“There are cameras nowadays that have been developed to tell the difference between a squirrel and a bomb.” ― George W. Bush
It is becoming more and more common, in this age of breathtaking technology (and the advertising to match) to jump all over each and every new gadget on the assumption (or wishful thinking) that the effect is purely additive and not also subtractive, that the need to overcome what Lewis Mumford once referred to as the “abyss of boredom” can wholly obscure the dangers lurking deep within our own techno-obsessions.
Some of us are even willing to line up on the streets for hours to purchase the latest gadget, proud to show off what others don’t yet possess, but not entirely prepared for the inevitable — when others figure out how to get what we now have.
In matters within (and also beyond) technology, we tend to assume a positive impact from the “new and improved” while remaining willfully oblivious to the “dark sides,” the less positive consequences that we will at some future point have to contend with, and often at a moment of greater urgency or less convenience. As noted by Henry David Thoreau quite some years before the advent of any of our modern contrivances, we are prone to distraction by our “pretty toys” from the things that truly matter. He might also have added that if we fail to “practice” attention to those “things that matter,” we will be woefully under-prepared for the times when those “things” spring a metaphorical leak.
These reactions – the need to push the envelope on the acquisition of “bling,” the unwillingness to even acknowledge the potential negative consequences of acquisition, and the lack of attention to what our strategy will be when everyone else has what we have – are hardly confined to the relatively petty realm of personal technology.
A weapons-related version of this conundrum was on display last Tuesday in the UN Security Council. A debate hosted by the Malaysian Foreign Minister focused on “challenges in addressing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), their means of delivery, and related materials.” The debate gave proper credit to the efforts of Spain and other states to clarify and fortify our responsibility to secure the most dangerous weapons and hopefully prevent access to such weapons by nefarious regimes and non-state actors.
Otherwise, the debate broke little new ground, inasmuch as the immediacy of the WMD threats were pretty clear – including unsecured nuclear weapons in Turkey, chemical weapons use in Syria, reckless flaunting of nuclear weapons capacity by the DPRK, and biological agents laboratories in too many places. There were some thoughtful statements of course – including the Secretary-General’s admission of links between emerging technologies and WMD access that need urgent addressing by the international community. In that light, Vietnam joined with others in citing the “dual use” challenges that potentially cloak the wolves of mass weaponry in sheep’s clothing. Venezuela lamented that WMD use is not at all “theoretical” but becomes ever more likely as our “secret” weapons programs continue their expansion. Panama smartly noted the grave challenges that come to the fore as our technological progress becomes more “democratic.”
But even more than these statements, the debate also, deliberately or not, reinforced the precarious position in which the Security Council finds itself when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, those already on the books, those subject to modernization, and those in the planning or pre-production phases. Simply put, states (especially the P-5) don’t come to the Security Council to discuss their weapons modernization, let alone to seek approval for the development of any new weapons technology. The Security Council has a role only at the point when shiny new weapons systems or deadly biological agents are in danger of falling into nefarious hands, only when the weapons “we alone have” become the weapons that many can acquire.
As with our personal technology, the unchallenged assumption seems to be that technological advance itself is inevitable. Its shiny new wrinkles – the “lust removed from nature” as Don Delillo once coined it — cannot apparently be resisted by mere mortals and their institutional guardians. All we can do, it seems, is fuss and fume over the inevitable challenges that occur when our carefully crafted blueprints for a militarized future fall into the hands of the “bad guys.”
As they inevitably will. During the Council debate, Professor Greg Koblentz noted that our collective skill level required to use new technologies is actually decreasing. What is also decreasing is our courage to ask the next questions, to pause in our weapons-related feeding frenzy long enough to recognize that the genies we release will at some point get mighty ornery, will start hanging out with the “wrong crowd,” will do everything possible to avoid being “bottled up” again.
As it is now, if a new distraction appears on our “smart” phones, we have to follow its allures. If a labor-saving device can eliminate more of our labor force, we have to market it. If a new weapon will give us a temporary edge over our adversaries, including those with whom we refuse to negotiate, we have to build it. If we can build a camera that can distinguish between a squirrel and a bomb, well “hot dog.” Ain’t we clever?
Even Dogbert from the cartoon strip “Dilbert” understands that much of our modern “advancement” is predicated on “people not asking too many questions.” We must insist harder than ever that our leadership asks the questions that matter, and then ask them again. And we must insist on the same for ourselves.
Indeed, if the Security Council cannot compel the major weapons holders and manufacturers (mostly the permanent members) to give a heads up on their short-term, high-tech advantages, then we need to push harder in other spaces. We simply cannot continue the policy of wringing our hands about threats which in general are predictable and which in specific are knowable. Or soon will be.
There were news accounts recently of Pokémon GO players literally falling off a cliff while chasing its elusive, virtual species. Those in control of our WMD responses are urged to study the metaphorical implications of this accident very, very carefully.