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.