Once upon a time a great genius invented the automobile. . . .
Well, actually it wasn’t just one time or one genius. Over some years, various people invented things that gradually came together in a series of machines that looked more and more like what we now call automobiles. Such devices let individuals or small groups go where they wanted, when they wanted, without depending on animals or on trains or buses running on routes and schedules set by somebody else. As engines and associated technologies improved, they also enabled people to go much faster than ever before.
Initially, like most new things, this scared people. I’m told some believed that human beings couldn’t survive hurtling along at twenty miles per hour. Now, of course, practically all of us routinely and casually drive seventy or more. But we can only do it on certain roads specifically designed for high-speed travel. On other roads—smaller, hillier, curvier, more congested, residential, or any combination of such things—we’re required to keep our speeds within lower limits. Some ultrahigh-performance cars aren’t allowed on public streets at all, and can only be driven on designated racetracks.
In short, we’ve gained impressive new abilities, but we’ve had to accept some new restrictions as part of the bargain. Would the framers of the Constitution have been comfortable with those restrictions? It’s hard to say. They made no reference to whether they thought all men were endowed by their Creator with an unalienable right to go as fast as they wanted, wherever and whenever they wanted. It would have been surprising if they had, because it never would have occurred to most of them that a human could go faster than a horse.
My main concern today is not a minicourse in automotive history, but a larger type of problem. What happened with cars is just one example that we already have under our cultural belt. The larger problem is this: What happens when new technology makes it possible to do certain things so much faster than before that it creates problems not adequately covered by existing laws and customs? I started with cars because most of that1 is safely in our past and I can talk about it without pushing emotional hot buttons. But we’re facing plenty of similar problems right now, and those come with some very hot buttons indeed.
And they surely won’t be the last. There will indubitably be others in the future, growing out of technologies and capabilities that we can’t even imagine yet. So it’s worth giving some thought to that general type of problem, and what’s likely to be involved in getting through its present and future manifestations.
Let’s look at two examples that are much in the news as I write this (in April 2018) and probably still will be when you read it. The internet and social media let information spread far and wide with recently unimaginable rapidity, and without regard for its merit. Automatic firearms make mass murder unprecedentedly easy and convenient. Both of these have been involved in enough serious, large-scale problems to make many people agree that Something Has To Be Done—but they disagree vehemently on what should be done.
Some months ago I had a long conversation with a pioneer in the early growth of the internet, who said one thing he and his coworkers failed to anticipate was the now-common use of the internet as an “echo chamber.” They envisioned it as a powerful tool with which anyone could rapidly research almost anything that humans have learned or created, and carry on long, in-depth discussions in minutes or hours instead of days or weeks. With each entry leaving an electronic “paper trail,” so that each participant in a discussion could easily check exactly what had already been said, each could point out considerations that the other(s) had missed. A back-and-forth could lead to rapid refinement of an idea and an eventual consensus better than any of the initial suggestions.
And there could be a lot of participants. With the internet, everybody could become a publisher. If you or I have something we want to say, we can say it to vast numbers of people—thousands or even millions—just about instantaneously, and with very little cost or effort. Readers can post comments, both on the original text and on comments already posted by others, which would ideally lead to that steady progression toward a highly refined result.
What too often happens in reality is that readers and commentators instead wind up yelling at one another, calling each other names worthy of belligerent second-graders, and dividing into camps of people who agree with each other, reinforce their shared views more and more loudly, and ignore and/or sneer at anyone who doesn’t share them. In an era of slower communications, people with extreme views might seldom meet anyone who agreed with them, and might be generally viewed by those who knew them as annoying but essentially harmless kooks. Now everyone has the ability to “meet” and converse with huge numbers of people all over the world. Even if only a few people in the world hold a bizarre position, those few can find each other and spend a lot of time telling each other how great they are and how wrong everyone else is.
And they can do things that none of them might be able to do alone, like crashing servers, hacking websites and email accounts, and organizing neo-Nazi rallies. They can spread rumors and outright lies to try to change voters’ minds and influence elections—not just in their own countries, but in others.
There’s nothing intrinsically new in that; politicians and their followers have been spreading canards about their opponents for as long as there have been politicians. But it used to be a cumbersome and inefficient process, depending on phone calls and leaflets and plain old rumormongering. Sure, there were attack ads on radio and television, but at least there was a public record of their content and who paid for them.
The way lies and distortions spread now has changed radically, particularly in terms of how fast they can spread. Radio and TV ads reached a lot of people very quickly, but once an ad was put out, it was the same ad for everybody, and it stayed what it was until somebody put together a new one to replace it, which took time. With social media, different ads can be targeted to very specific groups, with different slants based on everything from zip codes to browsing histories. They can be anonymous and untraceable, with recipients having no way to know who’s behind them and what kinds of axes they’re grinding. They can change as fast as chameleons; if reactions to one tweetstorm suggest to the sender that something else might rile people up even more effectively, he can send out another in essentially no time.
The dreamers who first saw the potentials of the internet imagined that when everybody could comment on what everybody else was saying, the process would lead to a winnowing out of bad ideas and an evolution of good ones. That can still happen, but too often it leads instead to the bad ones swamping the good. A recent study at the MIT Media Lab2 analyzed the spread of a huge number of rumors on Twitter and found that lies spread, on average, about six times as fast as true statements. There seem to be a number of reasons for this, involving both the way social media work and the way human minds work, but one of the most important seems to be that sensational lies have more novelty value and are therefore more likely to be retweeted than dull old truth.
Whatever the reason(s), this is scary stuff. The ease with which ignorant or malicious lies can drown out truth can have dangerous, large-scale consequences. It’s pretty clear that the effect played a significant role in the 2016 US presidential election, and the potential hazards are so big that we really need to think about ways to reduce them. Simple faith that “the truth will out” just doesn’t cut it any more.
But what, exactly, can we do? Simply banning social media, or some types of speech or posting, quite rightly makes most Americans very uncomfortable. The First Amendment was put there for good reasons, and we should be very wary of tinkering with it, or letting our governments or anyone else do so. But most of us already recognize that there have to be some restrictions on freedom of speech. The classic example is yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater; others that are well established and generally accepted are libel and slander (respectively, written and spoken defamatory falsehoods). Sending false reports of a horrendous government conspiracy to thousands or millions of people is much like yelling “Fire!” in a very large theater.
Much as I hate to see any new restrictions added unless absolutely necessary, I fear that the sheer speed of the new information technologies has changed the landscape so radically that new limits may be needed, if not on content, then at least on how content is distributed. I hope they can be crafted wisely enough to do more good than harm—but I can’t take that for granted. At this point I don’t have a clear view of any satisfying solutions, but we need a lot of people looking for them—and they can’t limit the options they consider to ones they’re already familiar with.
My other example of a situation in which a technological change has forced us to a painful crossroads involves another constitutional amendment, also put there for good reasons: the Second, guaranteeing citizens the right to bear arms. At the time it was written, “arms” meant muskets and similarly simple firearms, usually limited to single shots and never more than a few. Now we have semiautomatic and automatic rifles, capable of firing very large numbers of rounds in a very short time. We also have “bump stocks” which replace the normal stock on a semiautomatic and use the recoil from one shot to accelerate the next, effectively making the gun fully automatic.
Given that wars happen, even though everybody says we wish they wouldn’t (and some of us really mean it), such weapons have a real but limited justification for existence. If there’s a reasonable likelihood that Nation A will be attacked by Nation B, Nation A needs to have weapons at least as nasty as those likely to be used against it. It’s a lot harder to think of circumstances in which an individual citizen needs a gun developed for the express purpose of killing lots of people quickly.
I must pause here to head off those readers who are about to lambaste me as a “liberal snowflake” out to destroy the Second Amendment and thereby the country. In fact I enjoy target shooting myself and some of my best friends have been avid hunters. I lived some of my formative years in a rural neighborhood where guns were common, and I never heard of a homicide. I have no quarrel with responsible hunters collecting some of their own food3 (though I do have a quarrel with hunters who kill just for trophies). In some places it makes perfect sense for a responsible and well-trained homeowner to keep a pistol or rifle for defending hearth or livestock. In short, (a) I have a strong interesting in keeping our country alive and well, not in destroying or weakening it, and (b) I consider the Second Amendment an important part of that.
But . . .
Like the First, it can and should have some limitations—and recent changes in technology demand that we at least consider some new ones. The amendment itself could even be modified; there is an established procedure for amending the Constitution, though it’s so slow and cumbersome that it wouldn’t do anything for our current rash of gun-related problems. I don’t think anything that drastic is needed anyway. The Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, is a terse document, setting forth broad guidelines and leaving it to the legislature and courts to define exactly what they mean in practice. The needed changes, if enough people can agree on what they are, can be made there.
Some people—let’s call them “Second Amendment Fundamentalists”—balk at the suggestion of any change whatsoever, maintaining that the amendment means exactly what the Founding Fathers said, and every word of it is sacrosanct and not to be tampered with. (Though they’re curiously selective about how they interpret that, tending to gloss over the introductory phrase about “a well regulated militia,” apparently hoping nobody will notice it’s there.) The most visible and vocal proponent of this position is the NRA, but that organization should not be viewed as representative of all gun owners. It’s hard to pin down exact numbers of either gun owners or NRA members, but according to the figures I’ve found, the NRA includes no more than about 10% of American gun owners, and I have firsthand knowledge that at least some of the other 90% would be agreeable to some sensible regulation.
So what would sensible regulation look like? The most obvious changes are direct responses to the unprecedented speed now available to shooters (much as happened with cars and will probably have to happen with social media). Rules that provided a reasonable compromise between public safety and individual freedom when nobody had anything more sophisticated than a six-shooter simply don’t do the trick when individuals can easily get their hands on “sporting” guns that pump out dozens of rounds in seconds. Obvious partial solution: Make it a lot harder to get automatic and semiautomatic guns, bump stocks, and high-capacity magazines.
How to do that? The most obvious and direct way is to ban them, but that’s also the one that draws the loudest outcries from the “fundamentalists.”4 Some of them are more willing to consider alternative proposals such as strengthening background checks on prospective gun buyers, improving mental health screening and services, keeping or taking weapons away from individuals judged likely to abuse them, putting more police officers (active or retired) in schools, and training and arming teachers.
All of which look to me like empty gestures designed to make it look like “We’re doing something!” without actually doing anything. Better background checks? Sounds good, but the ones we already have too often fail to get information that one agency has, to another that needs it. Better mental health screening and services and disarming the unstable? Maybe, if anybody could do it reliably—but psychiatry is still an embryonic science and simply can’t dependably determine who’s a threat and who isn’t. It’s a whole lot easier to positively identify an AR-15 than a person who’s likely to commit mass mayhem with one (and arresting people for what they might do, as some suggest, is at least as slippery a slope as banning assault rifles).
And how much chance do you think a retired cop or an English teacher with a pistol locked in his desk would actually have against a calculating killer who suddenly appears in his door with an AR-15 ready to go, and who knows that his first target has to be the teacher?
I could raise many more objections, but space does not permit. The upshot is that the single step I’ve heard of that might actually make a significant dent in the problem is banning civilian possession of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and enforcing the ban.
The fundamentalists have answers for that, too, but again they smack of clutching at straws. “A ban wouldn’t work,” they say. “People who want guns will still find ways to get them.” Of course some will, but if we make it much harder, fewer will—and that would be a significant improvement.
And it has worked in several other countries, such as Australia. Do they have some special ability that we Americans lack, so that they can do it and we can’t?
“Guns don’t kill people,” the fundamentalists say. “People kill people; and if they can’t do it with guns, they’ll do it with something else.” Yes, some will; but some weapons are much more effective than others. If we make it harder to get the weapons of mass destruction, killers who have only less efficient means will not be able to do as much damage before someone can stop them. Yes, they will still do some; nobody can realistically expect to stop all shootings in schools (or churches, or concert venues, or transport terminals, or . . .) and few advocate banning all firearms. But just because we can’t absolutely eradicate a problem doesn’t mean we should make no attempt to reduce it as much as possible.
There have been episodes of violence in public gathering places almost as long as there have been public gathering places. A Wikipedia article on “School Shooting” includes a list detailing examples going back to the 1840s, but until recently most involved small numbers of victims and were motivated by personal vendettas. Only recently have we started having fairly frequent incidents involving wholesale slaughter by people who simply want to go out in a blaze of notoriety by committing wholesale slaughter. And those were largely made possible by the ready availability of mass killing machines having no legitimate civilian use.
As with cars and social media, new capabilities, prominently including the ability to do something much faster than ever before, have created a need for new kinds of controls. It’s understandable that many people would resist what they see as fundamental change—and, up to a point, it’s good that they do. Fundamental changes should not be made lightly—but sometimes they must be made, when circumstances have fundamentally changed.
And for those who cling to the notion that we must stick unswervingly to exactly what the Founding Fathers wrote, even in the face of changes they could never have anticipated, let me close with a quote from one of the Foundingest of Fathers, Thomas Jefferson5:
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
That remains excellent advice for governments—and for the citizens who elect them and should hold them accountable.
* * *
1 But not all—the part about self-driving cars is just getting started!
2 Science 09 Mar 2018: Vol. 359, Issue 6380, pp. 1146-1151. For one of several subsequent summaries, see https://slate.com/technology/2018/03/lies-travel-faster-than-truth-on-twitter-says-a-major-new-mit-study.html.
3 In fact, I’ve often thought our culture could benefit from having one day a year when everybody had to kill their own food or go hungry, since many people who’ve never done that seem to have no gut-level understanding of the fundamental fact that (at least so far) something else has to die so they can live.
4 Though even as I write this, a federal court has just ruled that bans on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines do not violate the Second Amendment.
5 Prominently displayed on one wall of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. Slightly condensed from a letter from Jefferson to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval), July 12, 1816; manuscript available online from the Library of Congress.