Violence and Technology

There is this well known line from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus that reads, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” There is much wisdom in this, especially when one extends its meaning beyond what Wittgenstein intended (so far as I understand what he intended). We all know very well that words often fail us when we are confronted with unbearable sorrow or unmitigated joy. In the aftermath of the horror in Newtown, Connecticut, then, what could one say? Everything else seemed trivial.

I first heard of the shooting when I logged on to Twitter to post some frivolous comment, and, of course, I did not follow through. However, I then felt the need to post something — something appropriate, something with sufficient gravitas. But I asked myself why? Why should I feel the need to post anything? To what end? So that others may note that I responded to the tragedy with just the right measure of grace and seriousness? Or to self-righteously admonish others, implicitly of course, about their own failure to respond as I deemed appropriate?

When we become accustomed to living and thinking in public, the value of unseen action and unshared thoughts is eclipsed. “I should be silent,” a part of us may acknowledge, but then in response, a less circumspect voice within us wonders, “But how will anyone know that I am being silent? A hashtag perhaps, #silent?”

I felt just then, with particular force, the stunning degree of self-indulgence invited by social media. But then, of course, I had to reckon with the fact that the well of self-indulgence tapped by social media springs from no other source but myself.

There is only one other point that I want to consider. Within my online circles, many have sought to challenge the slogan “Guns don’t kill people,” and they have done so based on premises which I am generally inclined to support. I have myself associated the technological neutrality position with this slogan, and I have found it an inadequate position. Guns, like other technologies, yield a causal force independent of the particular uses to which they are put. They enter actively and with consequence into our perception and experience of the world. This, I continue to believe, is quite true.

Several months ago, in the wake of another tragic shooting, Evan Selinger wrote a well-considered piece on this very theme and I encourage you to read it: “The Philosophy of the Technology of the Gun.”

Less effectively, in my view, but thoughtfully still, PJ Rey revisited Zeynep Tufekci’s appropriation of Aristotle’s categories of causality to frame the gun as the material cause of acts of violence. The argument here is also against technological neutrality, I’m just not entirely sure that Aristotle’s categories are fully understood by Rey or Tufekci (which is not to say that I fully understand them). The material cause is not “that without which,” but “that out of which.” But then again, I put Wittgenstein’s dictum to my own uses; I suppose Aristotle too can be used suggestively, if not rigorously. Maybe.

Thus far, I’ve been sympathetic to the claims advanced, but there is latent in these considerations (but not necessarily in the thinking of these authors) an opposite error that I’ve also seen expressed explicitly and forcefully. Last night, I caught the following comment on Twitter from Prof. Lance Strate. Strate is a respected media ecologist and I have in the past appreciated his insights and commentary. I was, however, stopped short by this tweet:

I want to make all the requisite acknowledgements here. It is a tweet, after all, and the medium is not conducive to nuance. Nor is one required to say everything one thinks about a matter whenever one speaks of that matter. And, in fairness to Strate, I also want to provide a link to his fuller discussion of the situation on his blog, “On Guns and More,” much of which I would agree with.

That said, “Surely the blame is also on him,” was my initial response to this tweet. Again, I want to read generously, particularly in a medium that is given to misunderstanding. I don’t know that Strate meant to recuse the shooter of all responsibility; in fact, I have to believe such was not the case. But this comment reminded me that in our efforts to critique the neutrality of technology position, we need to take care less we end up endorsing, in my view, more pernicious errors of judgment.

Thinking again about the manner in which a gun enters into our phenomenological experience, it is true to say that a gun wants to be shot. But this does not say everything there is to say; it doesn’t even say the most important and relevant things that could be said. Why is it, at times, not shot at all? Further, to say it wants to be shot is not yet to say what it will be shot at or why? We cannot dismiss the other forms of causality that come into play. If Aristotle is to be invoked, after all,  it should be acknowledged that he privileged final causation whenever possible.

Interestingly, in his illustration of the four causes –the making of a bronze statue — Aristotle did not take the craftsman to be the best example of an efficient cause. It was instead the knowledge the craftsman possessed that best illustrated the efficient cause. If we apply this analogously onto the present case, it suggests that knowledge of how to inflict violence is the efficient cause. And this reminds us, disturbingly, of what is latent in all of us.

It reminds me as well of some other well known lines, not from Wittgenstein this time, but from Solzhenitsyn: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Kyrie Eleison.

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29 thoughts on “Violence and Technology

  1. Addressing your first point, the common “social media as self-indulgence” frame has been bothering me for quite some time, and after reading this post, I think I realize why. I think it all depends on one’s motivation for being connected on Twitter or Facebook or whatever. Different people use these services for different things. I personally tend to think of Twitter and Facebook as opportunities to have a very wide conversation with a much broader community. Granted, I suck at it, but the potential is there.

    So if Twitter is imagined as a conversation, then contributing to that conversation is not an act of self-indulgence, but simply taking one’s turn. Now, the nice thing about Twitter-as-conversation is that there is no outside pressure to take that turn in conversation–if you feel you have something to say, you’re welcome to say it, but if you want to remain silent on any topic, you are not faulted for it. In face-to-face conversation, on the other hand, remaining silent when one is expected to speak is an anti-social act.

    • Thinking more on this, I want to clarify that I’m not saying that you or anyone else who questions the need to share in certain cases is doing so because you’re using Twitter for selfish or less-than-worthy motives or anything. Not at all. My comment could have been taken that way. I just wonder if the need to share, to say something, arises not out of vanity or self-obsession but out of a desire for connection, and that none of us should feel we need to apologize for that.

    • But Shannon, couldn’t we also say that the flip side to the lack of obligation to speak in some social media contexts (e.g. Twitter), is a lack of obligation to listen? So, though the conversation may be very broad, with many people involved, it may not be very deep or interesting. And if meaningful conversation isn’t the main goal of engaging, there may be other motives at play.

      • Boaz, you are absolutely right. But I think the key here for me is “may,” and I think too many people take that “may” and turn it into a “does.” Using the example in Mike’s post (sorry, Mike), something horrible and wretched happens in the world somewhere, and Mike feels the desire to say something about it. I’m suggesting that because of the dominant “social media as self-indulgence” frame, that desire to say something is too often interpreted as arising from vanity or self-indulgence when it may arise from a desire to connect to the world around us–a good thing, I think. Yes, you’re right, though, that the conversation metaphor works both ways. There is less of a requirement to speak, but also to listen.

        • I guess the difference in a face to face interaction is that there is
          an implicit acknowledgement that a conversation is taking place, and
          the people that can hear it are part of it. Of course, not always, and
          there are all sorts of ways of signalling as to whether one is or
          isn’t part of the conversation- but it is more the default. On
          Twitter or any circumstance with so many people involved, one is not
          by default part of the conversation. So the becoming part of the
          conversation and the speaking are combined in one act. I guess this
          is the point Mike is making when he suggests the use of the #silent
          hashtag. A way to signal one’s presence but not speak. But if this
          type of solemn involvement and support for others without combining it
          with one’s opinion is so difficult to accomplish on Twitter, then one
          is right to question it in various ways. Not to say that the desire
          to connect to the world around us is not a positive thing, but there
          may be more or less appropriate or productive ways to manifest it.

          • Agreed. There are good and bad conversation tactics in real life, too, though. And I think it might be appropriate to conceptualize “conversation” very broadly, and to imagine that we are all by default part of it.

    • Shannon and Boaz,

      Sorry for taking a while to jump in here. I don’t really have anything to add to what both of you have said in these comments. I think I end up pretty much were you all did.

      I will add this one thought though, sort of related. Silent presence is sometimes the best possible form of being with someone in times of sorrow and suffering. This is possible only when face-to-face with another person. Only then can one be silent and present. To be present online is to speak. So in situations where words fail, online presence becomes particularly problematic.

      • Absolutely. I see now what you were trying to get at in your initial post. I think I may have missed the point a bit. Online communication is poorly positioned to handle that kind of communication, yes, but I think it’s the next step I’m questioning–the idea that that an attempt to communicate anything in that situation is an act of self-indulgence.

        • You’re right about that. It is not necessarily an act of self-indulgence. This post was about accepting responsibility and that’s why I followed up by explaining that I had no one to blame for it other than myself. Although, I do think that if not self-indulgence, which is quite negative, social media does nurture the impulse to speak, because if you’re going to use it, you sort of have to. Because of this, it may overwhelm the instinct to be silent. But that may very well be due to the natural and noble desire to connect and even help or commiserate.

  2. Michael,

    I appreciate this post. Perhaps you shoudl forward this to Clint Eastwood, who used the CT tragedy to take jabs at Obama and the Left, blasting his narrowminded views to all and sundry via his Facebook page. Personally, I think Clint should keep his opinions to himself. I think Morgan Freeman handled the tragedy much more eloquently and with meaning. Whereas Clint hit below the belt.

    Personally, I am sick and tired of Twitter and FBook — I have completely disconnected from both.

    My holiday is over (Chanukah); however, my heart goes out to those families who are coping with such tremendous loss days before their Christmas holiday — how horrible.


  3. I am so grateful for technology, for email, blogs, Facebook, and twitter. They are tools of connection, and like most tools,, guns included, only inanimate tools. Three years ago I moved across country to be part of my grandchildren’s lives. Finding and make new friends is not easy for us old ones – I will be 76 in a few months. Without my internet connections, the friends I have made on line, the long ago friends refound, The amazing stories, pictures, ideas; the funny jokes, and the rants and raves. The opportunity to share my thoughts and the knowledge I worked so hard to gain.

    And yes, like guns there is the other side, but for me at least the good out weighs the bad.

    • Thanks for the comment. No argument here. Obviously I enjoy blogging myself! As Shannon indicated in the comments above, one can certainly long for connection and find online resources a way of addressing that longing. It helps me, though, to consider both the good and the problematic.

  4. The gun wants to be shot? Lets not strangle ourselves with our IQ´s here. A gun can only shoot when somebody else wants to use it as such. I could use it to hammer a nail into the wall. I could kill someone with it.
    No gun law on earth will change inherent human nature; each of us is capable of violence. If we choose to excersise that ability then we, and we alone , are responsible.

  5. Read.
    A very well put essay, but I feel it is overstated. Yes , I can believe that I would feel bolder with a gun in my hand, but why would that feeling morph into action, especially one as violent as murder ? Surely, then, you could argue that if I stood on top of a tall building, I would be more likely to jump and kill myself, just because the building had enabled me to do that.
    A gun could change my ability to kill, but is it then able to play a part in my decision to kill? I think not. Nor do I believe that the gun and I can become another subject. Feelings can change as you play a part in your own new movie, but the gun is a prop, not the director.
    Who whispers the words, “go on, shoot….”.As scary as this thought is to many people, it has to be the person.

    Very pleased I found your blog……..


    • Judy,

      “Why would that feeling morph into action” — that does get at the heart of the matter here. Whatever the answer to that question, it resides in the complex, mysterious workings of consciousness. I certainly don’t believe, and I hope this was clear, that the gun itself can be the explanation that answers that question. But if something puts the thought in mind and the action would not have transpired without the thought, then whatever that something was somehow gets tangled into the interface of will and action, but not in such a way that it alone explains the action, or, much less, absolves the one who takes the action of responsibility.

      Very pleased that you’ve come by and taken the time to add your thoughtful comments.


  6. I think you missed the point of my tweet, which was necessarily limited to 140 characters. CNN & MSNBC had made it a point not to use the shooter’s name, so as not to reward his actions with posthumous publicity and fame, and thereby provide motivation for potential future shooters. I consider this commendable on their part, and seeing Fox, in contrast, plastering his name on the screen, I speculated on their motives, and concluded that it was specifically to de-emphasize the issue of gun violence. Personal responsibility is only a by-product, in my opinion, of Fox’s desire to hue to the conservative position that objects to any consideration of gun control.

    • This is why I sought to be generous in the framing of my comments, making sure to make all due allowances for the medium, etc. I understand your point, but did find the wording problematic. And I do agree that reviving the practice of damnatio memoriae for those who commit such acts has much to commend it.

  7. […] When we become accustomed to living and thinking in public, the value of unseen action and unshared thoughts is eclipsed. “I should be silent,” a part of us may acknowledge, but then in response, a less circumspect voice within us wonders, “But how will anyone know that I am being silent? A hashtag perhaps, #silent?” – Michael Sacasas […]

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