Sandy Hook Shooting: Technology and Law Should Serve Us, Not Control Us

Categories: Tech
On Friday, not long after the Sandy Hook shootings, NPR's political editor Ken Rudin took to Facebook to tell his followers:
As tempting as it may be to once again debate guns and gun control -- and try to come to grips with this madness -- we know nothing is going to change. The fault/blame for this unspeakable tragedy is spread around to many. Let's save these emotions and political arguments for another day. It's not a day for politics. Let's instead think about and pray for these defenseless children and their grieving families.

It was a remarkable statement to come from someone who spends his days covering politics. Here he was, saying that not only was that day not a day for politics (thereby echoing the clowns at Fox News, but not for the same reasons), but that "nothing is going to change." So that means that no day is a day for politics, according to NPR's political editor. In which case, why should anyone ever try to effect change, or for that matter, pay any attention to the news media?

(Full disclosure: a decade ago I worked with Rudin, not particularly closely, at NPR. And I like him.) Rudin was hardly alone. Defeatism is rampant. As is obstructionism. The Daily Beast's libertarian writer Megan McCardle took about 4,000 words to lay out a rather pedestrian libertarian argument against gun control. It's titled "There's Little We Can Do to Prevent Another Massacre." Her one solution -- really -- is to train 6- and 7-year-old children to "gang rush" school shooters.

But back to the somewhat-real world. There are 300 million guns out there already, the defeatists say, and we are hamstrung by the archaic, poorly written Second Amendment. So, that's that. Nothing can be done.

Which is a crock, of course. It's true that the courts in recent years have interpreted the Second Amendment to strike down or preclude all manner of reasonable gun-control measures. But that doesn't mean the courts are somehow mystically bound to do so. In fact, the modern interpretation of the amendment that courts have relied upon is relatively recent, as the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin -- who actually knows what he's talking about -- notes. Before the late '70s, when the gun lobby became a major force, the courts often had no problem allowing reasonable gun laws.

This defeatism is part of a more widespread phenomenon -- a form of technological determinism that would have us fold before the technologies we create, and the laws we pass. It manifests in many ways.

For example, there are the digital triumphalists -- the people who believe that because a technology exists, we must let it take its own course and determine our fate. On the day of the shootings, there was all kinds of misinformation being passed around -- on social media sites and by the media. Reliable digital triumphalist Mathew Ingram wrote the next day that this was just fine by him. Spreading misinformation "is just the way the news works now, and we had better get used to it."

Well, no. We'd better not. In fact, what we'd better do is knock it off. Ingram (and his many like-minded cohorts) thinks that the "sausage-making" that used to go on in newsrooms before information was released to the public (ideally, in accurate form) must take place in full view of the public now -- in particular, on Twitter.

Tell that to Ryan Lanza, the brother of shooter Adam, who was pegged as the shooter for hours before the truth was confirmed. This particular bit of misinformation (one of many) was based on the utterings of a single, anonymous "law enforcement official." CNN had Ryan as the shooter for hours (at least on its website), even after other news outlets had confirmed the truth. So this poor, innocent chap, whose brother had just murdered his mother and killed a bunch of kids before killing himself, also had to endure the online taunts of people who believed he was the killer. "Fuck you CNN, it wasn't me," he wrote on his Facebook page before disabling it. And who could blame him? And who could blame him for saying "fuck you" to the people who think it's okay -- in fact, optimal -- for such misinformation to be spread by supposed professionals?

After all nobody forced CNN and others to report who the shooter was before there was official confirmation. The mark of professional journalists is that they make as sure as they can that they have something right before reporting it. Otherwise, they're just a bunch of people yammering on Twitter, and they can't be trusted any more than some anonymous cretin spreading lies with malicious intent. But for people like Ingram, this is not only what journalism now is, but what it should be. He thinks the "transparency" of spreading falsehoods around and later correcting them is a good thing.

Media outlets, of course, could decide that what makes them worth paying attention to is that they don't spread misinformation and that they do confirm facts. There's nothing preventing them from doing so except their own cluelessness. But so many of them are so addled by technology that they allow themselves to be led by it.

BuzzFeed's Ben Smith seems conflicted on the matter. He profusely apologized for his site's part in spreading misinformation, but told NPR that with breaking news stories, "There's going to be a massive, fast conversation on social media, and on Twitter in particular, trying to figure out everything they can about anyone whose name has appeared. And the idea the professionals have nothing to do with that conversation strikes me as a bad idea."

But why is it a bad idea? It seems clear that it's a good idea for media outlets to differentiate themselves from the Twitter hordes. Let those hordes say whatever they want (as they will anyway), and let's get back to the notion that we can have a generally reliable media to sort out and confirm the facts. That there should be no distinction between the hordes and the news media is a favored concept among the digital triumphalists (what with their championing of "citizen journalism" and whatnot), but they still haven't adequately explained why this should be the case.

What the gun-control defeatists and the digital triumphalists have in common is that they think that merely because a technology exists, or a law is in place, we are at its mercy -- nothing can be done to manage or stop what technology does or a law decrees. We must mindlessly give in to everything it can do rather than decide what it should do (or not do). They all put humans in the No. 2 rank (at best) behind the technologies and laws that humans have created.

This is nonsense. Technologies can be harnessed and managed. Laws can be changed or reinterpreted. Technologies and laws exist to serve us, not us them. As President Obama said of the shootings: "Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?"

As humans, we have the power to decide whether or not to act. To pretend that our judgment is irrelevant, and that we are at the mercy of man-made technologies and man-made laws, is to negate what makes us human.

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