Pop Rocket, September 2012
Bear with an old-car guy for a minute.
In the decades around the turn of the 19th century, automobiles were a fascinating but mostly frivolous luxury, toys for the rich, simply because there was no real need for them. Cities and towns were compact because people walked or used horses to move themselves and their goods. Greater distances and heavier loads were handled by railroads. The system was complete, and it worked.
Industrialists got busy, the world spun a few times, and by the end of the 1920s automobiles were essential to commerce and middle-class life. Affordable personal cars created new possibilities, roads were built and smoothed, people were getting out of the crowded, dirty cities and living farther from their workplaces. Suburbs sprang up, social classes separated further, and once nearly unimaginable long-distance travel for pleasure became commonplace.
Reel forward to today, and there can be no question that the availability of automotive technology has radically transformed our world. Owning a car is essential to identity and social status for most of us, and it obviously changes how we think about the world and act in it.
We embrace the benefits of that technology and try not to think about its costs, amounting to between 30,000 and 43,000 dead and a quarter of a trillion dollars in economic impact every year in this country alone. But does it mean anything useful to say, "cars don't build suburbs, people do"?
In the aftermath of the Aurora mass shooting I read a fascinating piece in The Atlantic by Evan Selinger, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, introducing me to the little-known field of the philosophy of technology. Leading thinkers in the field agree on the basic premise that a person with a given technology in hand is different from one without, in terms of how we view the world, what the elements we perceive mean and which matter more, and the choices we make.
This rings true for me, like a bell, and brings a fresh point of view to the public debate over personal firearms, one that I think essential to clarifying the basis for how we act as a society.
Like most old saws labeled "common sense," the cliche "guns don't kill people ..." is ridiculously simplistic. Yes, the human pulls the trigger, but how we understand that act has to change if we recognize that, to some degree, holding a weapon changes us, gives us a range of different choices, and significantly alters our perceptions of ourselves and others. Who can deny the feeling of power that comes over us when gripping a handgun for the first time?
Selinger writes, "To someone with a gun, the world readily takes on a distinct shape. It not only offers people, animals, and things to interact with, but also potential targets. Furthermore, gun possession makes it easy to be bold, even hotheaded. Physically weak, emotionally passive, and psychologically introverted people will all be inclined to experience shifts in demeanor. ... there is a reduction in the amount and intensity of environmental features that are perceived as dangerous, and a concomitant amplification in the amount and intensity of environmental features that are perceived as calling for the subject to respond with violence."
It may be that this has been a more or less constant factor in the history of our relationship with firearms. But neither the technology nor our society has stood still. The weapons have grown steadily more powerful, dangerous and accessible, while at the same time our social fabric has deteriorated, leaving most people relatively isolated from larger communities and other kinds of people, infantilized in their focus on self, suckling a steady stream of media sensationalism encouraging distrust and fear. From this is born the cult of the gun, showing just how sick our societal relationship with firearms has become.
Leaving aside our occasional fascination with mass killings like that in Aurora, Americans generally avoid thinking about cost. Each year something on the order of 100,000 Americans are killed or injured by firearms. Yet most people seem confident that the benefits of access to this technology outweigh the costs. The main benefit seems to be that a gun helps alleviate fear, usually unjustified, which has to feed back into changing the gun-wielder.
It's a cliché to say that the men who wrote our Bill of Rights could not have imagined an AK-47, but it's also true that they had no concept of how guns change people and ultimately the society they inhabit. Anyone with better than a gnat's brain can see that the situation is out of control. Our sensible 18th-century safeguard against invasion has grown into an unrecognizable and self-destructive social pathology.
Sensible people everywhere in this country are beginning to rethink their individual relationships with guns. I think it's high time we as a nation start to grow up about this issue, face the massive and insidious cost of the mythology we've built around it, and dig into making changes to head off an even more threatening future.
Pop Rocket, September 2012