3D gun printing, hidden eyeglass cameras, constant cyberhacks: Are we all doomed?

These technologies are wonderful, empowering, and simply breathtaking. They're also no end of trouble.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Technology is a beautiful thing. It's capable of transforming our lives. We can talk to family and friends across the world or around the corner. We can replace failed organs with artificial ones. We can play Angry Birds and carry around little, portable supercomputers in our pockets.

And we can print guns out of plastic and video private conversations simply by wearing eyeglasses.

The challenge of technology is that it has no soul. Technological devices have no direct awareness of wrong or right (with the exception of certain videogame quest lines). What we, as humanity, craft out of our brilliance and enterprise and concentration of economic power are simply tools.

A hammer can be used to build a home, or bash in a head. A pressure cooker can be used to make chilli, or brutalize a city.

And a consumer-grade 3D printer can be used to print out tacky little toys, or make undetectable and untraceable weapons.

We rely on law enforcement to keep us safe, to investigate crimes, and to bring criminals to justice. The science of forensics has become a key tool in criminal investigations. Guns leave traces, and when a crime is committed, it's often possible to forensically analyze the limited evidence left by a weapon and trace it back to a suspect.

But 3D plastic guns open up worrisome doors. No longer are guns available only from dealers and known manufacturers; they can now be printed from melted plastic. If you thought cooking crack was a problem in cities, wait until gun makers start cranking out handguns from open-source designs.

Not only could these things be made by anyone with a relatively inexpensive printer and laptop, they could be melted down and repurposed into children's toys upon completion of the crime.

Then there are the digitally enhanced eyeglasses we're currently calling Google Glass. Like 3D-printed plastic guns, these things are crude in their early versions. Even so, they open the door to some very disturbing violations of privacy (and good taste).

The ability to miniaturize cameras, shrink computers, wirelessly send data packets, and socially network to thousands of our friends may make George Orwell's vision of Big Brother seem tame by comparison.

Certainly, we've already seen how hidden recorders and cameras have upset presidential campaigns, whether it's the 47 percent or bitter small towners, clinging to guns and religion.

We've also seen the benefit of citizen smartphone recording, especially when it comes to finding terrorists who carry out acts of extreme barbarism.

And yet, what of employees who use Google Glass to record trade secret information, spies who use hidden eyeglass cameras to record national security secrets, or the high-school student who uses eyeglass cameras in locker rooms to record the private parts of his or her fellow students?

Then, of course, there's the constant, never-ending, always increasing, unyielding barrage of cyberespionage and cybercrime.

By enabling always-on broadband, and plumbing our towns and cities with high-speed internet access, we've made it possible to connect with each other in wondrous ways. But we've also created a world where criminals in China and Belarus are only a few hundred milliseconds from our parents, children, and loved ones.

These technologies are wonderful, empowering, and simply breathtaking. They're also no end of trouble.

How would wise minds like Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin have looked upon these threats, when they were coding the DNA of our great republic? Would they have constantly tried to diminish our privacy, like our current Congress critters seem hell bent on doing? Or would Jefferson and Franklin have insisted that our online liberty is the same as liberty itself?

The fact is, this scale of technological vs. terrible challenge is not new. It goes back thousands of years. When the Romans created trade between Europe and China for much-desired silk, not only did traders travel the Silk Road — so did vermin. And so did the Black Death.

When nuclear technology was initially developed, it was harnessed to destroy our enemies. Fat Man and Little Boy killed hundreds of thousands of people when they exploded over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, respectively. And yet, nuclear medicine has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

I believe that Jefferson and Franklin would have advised us that nothing is black and white. Our legal and policy systems can't paint everything with a broad brush, and we must use our unique human intelligence and analytic skills to distinguish between true threats and crimes from mistakes and the expansion of our technological knowledge base.

In fact, this necessity to distinguish and discern is why we have a complex justice system with courts, judges, prosecution, defense, witnesses, and more. The challenge of adjudicating shades of gray must fall to humans with the ability to distinguish the subtlety of the facts and how situational circumstances relate to human behavior.

Take, for example, the recent case of Eagle Scout Cole Withrow, a young man who made a mistake. He drove his truck to school and, upon arriving, realized he still had left his skeet-shooting shotgun in his truck.

He faced a choice: Leave school to return the shotgun to his home (which would have resulted in a leaving-school penalty) or admit his problem and ask for help. Perhaps he didn't take exactly the right course. He locked his truck, went into the school office, and called his mother, asking her to come to school and bring home the shotgun. He was overheard, and all hell broke loose.

The boy, mere months from graduating, is now facing felony weapons charges and has been suspended from school, pushing back his graduation date by a full year.

And yet, young Cole did almost exactly what we'd train an Eagle Scout to do. I had the high honor of having earned my Eagle Scout badge (along with bronze, gold, and silver palms) almost four decades ago, but the training of how to be prepared and how to react with a level head in the face of emergency has always stayed with me.

Perhaps Withrow should have admitted his mistake directly to school officials, without calling his mother first. But that's the only mistake he made. Many would say he would have been smarter to rush home, feign illness, and lie to avoid penalty. But that's not how we want our young men to behave.

We want our future leaders to behave with honor, with honesty, and to face sticky problems with integrity and in partnership with the various authorities in residence. The problem is that Withrow was punished without consideration of nuance. His authorities took a young man, who by all accounts knew how to behave and how to handle problems, and taught him (and, by extension, other promising young people) that being honest is not the way to behave, that trusting in the authorities is a mistake, rather than a best practice.

This brings me back to the question of our technologies, of 3D printing, of Google Glass, of ubiquitous, worldwide internet access, even of nuclear technologies, and the benefits and horrors that come from what we often call progress.

As we move forward, as we face more technologies that have positives and negatives, yins and yangs, the promise of incredible good and the curse of unyielding evil, we must distinguish and discern our policies and systems of law with care, with consideration, and perhaps with a thought to how Jefferson and Franklin would have approached the amazing advances of mankind.

Editorial standards