Over the next few days, as we wonder about causes and mourn those who fell victim to gunfire at Virginia Tech University on Monday, we will hear many fervent, ill-advised calls for quick technological fixes meant to prevent another such incident.
We will hear "experts" on cable news shows blame video games for the rise in gun violence among young people - despite the fact that the rise in popularity of violent video games coincides with a remarkable drop in gun violence in all sectors of American society.
We will hear others blame the university for not investing in technology that would have made it easier to alert students about the unfolding events.
And we have already read foolish calls from conservative law professors and others who insist that deregulating a particularly deadly technology — firearms — would make our campuses safer. After all, they argue, if someone had been able to shoot back at the attacker, fewer people would have died. So Virginia should allow firearms on campus, they argue.
But as we begin to examine what happened Monday morning in Blacksburg, we must resist the temptation to rush to judgment and draw ill-conceived lessons from the event while emotions are so raw and the pain so intense.
As a culture, we are very bad at thinking about technology. We look to it either as something to fear or as a panacea for the flaws of the human condition. Technology is neither. It is merely an extension of our own wills and capabilities.
Americans at once will worship technological "advancement" while lurching to blame whatever is new and strange for maladies that have affected our species for millennia. We often view technology either as haunted by evil or neutral and independent of human interaction and intentions.
In fact, no technologies are neutral. A gun in the first act of a play goes off in the third for a reason — the very presence of the technology opens up possibilities and steers imaginations. Guns do not cause senseless violence. But they certainly make violence more conceivable, efficient and effective.
And no technology is haunted or inherently corrupting. We are sentient beings who make our own decisions about how we treat our fellow humans.
People have been killing each other ever since there were people. Video games are not needed to spur the imagination of a person who intends to do others harm.
Regardless of how much we might fear the new and unfamiliar, we also often look to new technology as a quick-fix for the things we fear. We reflexively throw money towards technologies intended to save us from an immediate menace while ignoring dangers that truly threaten us.
After 9/11 we wasted billions on biometric and data-mining technologies to protect ourselves from rare and limited dangers like hijackings, anthrax epidemics and chemical weapon attacks. Yet we defunded efforts to attack real killers like cancer and real lifesavers like public transportation.
Virginia Tech, being one of the most wired and technologically sophisticated places on Earth, certainly could have designed an emergency alert plan that pushed limited yet essential information to students before 9 a.m. Monday. At least it could have used technology at hand — phone messages, e-mail and radio — to spread the news an hour earlier.
But we must be careful and not too far with this analysis. University officials had no reason to believe this was anything but a shooting of two people over a personal disagreement until the shooter opened fire in classrooms two hours later.
So let's wait for more information. Let's seek wisdom rather than shallow punditry. Let's recognize that event such as Monday's shooting are very rare. Let's admit that there is almost nothing we can do to prevent them. And let's recognize that the deep, dark and complex workings of our minds and souls have more to do with such events than any particular technology does.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is an associate professor of Culture and Communication at New York University. His latest book is The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System (Basic Books, 2004). Siva blogs at Sivacracy.net.
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