When folks hear about new ways to make weapons, or contraband, or engage in smuggling, it’s only natural to worry that technology is leading us to a world less safe, less secure, and less predictable. This blog covers some of the trends, and explores how some of our techno-anxieties might be valid. But crime, violence, terrorism, and other negative externalities of modernity are actually just a faint shadow cast by the blinding light of human progress. Life is undeniably better for most human beings today than it was even a century ago. The role of technology in making that happen can hardly be overstated.
If the “4th Industrial Revolution” increasingly democratizes the ability to make stuff, it’s reasonable to assume that criminals, extremists, and scofflaws will turn this to their advantage however they can. Yet, the benefits of technology for legitimate human activities and constructive human progress almost always prove greater in the long run. We can’t know precisely what the future will look like. If history is our guide, then so long as we maintain the space for science, innovation, tolerance, courage, and freedom, our future should prove as much better than the present, as the present has proved better than the past.
Will we know a good thing when we see it? Polling data shows that people always think crime and terrorism are on the rise, even when they fall. A lot of people feel like the world is more violent, more dangerous, more ignorant, less tolerant, and less healthy than it used to be. In fact, most of the world is more peaceful, safer, smarter, more tolerant, and healthier than it has ever been. The exceptions to this happy trend continue to worry us in proportions far greater than their actual impacts. Yes, some of our concerns are wise to consider, and we can’t just let it all slide. Maybe we need a few professional worriers to counterbalance our natural complacence.
But if we’re going to be smart about it, we need to realistically place those concerns within the larger context of human progress. We should understand the role that technology and the freedom to innovate have always played in improving the human condition and expanding human potential. If we get spooked and try to slow things down, or stop the clock, or turn back the dial, we should also know what we might be giving up in the process. Crime and terrorism only piggyback on civilization, they alone can’t determine what the civilized world will do. That’s for the rest of us to decide.
As you read this, there’s a guy in a garage somewhere figuring out how to make illegal weapons, or drugs, or counterfeits. But the kind of tools and information he’s using to game the system are in the same family as the tools and information an American university student is using to design a new style of smart gun that he hopes will reduce firearm accidents. They’re the same tools and information a media artist is using to make mind-blowing new exhibits, or a humanitarian worker is using to produce customized prosthetic limbs for land mine victims. They’re the same kind of tools and information your dentist uses to make customized dental implants, or your surgeon will soon be using to print custom bone and skin grafts, or reconstruct somebody’s face. It’s the same kind of technology that will dramatically increase the efficiency and convenience of many business processes, and make the supply chains for many legitimate products and services more resilient. They are the same kind of tools that will improve the equipment our police and soldiers use, and allow them to repair and customize their gear in the field. They are the same family of tools and information that will enable the production of materials with amazing properties, improving transportation by land, sea, air, and space.
We can fear these trends more than is necessary, or ignore them more than is wise. Somewhere in between there is a balance to be struck. Let’s remember that the underworld is just that: a world underneath the civilized world, not above it. We can’t stop it, but it can’t stop us. A world of post-industrial production and improving DIY does involve a few interesting and provocative new dangers, but most of the great innovations of the past were also feared and opposed for similar reasons.
These innovations happened anyway, in spite of human fears, superstitions, or embedded interests. On the whole, we’re a lot better off for it. Technology doesn’t determine its own uses. That’s still up to us. There are lots of people with the ability to do great harm to others, but they don’t. They don’t because most people are basically decent. And where decency does not rule, incentives do. Perhaps the most important characteristic of a legitimate and well-run society is that most people with the skills and knowledge to do harm will actually derive far greater rewards from improving the human condition than from worsening it. We should keep it that way.