23 May 2014

#ESSAY: Does Advanced Technology Make the 2nd Amendment Redundant? - @hetero_sapien

The 2nd amendment of the American Constitution gives U.S citizens the constitutional right to bear arms. Perhaps the most prominent justification given for the 2nd amendment is as a defense against tyrannical government, where citizens have a method of defending themselves against a corrupt government, and of taking their government back by force if needed by forming a citizen militia.

While other reasons are sometimes called upon, such as regular old individual self-defense and the ability for the citizenry to act as a citizen army in the event their government goes to war despite being undertrooped, these justifications are much less prominent than the defense-against-tyrannical-government argument is.

This may have been fine when the Amendment was first conceived, but considering the changing context of culture and its artifacts, might it be time to amend it? When it was adopted in 1751, the defensive-power afforded to the citizenry by owning guns was roughly on par with the defensive-power available to government. In 1751 the most popular weapon was the musket, which was limited to 4 shots per minute, and had to be re-loaded manually. The state-of-the-art for “arms” in 1791 was roughly equal for both citizenry and military. This was before automatic weapons – never mind tanks, GPS, unmanned drones, and the like. In 1791, the only thing that distinguished the defensive or offensive capability of military from citizenry was quantity. Now it’s quality.

Technological growth has made the 2nd amendment redundant. If one agrees that its purpose was to give citizenry the ability to physically defend themselves against a tyrannical government, then we must admit that the inequality of defensive capability created by the advanced state of arms and weaponry available to military, and not available to the citizenry, has made the 2nd amendment redundant by virtue of the fact that the types of weapons available to citizens no longer compare in defensive and offensive capability to the kinds of weapons available to the military. Law lags behind technology; what else is new(s)?

This claim would have been largely true as early as WWI, which saw the adoption of tanks, air warfare, naval warfare, poison gas and automatic weapons – assets which weren’t available to the average citizen. Military technology has only progressed since then. Indeed, the wedding of military assets with industrialization and mass-manufacturing that occurred during WWI may have entrenched this trend so deeply that we had no hope of ameliorating such technological disparity thereafter. This marked the beginning of the military industrial complex, which today assures that the overwhelming majority of new technological advances are able to be leveraged by the military before they trickle down to the average citizen through industry.

None of this will be a problem if advances in technologies-of–post-scarcity (e.g nanotech, fab-labs) progress to the point where all cost becomes attributable to the information in the design of a given product. The average citizen currently doesn’t have access to the types of manufacturing and processing assets needed to create advanced weaponry; such assets are only available to the military, via the military-industrial complex. But if veritable means of post-scarcity came into the picture, then the only hope military would have of keeping proprietary access to certain technologies (that is, of making certain technologies illegal to use and own if you’re an average citizen) would be to keep the designs of such weapons confidential – a possibility in turn undermined by the trend of increasing transparency, which some think will culminate in full-on sousveillance – in which case confidentiality is out of the question.

​So the broader trend of increasing-power-in-fewer-hands, seen vividly in the increasing scale of destruction throughout the history of war, may level things out by itself (whether singly or in tandem with increasing transparency). I’m sure that when the first Atomic Bomb was dropped, very few people thought that so much destruction could have been unleashed by one bomb. Now we take for granted the fact that such things are possible. If the trend continues and the constructive and destructive capabilities available to an individual through the use of technology keeps on climbing, this dichotomy (of inequality of offensive/defensive capability between citizen and military) may be flattened out on its own, and may turn out to be but a bump in the road.

Conclusion, confusion, contusion:

So, should we give the 2nd amendment a final shot to the head on the grounds that its most called-upon utility has been obviated by technological growth– or should we level the laying-field from the opposite direction, and give every man, woman and child access to the latest in cutting-edge weapons-of-mass-destruction?

Probably neither. The transformative potential of technology makes such 2-tone options seem pale and inadequate. Perhaps the real message is this: that technologies can disrupt and rupture what seem to be quiet raptures weighty with wait and at rest, that futures often refute and that the past is quick to become the post – that technologies transform, and that we must be on constant guard against our precast foundations and preconceptions, which can turn at any moment with a little technological momentum underfoot. While they may have made sense at one point, sensibility was made to be remade. Culture is a seismic landscape, and what we take for Law, whether physical or Man-Made, always remains terribly (and thankfully) uncertain in the face of technologies’ upward growth.

We must always remain open to facing the New, and to remaking our selves and our world in response thereto, even if on the face of it the victory of our change seems like our defeat. Technology changes the circumstances, and we cannot rely on tradition and unflinching Law to provide the answer. We must always be ready to lift the veil and have another look at the available options when new technologies come into play, and always remain willing to will our own better way. Certainty is a fool’s crown, and one that the bastard-prince Newness will be fast to dash to the ground.

By Franco Cortese - More articles by Franco Cortese

Originally published at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies on 30 December 2013

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