Guns Don’t Kill People

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McDonald vs. Chicago that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides an individual (not simply collective) right to bear arms. This reminds me of the old saw from gun-rights advocates:  “guns don’t kill people; people kill people”.  This is a succinct argument for the neutrality of technology.  It makes the point that technology (at least in the form of guns) has no responsibility because it has no ability to make a moral choice (i.e., it has not agency).  While I agree with the slogan in its narrow sense (that technology has no ability to act, no agency), I do not draw with the broader implication (that therefore the technology is neutral).  Consider plugging other technologies into this phrase, for example, “exploding gas tanks on Ford Pintos do not kill people; people kill people” or “o-rings on the space shuttle Challenger do not kill people; people kill people” or “crack cocaine does not kill people; people kill people.”  In each case, while it is true that the technology in isolation does not act to kill (it has no intent, no volition), it still feels strange to say that the technology had nothing to do with the deaths.  This is because the technology embodies the will of the designer and amplifies the power of the user.  It is not neutral.  It biases the user towards certain actions.  We tend to use a hammer to pound nails more often than to paint pictures because it is designed to perform pounding functions.  We tend to use dynamite to blow things up rather than to pound nails because it is designed to explode.  Our actions when holding dynamite or a hammer or crack cocaine will tend to proceed in the ways that the technology is biased. 

That’s not to say I couldn’t use a hammer to kill someone instead of pounding nails.  But it is to say that we should recognize the bias in technology and use appropriate caution in light of the bias.  Because the technology amplifies my abilities, I should take more care when swinging my arm around while holding a hammer than without.  Some technologies are particularly powerful, like guns or automobiles or thermonuclear weapons.  We must be acutely aware of their power and use it judiciously.  We must recognize that rash decisions can lead to deadly results.

I think the court made a good decision because they balanced the decision, making it clear that while sweeping prohibitions against gun ownership were not constitutional, states and municipalities could use reasonable regulations regarding the sale and ownership of guns.  This recognizes the power of the technology and the resulting need for careful judgment on the part of the user and the community.  All the stakeholders – everyone affected by the technology – must be considered in making decisions about the design, manufacture, distribution, use, and disposal of technology.

TULA = Technology Uses a Lot of Acronyms

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

I’m at the ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education) conference this week, where LED stands not for Light Emitting Diode, but for Liberal Education Division (and that’s liberal as in “liberal arts” not as in politics).  It reminded me of how many acronyms we tend to use in technical disciplines.  We often use rather unwieldy shorthand, such as PCMCIA for Personal Computer Manufacturer Interface Adaptor (though some say it should really stand for People Can’t Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms).  We even have acronyms that contain acronyms, such as VHDL, which stands for VHSIC Hardware Description Language, where VHSIC stands for Very-High Speed integrated Circuit.  Of course that one has its origin with the military, also famous for the liberal use of acronyms (liberal, as in generous).  The military also gets the prize for the longest acronym (perhaps mythical), ADCOMSUBORDCOMPHIBSPAC apparently used by the US Navy to designate Administrative Command: Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet, Subordinate Command.

Technology users love acronyms.  They proliferate with every new innovation.  Why do we see so many acronyms when it comes to technology?  Sometimes the limitations of the technology encourage a burgeoning dictionary of short-cut words.  The acronym LOL (Laugh Out Loud) was originally seen on Usenet, a short-hand form that cut down on typing when using slow connections.  Text messages today use LOL to cut down on the number of characters one needs to thumb out on a tiny keyboard.  The World Wide Web is now everywhere called simply “the web”, no more in need of additional qualifiers than the word satellite is in need of the clarification of “artificial”.

Another reason for new acronyms may be that when a new invention appears on the scene, we often need new words to describe it.  The acronyms appear because we require new combinations of words to describe features of the new technology.  These acronyms then make their way into conversation as the technology becomes more familiar.

We love inventing new language.  Teens do it all the time—to hide their meaning from adults and at the same time assert some power over them by knowing something they don’t.  I wonder if we sometimes use technical jargon in the same way, to assert power over those who are less technically savvy than us.  Sometimes we recycle old words, turning a noun into a related verb (have you googled anyone lately?) or hijacking a word with an entirely new meaning.  Sometimes we create new words by combining several shorter ones, or by shortening up a longer one.  All this word play seems to come naturally to humans and I suspect it is part of what makes us human.  Language is a tool in some senses (an instrument for communication), but I’m not sure I’d call it technology.  The definition of technology gets fuzzy in this area.  I think I would include computer programming languages, network protocols, and encryption codes.  Strangely we call these artificial languages, while this thing I am typing and you are reading is called natural language.  But if artificial means man-made, then isn’t even our natural language artificial by that measure? 

Naming something, adding it to our lexicon, has power.  The name is the symbol by which we conjure up the concept and definition and identify of the thing named.  It helps us to communicate our thoughts to others, and indeed can help us think our own thoughts.  Names are inevitably stereotypes that do not sufficiently represent the complexity of the thing they symbolize.  The label is always a summary that abstracts away much of the detail. 

I love reading and hearing about new technology.  I revel in the new language and relish the novel terminology.  It is a particular joy to participate in the naming itself, a privilege enjoyed by many engineers, scientists, and inventors.  Perhaps we should use a little more ceremony when christening an innovation or discovery.  Perhaps we should celebrate a little more when a new thing has come into being, a birth that must be recognized because it requires a name.  Yes, let’s take care that we don’t become proud because of our creativity, but rather give glory to God for granting us the gift to unfold His creation.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest