The Evil of Technology

Thursday, April 18, 2013

By Steven H. VanderLeest


Kyrie eleison.  Lord have mercy.  Evil is in our midst.  Evil has struck again.  The bombings at the Boston Marathon and the ricin letters to federal officials have been front page news this past week.  Much of the discussion about these events has centered on determining whether the label “terrorism” is appropriate, and if so, identifying whether it is domestic or foreign.  The news hounds are chasing leads about possible suspects.  The pundits are sifting through the political and social fallout.  The photos and video show us the human face of misery in the innocents harmed by these violent acts.

Amongst the flurry of facts and conjecture, another thread of the story emerges:  the technology of violence.  We are learning more about the apparent construction of the bombs.  Likewise we are coming to understand how easily ricin can be produced.  This is not unusual.  In almost every story of terrorism or mass-murder in the last century, technology quickly emerges as the tool of the killer.  This is not coincidental.  Humans have always used tools to pursue their goals more effectively.  Our technology extends our reach and expands our power.  Too often, humanity is not prepared to wield that power.  Too often we are careless.  Almost any technology can be dangerous.  Certain technologies are particularly prone to harm and thus particularly dangerous in the wrong hands. 

There is no easy response to senseless violence.  How do we identify who has the “wrong hands”?  It is not simply the criminal or deranged mind that can make indiscriminate use of weapons—the normally rational, law-abiding citizen can also become volatile when infuriated.  Even if we can make a reasonable identification, which technologies should be kept from those hands?  Some devices are designed to be weapons for mass killings.  This is why we zealously hide the design details of nuclear weapons and work against nuclear proliferation.  Other weapons are not as devastating and because they are less restricted, they are more easily obtained.  Even a tool not normally considered hostile, such as a hammer, can be a murder weapon in the hands of a killer.  Even if we can reasonably categorize the technological tools most prone to ill use and if we can also reasonably categorize the individuals who should not have access to them, how do we prevent that access?  Laws generally respected by law-abiding citizens may serve as only a weak deterrent to criminal behavior, depending on the perceived risk of getting caught and the attendant punishment.  Restricting supply can be difficult when the technology is easily produced.  Restrictions often have the unfortunate side effect of placing hurdles to legitimate uses of the same tool by upright users.

Should we give up in despair?  No, we must muddle through.  The answers won’t be clean nor simple.  We’ll need to balance multiple interests.  We’ll need to seek justice.  We’ll need to offer mercy.  We cannot simply eradicate technology.  It is too pervasive.  Pervasive because technology is part of who we are.  Humans are tool-makers.  We are creative developers.  Careful design of technology can help reduce accidents, e.g., safety locks on guns.  Some technologies can help detect illicit activities, e.g., metal detectors at airports or use of seismographs to detect illegal nuclear tests.  Not perfect, but perhaps that is the best we can do.  We cannot simply eradicate evil.  Evil is not in certain hearts alone, so that we can segregate the malevolent from the merciful.  Laws may be less effective than we hope, yet imperfect laws will provide some help.  Addressing the root causes of poverty, injustice, and bigotry may go some distance to preventing hate and hostility.  As far as we are able, let us pursue these preventative measures.  Not perfect, but perhaps that is the best we can do.  Evil lurks in every heart.  That’s not how we were created, but sin now taints us.  Only by God’s grace do we endure, only by Christ’s blood are we redeemed.  Lord have mercy.  Kyrie eleison. 

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest