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Saturday, October 08, 2016

New, Improved, Advanced … You Need One

A few years ago I went on vacation in England. We had some special places to go, but of course there were a few of the obligatory touristy things as well.

We went to the Tower of London. It’s not a single tower, but a concentric castle formed of 21 towers. One of the main ones is called “The White Tower”. It was especially interesting to me since it housed a great collection of historical armaments spanning several centuries of warfare. Much of it is conventional stuff: swords, cannons, muskets, shields, chain mail and so forth. Some of the displays feature experimental weaponry, such as multi-barreled, repeating guns and so forth.


The Curious Artifact

In one of the displays of shields I found a most curious artifact. It was what we call a “buckler”, a smallish shield, usually disc-like and a foot or two across (30-60 cm), light and agile for deflecting blows in sword combat. The one that caught my eye had an odd pipe sticking out of it — maybe 8 inches (20 cm) or so — dead center in the middle. I walked around the glass case housing it, and to my surprise, was able to see a crude handle and trigger mechanism at the pipe’s base, on the inside. It was a pistol.

Now, you don’t have to be a charter member of the NRA to know that a pistol needs sights, or you’re going to have a lot of trouble aiming it. Clearly that had not bothered the inventor in this case. His idea was simple: you’re going into sword combat, so you need a buckler. But why not take along a little bonus weapon? How about one of these new one-shot pistols? Don’t have a free hand? No problem: we’ll poke it through the middle. When you encounter an enemy, you can crack off a single shot and maybe wound or kill him right away; if not, then you can go to work on him with your sword and shield — no problem.

Nifty, no?

The End of the World As We Know It

But when I saw it what struck me was not a musket ball, but irony. This inventor clearly did not have the foggiest idea about the real utility of his little gimmick. He was thinking guns might be a minor accessory, but the sword and shield are the real tools of war. How wrong can one guy be?

I wonder if he would have believed me if I could have told him what was really going to happen: that within a few years, that little gunpowder device was going to sweep aside all swords and bucklers forever, and radically revolutionize warfare in the coming centuries. That it would make unnecessary and impractical all blade weapons. That it would make the gunman more than a match for the bravest warrior. That it would end the age of chivalry. That it would cause the rewriting of all the codes of war and manuals of tactics. That it would make hand-to-hand combat useless, supplanting it with infantry lines, then trench warfare, then tank assaults, and planes and bombs and rockets and unmanned drones. That it would make possible warfare on a scale a swordsman could never have conceived, and that in a single century this little weapon — in one or another of its ensuing variations — would kill more human beings than had been killed in all the previous sword wars in history, and would do so with such breathtaking savagery, indifference and efficiency.

That because of this gimmicky little device, the world as he knew it was essentially over.

I think he would have laughed.

Armed, But Not With Wisdom

Well, whatever. It was new. It worked (after a fashion). It must be employed. Consequences? Who can say?

And suppose somehow he had even gained the wisdom to see where the gun was dragging humanity: even then, would he have had the courage, the will or even the option to refuse this terrible new technology? Or would he (as we so generally do) simply have accepted the inevitability of the new technology and washed his hands of all responsibility?

You see, that’s the thing about technology: we invent stuff, but often we don’t really have the foggiest idea what the thing we’ve invented will actually do.

Similar Cases

There are lots of examples. Take the Internet, for example: when it was originally designed it was called ARPANET (for the Advanced Research Project Agency), and was supposed to be a tool for sharing of research, development and military information among intellectuals. Did any of these eggheads foresee how we would use it in a few short years, how it would turn into a social networking platform, a source of commercial exploitation and popular entertainment? Could any of them have seen it as the world’s most efficient pornography delivery device, a boon to worldwide sexual exploitation and human trafficking, or an open window for governments to gather personal information on private citizens? Of course not.

And what about the telephone? Could Alexander Graham Bell have imagined cell phones? Could he foresee that one day a native farmer in the outback of Australia would use his little invention not just to talk but to employ a telecom service in America to secure banking services from Holland or to watch the World Cup live from Brazil? How could he?

Human beings invent stuff. And like the medieval armourer, we blithely assume that we can understand what we are doing. We think we do understand — we may claim to grasp the consequences of urban transience, of mass entertainment, of consumerism and cyberspace, and we may be confident that we will be ready to react to any new evils that may arise from such things — but all the while we may be like children playing in the streets of Hiroshima, oblivious to the poisonous changes wrought on us.

So What’s The Point?

The point is quite simple: no one is watching out for the bad effects of new technologies. No inventor really understands them; no wise man foresees what they will do; no government watchdog protects us from them. Only we can do that.

Don’t get me wrong … I’m not saying “technology is evil”. But I’m not saying “technology is good” either. Both attitudes are actually naïve: technology does what the technology itself wants to do. That is, it tends toward its most efficient use, whether that use is good or bad. As Neil Postman so sagely observed, “To a boy with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. We might add that to a boy with a gun, everything looks like a target, or to a boy with a computer, everything looks like data … and so on. Technology is not a neutral thing: our tools shape how we see the world.

Technology also magnifies our powers. Whether that is good depends on the moral condition of the person using it. The famous example is of a knife: in the hands of a surgeon, it is a tool of life, and in the hands of a psychopath a tool of death. Who we are personally has something to do with what our technology ends up doing.

But technologies have their own trajectory. You can use a hacksaw to slice bread or a hand-grenade to open a tin of beans ... but neither works very well. So we give up and use a different method, and save that technology for whatever it can do well. That's why each new technical invention inevitably migrates toward its most efficient use. Over time, it becomes increasingly refined at doing whatever it does best — whether that thing is morally good or bad.

A Train In Motion

This means that when we think of being responsible for what we do with our inventions we are thinking about catching a train in motion. What a technology has been designed for, or what it has been used for in the past, may well change over time. We need to be alert to these changes and remain morally responsive to the challenges of these shifts.

That’s why I’m saying that the uses we make of technology are our responsibility. We just can’t be trusting and naïve. We’ve got to watch what they are doing to us, and decide whether or not the road they’re taking us down is one we want to travel — or which a Christian ought to travel — regardless of what the world around us is doing. The moral responsibility is on us. We are the gatekeepers of the incursions of technology into our own lives.

Practically speaking, what does this mean? Well, if TV is destroying your family meals, why not turn it off? If your car is making you overweight, why not buy a bike or start to walk? If the Internet is luring you with unsavory images, why not move it to a more public place? If credit cards are putting you in debt, who says you can’t chop them up and pay off what you owe? If your cell phone is becoming a gossip tool, why not change your habits, your data plan or your contact list? You get the idea.

You actually do have a lot of power here. You’ve just got to grasp that something doesn’t become an essential just because it’s new, improved, advanced, common or popular. Really, the furnishings of your lifestyle are up to you. You choose.

Technological Accountability

The Bible says a fair bit about accountability at the end of life. It tells Christians we must “all stand before the Judgment Seat”. One of the things we will be responsible for there is our language. Another will be our treatment of others. A third will likely be our possessions, investments and use of finances, as well as our time, talents and energies.

But I wonder if another thing might also be our stewardship of technology. I can’t prove that, but I also can’t imagine how it will be left out — that is, if it is a full and accurate accounting. Something so important to the shape of our lives can hardly be ignored.

If that’s right, then our applications of technology have eternal consequences. We need to be stewards of technology, not its slaves.

So how are we doing on that?

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