On Guns and other Devices


Guns exemplify two opposite philosophies of technology.

On the one hand, most people believe that technologies are neutral and merely serve our goals. The American National Rifle Association (NRA) argues that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Guns are innocent means, equally useful to defend and to take life. The only important question is who is using them for what purpose. Don’t blame guns for the crimes committed with them, we are told. (And above all, the NRA affirms, No gun control! don’t take away our assault rifles!)

On the other hand, there is the notion that technologies have implications for our values and our way of life. A society in which guns circulate freely is a different place from one in which they are strictly controlled. It is reasonable to ask which kind of society is better and which worse and to judge the technology accordingly. But this is a complicated matter.

In the old West on the American frontier, guns were called “equalizers.” They equalized adversaries of differing strength and intelligence. A weak stupid person could beat a strong intelligent one so long as he knew how to pull the trigger. This conception of guns as equalizers has surprising democratic implications.

Consider the case of 17th century Japan. European traders and missionaries began to visit Japan in the 15th century, bringing with them guns and Christianity. The Japanese were already excellent craftsmen and metal workers, no doubt better than their visitors, and soon they were manufacturing more and better guns than the Europeans. There was a civil war at the time but the introduction of guns helped unify the country. The new government, the Tokugawa Shogunate, closed Japan to foreign contacts and gradually eliminated foreign influences. Guns were collected and gun makers brought under government control. Christians were forcibly converted and the religion, like the guns that had accompanied it, disappeared from view. For 250 years this condition prevailed until American warships forced Japan to open up in the mid 19th century.

Why were guns outlawed in Japan? One answer seems to be the fear that they would fall into subversive hands. Killing with the sword was an art in feudal Japan learned by members of the upper class from childhood. Superior fighting ability was the foundation of aristocratic rule. If an ordinary untrained individual could easily kill a samurai, the state would collapse. The “equalizer” was politically explosive in an aristocratic society.

From this example one clearly sees the value bias built into technology. Swords and guns have opposed political implications and are not simply means to universal goals. They shape a society of a certain type and establish the identity of their users as either subjects or citizens. Indeed, soon after Japan was opened to the world, a citizen army equipped with rifles put down a rebellion of reactionary samurais and saved the new government of the Meiji restoration.

The equalizing effect of firearms continues to this day. A good quality rifle at the time of the American Civil War (in the 1860s) cost about $40. The rifle was an expensive weapon at that time, paid for with the wages of many months of unskilled labor. Equipping whole armies with guns strained the resources of states. Today in the combat zones of Africa one can buy a far more powerful AK 47 for $30, a trivial sum for many individuals and for the groups that organize the fighting.

Colonialism was possible because only Europeans had large numbers of firearms and many who knew how to use them before the rest of the planet. A few men armed with early automatic rifles could hold at bay hundreds of fierce Zulu warriors. The English satirical poet Hilaire Belloc wrote of African colonization in the early years of the 20th century, “Thank God that we have got/The Maxim Gun/And they have not.” In a later time, the ready availability of such weapons made colonialism unsustainable. In the period after World War II one European power after another gave up the fight and decolonized its empire. Today the inability of Western armies to dominate the Middle East reflects this changed situation.

Once countries are free of aristocrats and colonizers, guns change their significance. They become factors of disorder for modern states and their use is strictly suppressed, with the exception of hunting. This is what worries the NRA. They claim that widespread gun ownership guarantees freedom, but this argument confuses a bygone historical factor making for the growth of equality with the cultural, legal, and political institutions that sustain it in the present day.

So far I have discussed the consequences of technology, but we can also identify values in the design of devices. The human needs served by technical devices are themselves shaped by social conditions that are reflected in design. Consider the banal example of the refrigerator. This useful device makes it safe to store food for prolonged periods. The basic technology appears to be indifferent to social conditions but his is an illusion. Everything from the standard size of refrigerators to the design of the motors is socially relative.

The size of American refrigerators reflects the average size of the nuclear family and the use of automobiles for shopping. The types of refrigerators found in European cities vary much more widely in size, with very small units far more common than in America because so many people live alone and shop on foot. Refrigerator design is a clue to family and urban life.

The question of the refrigerant gas is equally revealing. This component of the refrigerator was shown to damage the ozone layer. Without ozone in the sky to absorb ultra-violet light, human beings would be unable to go out in the sun. Scientists alarmed the public and politicians eventually negotiated an effective international treaty that obliged manufacturers to find another refrigerant. Thus what at first sight appears to be a purely technical choice of refrigerant gas actually reveals a social choice in favor of conservation.

The argument could be multiplied over and over to show that technologies are not really neutral outside the very narrow context of uses they themselves define. Of course it is true that guns do not prefer to kill either cops or robbers. But this is a very restricted view of guns. In the larger context of society technologies such as guns embody and further social choices. Their design reflects values widely held in the society they serve.

This argument has important political implications. Contrary to a popular view, we cannot leave the choice of our technological system up to a few experts, presumed to make decisions on purely technical grounds. Technical decisions are never pure. At some level, they always embody values and express a vision of life.

This does not mean that technical decisions are arbitrary. They rest on generations of hard work by intelligent people who have created a range of workable options. Sensible technical decisions will always fall within that range or expand it. The alternative is disastrous failure, breakdowns, destruction of machines and people such as was seen during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. But respect for technical personnel should not mean uncritical acceptance of their views. Within the limits set by technical knowledge, political authority must prevail over technical authority in the definition of the technical future.