had nothing to say. It couldn't criticize the dominant situation because it was that. They were fucking filling us. Now they can literally get back to criticizing power, which is like their only function.
Motherboard: Part of protesting is performative, but I don't think it's fair to undercut the march because some people took some Instagram photo.
Wilson: We have to undercut the march. The march was the least common denominator kind of.
Motherboard: What good is cutting the march down?
Wilson: It doesn't serve any of my functions, we're just talking politics now.
Bhala Lough: See, I disagree. My wife went to the march with my kids, right? That you can't undercut. The first march I went to was when I was in my twenties and I protested the RNC. I was in my twenties. I didn't march when I was nine years old. My daughter is marching against the president of the United States. She's going to grow up with that moment. You can't undercut that.
Wilson: You remember the first big New York Times piece about it a few weeks out, when there was this problem of, "Oh, the leadership of it. It's all white feminism," this whole thing. Obviously every large coalition has this type of infighting. It's endemic or whatever. Look, white women delivered the presidency to Trump. You can't just say, "This is the women's march." It's already problematic. Yes, it's a large-scale demonstration, that's great, but it's just an attempt at mobilizing. People have a crab mentality, man. They're walking sideways. There's dark cosmic horror forces animating. It's not just like, "Oh, well we're captive, we're just self-hating white women." Worse than that. It's not like, "Oh, we're not voting our interests." It's like, no, we have an active antisocial interest, you know? We don't like this civilization. I think we're operating on that level subconsciously. It's to discredit them, to discount them.
Motherboard: Do you feel like Defense Distributed is an inclusive organization?
Wilson: Well, we have women who work for us. A Muslim is our number one programmer. It's inclusive in the fact that anyone who wants to buy into the mission can buy into it. I guess I don't make concessions. I follow complex maxims. I'm not going to let Defense Distributed go into a pro-social NGO territory. "We should really have more women on the board." That's navel-gazing and destructive ultimately. You have to have a kind of white-hot core identity. So far, I'm in touch with it.
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