James Holmes, technology and killing sprees

Experimenting with different techniques for lighting & composition of small, still-life arrangements. This slightly menacting composition shows the “business” end of the weapon (a SIG Sauer P220 45 ACP semiautomatic handgun) and four rounds – these are jacketed hollow-point rounds made by Federal.

Another week goes by, it seems, and there is another ideologically-motivated spree killing in America. It’s sparked a lot of discussion about gun control and ideology gone rancid in our culture. One thing that has not been talked about much is the democratization of weapons technology, powered by information technology. We know, of course, that James Holmes, alleged shooter in Aurora, Co. movie theater shooting, purchased military-grade body armor from the Internet. This is a trend that’s going to intensify, and it’s going to intensify in a big, big way.

Mere days after the terrible shooting in Aurora, I read this article about how, for a couple grand and some dedication, one could design, fabricate, and use a fully functional weapon. There’s even a wiki project making gun designs for 3D printers available to all.

Printable firearms? Available today? I felt my world reshaping around me. What is to stop someone from designing a gun (that doesn't necessarily look like a gun) to bring aboard an airplane, to a mall, a school, or other public gathering? How can any gun control law, no matter how strict, stop someone from using a weapon if you can print one out at home?

The new wave of technology isn't limited to weapons. A researcher in Scotland is working on a printer that could one day end up in homes, printing user-specified drugs. New drugs could be invented and used at a speed infinitely faster than lawmakers can identify and ban them. (Not that our prohibition-based legal model is effective or efficient, anyway).  

Technology is outpacing our laws and morals in more than weaponry. I discussed with a friend over coffee recently whether there is an ethical component to how one chooses to buy books and other media — online for cheapness and convenience, or at a local seller where money will churn through the economy and benefit people where you live. Because of the recent availability of cheap e-readers, we now have a new ethical quandary to work through. And yet, 10 years after the first websites started lighting up, these technologies are becoming absolutely essential to our daily lives.

Here are a few more:

  • Technology is changing our sexual and relational ethics. Whole political careers have been brought down through the use of social media for sex. Our ability to alter the human body and gender has raised new questions about what exactly a male or female is, and breakthroughs in genetic modification as a consumer service will create new challenges — and opportunities — for collective values.
  • Banks and investors have employed cutting edge computers and fantastically complex mathematical formulas to extract wealth from the markets, leading almost directly to the catastrophic economic collapse. Regulators and investors were many times stumped as to what these mathematical constructs actually did.
  • Blogs, podcasts, and video streaming give people, some with some really bad ideas, a voice like never before. Someone on a search for truth might be confused indeed in an explosion of mass media, minus the traditional media gatekeepers.
  • 2012 might be called the Year of the Drone. Robots are playing an increasing role in fighting American wars, and enormous talent and resources are being poured into expanding this arsenal. Humanoid battlebots are not science fiction anymore, they are today’s tomorrow.

There are too many more to list here. Astonishingly, there appears to be little in the way of serious dialog in our culture to prepare people consequences of actions for which there is no law. And the speed of technological power and development is far outpacing our ability to deal with its consequences to human life.

Not that that is bad! The ability to craft useful machines and life enhancements is a unique and special human trait. What is less useful to us is that we aren’t talking about how to craft a system of law, of society, that brings ethics, dignity, and love into alignment — and yes, maybe even service — to our astoundingly creative minds and inventions. Including downloadable weapons.

For people of faith, technological progress and change is more important than ever. Faith institutions have never been known for rapid adaptation to cultural innovations, but the pace of change is becoming too fast for them to handle at all with the current dialectical mechanisms in place. We need a radical re-imagining of what faith communities are, and if we as faith communities want to participate meaningfully in the discussion of values. It’s time to start thinking outside the traditional boxes of moral codes, prohibitionism, reliance upon lawmakers and law enforcers. But above all, we must stop thinking that the world we live in today is predictable and that the old rules still apply.

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