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Technology: a Sword with Two Blades

by Jim Bray

Can technology be good or bad, or is it just there?

I wasn't going to do a piece in reaction to the September 11th acts of war against the free world, thinking that I didn't want to exploit the situation just to get a column out of it. But after some quiet reflection in front of the TV and the computer screen, I felt there's some technological perspective that can be brought to the issue.

And, in answer to the question above, I think we've just seen perhaps the ultimate example that technology is merely just there.

The September 11th massacre of American civilians was a chilling expose of how technology can be used for evil. But it was also an incredibly uplifting example of the other side of the coin, that it can also be wielded as a force of good.

Take aircraft for example (Please! We shouldn't be afraid to fly, so take 'em whenever possible!). No one seems to be blaming the Boeing Corporation for having designed and built the beautiful 757's and 767's that were used like cruise missiles, though there are undoubtedly some ambulance-chasing lawyers bent on pursuing such blame games.

Oh, sure, planes could be improved. What couldn't? People are now calling for secure doors between the pilots and the passengers, for example, or for better airport security, but that's different from blaming the planes themselves when it's clear that they were merely tools.

Then there are the instances where technology actually helped to lessen the horrible impact of the attack.

Remember how passengers and some crew members used cellphones or airphones to call dirtside? These are the same types of phone we find so annoying in restaurants and theatres, yet in this instance if the people on board these populated, guided missiles hadn't had access to phones, and the wherewithal to use them, investigators and the victims' families would be less able to piece together what happened.

Not only that, in the case of the plane that went down in Pennsylvania it appears that some passengers were convinced to take action against the terrorists because they had phoned home and learned that they weren't just victims of a garden variety hijacking. They were apparently told that other planes had been turned into weapons and decided they wouldn't be used the same way. They apparently succeeded.

And don't forget about the building victims who used their phones to tell people they were alive, giving a bit of hope to their loved ones and the rescuers.

Then there's the Internet, society's new nervous system. According to Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal, instant messaging, e-mail and the Internet not only kept her apprised of the events unfolding around her, but let her stay in touch with friends so they could know each other was okay. She undoubtedly wasn't alone.

Of course, the terrorists must have also used some pretty good technology to keep in contact with each other and their base. Cell phone technology? Probably. E-mail and Internet technology. Undoubtedly.

And Firearms technology to commit the atrocity?

Here's something else to consider: despite the noble sentiments of the gun control movement and their efforts to "save even a single life" by disarming people who don't misuse guns it wasn't the technology of firearms that was the problem. It was low tech knives and "box cutters."

Now some people are calling for armed marshals to be put on planes, clearly realizing that a few responsibly-used firearms might have saved thousands of people last Tuesday. The passengers on the airliners would probably have been lost anyway, but the horrifying and tragic "collateral damage" of the World Trade Center and Pentagon might have never happened.

Who'd have thought?

Perhaps this will reduce the emotional volume so the issue can be talked about logically. To paraphrase an old statement and twist it to suit this column "Airliners don't kill people or buildings, bad people do."

And now some frightening technology is about to be unleashed against those who would have us stop living our own lives, free even to be blithering fools if we so choose. Are these smart bombs, laser sights, cruise missiles et al good or bad uses of technology?

I guess that depends upon which end of the firing mechanism is facing you.

God speed, America.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006