Breaking Stuff

Eons ago, one of our most visionary pre-modern ancestors picked up a rock and thought, “I should throw this heavy thing at that other guy.” [Queue: Thus Spake Zarathustra] Since then, weapons have been kind of our thing. Even the best athletes of our species are still pretty physically pathetic. We can run really far, but that’s about it. We’re slow, soft, weak, and not especially tough. But we’ve got a trump card: once we figured out how to throw stuff, sharpen sticks, and work in formations, inter-species competition was pretty much over.

Human beings have probably spent an unhealthy amount of time, effort, and resources on weapons ever since. Then again, many of our most beneficial historic innovations came from the ingenuity we’ve exercised on competitive weapon-making. Weapons have also been used to establish and maintain the secure and stable spaces in which most of the greatest human achievements have occurred. Humans are still not quite a domesticated animal, and it’s hard to know what the world would look like if we were. Most societies are far less violent than they used to be. Yet regrettably, we’re still quite dangerous to each other. Some of us still use force to exploit, harm, and extract, and some of us use force to protect, preserve, and defend. Some of us do both. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Weapons are also everybody’s favorite moral panic. We’ve been freaking out about advancements in weapons from the beginning, and every government since the ancient Greeks has had some form of weapon control. Oftentimes, we don’t get scared of new weapons until we realize the “wrong” types of people are using them, that our comfortable preferences on who should monopolize force never seem to hold up over time.  The technology behind weapons tends to diffuse as technology and industry advance. Sometimes this diffusion is damaging and disruptive, sometimes it has benefits, usually it leads to mixed results, and occasionally we panic but the whole thing blows over anyway.

What was once “cutting edge” eventually becomes rudimentary by comparison. Weapons that previously required government or corporate-level resources to build can now be bought, or built, by criminal groups, terrorists, small enterprise, and individuals. We don’t talk much about “Chariot Control,” or “Trebuchet Control,” or “Longbow Control” anymore, but these once-fearsome military technologies were only wielded by professional armies when they first hit the scene. Now, they’re just cool hobbies for makers, sportspeople, researchers, and history buffs.

Weapons that seemed exotic and difficult to build in centuries past are now within the grasp of hobbyists. Weapons that were once “controlled” by virtue of their centralized production, can now be built more easily by independent makers. What weapons will people be able to make in a post-industrial world? How might they be used, and why? What benefits and harms might they bring? How will the diffusion of weapons-making technology impact modern governance, security, and society? How might our reactions to this diffusion impact free society? Is this a unique new challenge to security and state monopoly of force? Or, is it simply a new incarnation of the same challenge that has always existed? The quixotic task of maintaining temporary monopoly over technologic advantage has always plagued human institutions. Will post-industrial DIY simply accelerate this trend in predictable ways, or will it take us into truly uncharted territory?

What can’t be denied is that weapons shaped society, technology, and industry as we know it. Our undomesticated species can use weapons to preserve freedom, democracy, human rights, and all that we consider best about civilization, or destroy it. The 4th Industrial Revolution enables a wider variety of humans to make a wider variety of things, but it doesn’t change human nature. Even today, no weapon builds itself, and few weapons can operate themselves. Making weapons is a technologic and production issue, but using them is still a political and socio-behavioral issue. Unless we want to abdicate one of our oldest moral responsibilities and turn our destructive powers over to the machines entirely, the most important choices remain ours to make.