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Wed May 22, 2013
“Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure …”
I saw something online that fueled my natural pessimistic tendencies. It was a story about a University of Texas law student who, on a computer, has developed a plastic gun whose parts can apparently can be fabricated using a 3-D printer (did you know there were 3-D printers?) and assembled as a gun that actually fires bullets.
The federal government took this seriously enough to force the inventor to take down the plastic-gun website. But not before 100,000 people downloaded the plans.
Now: Who has a 3-D printer? It’s no doubt a lot easier to obtain a gun in a store, or on the street, than to print a plastic gun. But 10 years from now? Every 12-year-old kid may have a 3-D printer. The combination of runaway technology and the dark-side of human nature has me feeling very apprehensive about the future.
In case you don’t have enough to worry about in your everyday life: We read of designer viruses that, even if created with good intentions, could cause a plague unlike any since the Middle Ages. Terrorist attacks on the nation's electrical grids could leave the economy in ruins, not to mention the devastating effect on everyday life. And then there are the fears of an unconventional nuclear attack: a bomb in a briefcase. Not to mention the garden-variety bomb in a pressure cooker.
I have great respect for the founders, and in particular the astounding Benjamin Franklin, who warned against frittering away civil liberties. “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” said old Ben (although, as always with history, there are those who say we misunderstand what Franklin meant).
Likewise, I want to agree with those who warn us against the gradual erosion of our freedoms: X-ray vision security machines; we shuffle disheveled, shoeless and beltless, through the airport gate; drones roam the “spacious skies.” But can we really afford anything less? It seems we have to choose between “good guys” tech vs. “bad guys” tech, hope for the best, and “slippery slopes” be damned.
But then: When I was a lad, it was fashionable for fatalistic kids to moan about the inevitable nuclear war that would soon incinerate the Earth. “A hard rain’s gonna fall,” you know. We were supposed to be a piece of soggy, burnt toast long ago by now. I remember a poem that begins, "Terrence, this is stupid stuff, you eat your victuals fast enough …” Still, A.E. Housman’s poem, like Ben Franklin’s bromide, is often misinterpreted. The gist of it: a little pessimism is not such a bad thing:
“Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.”