What the philosophy of technology can tell us about America’s gun problem

It’s the same story, just on a different day: another school shooting in America, the latest in Florida. Each time a shooting like this takes place, the gun debate erupts in the media, along with debates about the mental health of the shooter, whilst countless “thoughts and prayers” are ushered to the grieving families who struggle to comprehend their loss.

Since the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, Australia has been used as the flagship country in the gun control debate, as the Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, enacted a gun ban on the nation and no mass shootings have taken place ever since. Even with a different case, such as that of Germany, who have some of the highest ratios of people-to-gun ownership in the world, they now record one of the lowest rates of gun-related deaths worldwide after “beefing up” their gun control laws after two of their worst mass shootings in the 00s. 

Interestingly, in America, for every one murder at the hand of a firearm, two people are also using a firearm to take their own life. In fact, it has been reported that in one year, the US had 32,000 deaths from a gun; 60% of which were suicides. So what is it about America and guns?

As one avenue of explanation, the philosophy of technology, and a bit of “systems thinking”, can tell us a whole lot about the role guns play in the American way of life. We tend to forget, or fail to see, that a gun is a form of technology, and all technology is created, first and foremost, as a result of an established social practice.

If we look at the history and evolution of the firearm, we can see that it was both created and used relative to a specific purpose. Over time, the look and application of the firearm may have changed as a result of scientific and technological advancement, but its usage within certain social practices has remained in-tact, such as in hunting, war, defense and policing.

However, once created, technological usage will often always deviate away from its intended usage; meaning that all forms of technology, regardless of why they are created, will end up being used in new and innovative ways. A basic analogy of this is evident with something as mundane as a T-shirt. Yes, a t-shirt is a form of technology. Originally created to wear to cover your chest, you can potentially use a t-shirt as a turban-esque hat, or use a shirt to wipe up a mess. You could even use a t-shirt in an artistic sense for depicting America’s gun problem – as evident with the cover photo of this blog post! The applications of technology define its meaning, as:

All technology is created for a purpose “in mind”, but its applications “in-practice” can never be predetermined. Once we realise how technology is used in-practice, we can start to look at ways to change such usage, and this often involves either the introduction of different technology, or changing the relationship we have with other people’s social practices. Either way, technology’s role and purpose is often revealed to us in hindsight; and usage will always transcend beyond original intent. 

For example, known suicide ‘hot spots’ in the world, such as bridges, significantly had less suicides after some technological adjustment was made to them. It was announced in 2017 that the world’s number 1 suicide spot, the Golden Gate Bridge, was undergoing refurbishment to have nets placed along the edge; intentionally reducing the ability of people being able to leap to their deaths, as evident when applied to other bridges that had done the same and, as a result, reported less suicides. This change required several social practices to come together: Government, building and engineering, even local tourism. The change to the technology known as ‘the bridge’ lead to a change in how visitors to the bridge could in turn engage with that technology. 

This brings me to my main point in regards to technology usage, and that is how we integrate and appropriate technology as part of our being in the world. From a very existential view, we cannot escape being born in, and raised as part of, various social practices; such as family, education, community – etc. The types of social practices we are raised in and exposed to naturally constitute certain in-use technologies. For example, if you decided to have a baby with your partner in a Western first-world context, the practice of raising a family – and your knowledge of its associated technologies (nappies, strollers, cribs etc), means you can appropriate these technologies in preparation for having your child. Your being-in the practice of family allows you to understand its related constructs. And because raising a child is normalized in your society, you can just pop-down to the shop and appropriate the necessary technology.

This ability to appropriate technology, as part of social practices, is just too easy in the land of the free and the home of the brave in relation to guns. This is why America continues to report such high rates of suicide and murder through gun use. Guns are ingrained in the social landscape. When Australia banned guns, our mass shootings ceased, as people’s ability to appropriate a gun was removed.  Over time, it arguably also played a role in removing intent of people wanting to shoot and kill others as well, as the ‘gun culture’ was no longer part of mainstream social practices in Australia; reserved these days to mainly policing and farming. When you live in a society where your immediate and related social practices do not involve gun-related deaths, you yourself promote and are a part of that sort of culture. 

As is evident with the case of Germany, restricting who could own a gun meant the individuals themselves were only coming from certain social practices; despite the fact they may own numerous amounts of weaponry. In America, people from all types of social practices have access to weaponry, but the social use of guns in America is associated with murder, suicide and war. That’s what American’s know what a gun is and what a gun ‘should do’. Even if people themselves cannot appropriate a weapon by going to their corner shop, they can appropriate it easily from other means because of how widespread and ingrained guns are in the American culture. 

This brings me to my second point in our ability to question the technologies that comprise our social practices. When technologies are in use for particular reasons, we seldom notice their presence. For example, when you use your mobile, you do not think of yourself as using a piece of hardware with downloaded software. You just engage in an activity – a behaviour. You might use your ‘phone’ to chat online with friends, check emails, or even buy goods and services online, but you have only appropriated the technology as part of your social practices; meaning you do not actively have to think about the technology per se.

We only tend to notice our technology when it breaks or stops working. If you are about to order an Uber ride from your mobile app, and your phone freezes, you will notice the technology of the mobile phone. Perhaps you will turn it off and on again. If however you dropped your phone and it broke, you would think you need a new mobile (new technology). Either way, you notice the ‘technology’. If however your phone worked without pause, you would not acknowledge the role that mobile technology had played as you went about living your life and ordering your uber. When it comes to America’s gun problem, we focus on the technology even though nothing, in terms of it purely as a technology, is “technically” broken. 

Whenever a mass shooting is reported, or the firearm-suicide rate gets discussed, we immediately focus on the technology (the gun) and never the social, holistic and systematic context in which that gun is used in, and why. If, for a example, a pilot decided to crash a plane full of passengers, we would not focus on the plane. We would instead focus on such things as: the pilot, their family and friends, the airline company, the pilot’s co-workers, the passengers on-board, etc. We would look at the holistic picture.

It would be silly to say ‘no more planes’ because the plane is just the in-use technology that needs to be considered as part of the holistic social practice that comprised the disaster. However, planes are a regulated technology. It is not easy for anyone to appropriate a plane and use it for ‘bad’ purposes. The same is not true, currently, for guns; which is why it becomes so easy, almost seductive, to focus on the technology rather than the social aspects that comprise the technology. 

Similarly, if we go back to the having-a-baby example, imagine if the argument was: “The world is overpopulated, we’re killing the planet (which is arguably true), therefore, we need to have stricter baby-making laws”. Pro-baby people would just argue for greater condom usage and say that the population is fine so long as everyone sticks to only having 2 children; and vows to raise them properly. Anti-baby people would argue for laws regarding hysterectomies and castrations, or possibly limiting who gets to breed.

One side of the argument is a managerial focus, the other is a preventative measure. Both views, however, forget that the people making or enforcing such decisions, and even the circumstances under which a child is born and their upbringing, are all part of the same holistic social system. Both sides of the argument exist at the same time, and both assume control, seeing cause-and-effect as existing independently from the system. In relation to America and guns, there is the unspoken reality that society both created and continues to propagate the current crisis.

It’s not about guns, and it’s not about people – it’s about context, purpose and the social behaviour that governs technology usage, and the actions that define our lives. 

The very argument that pro-gun lobbyists make, in that “Guns aren’t the problem, people are the problem”, has some degree of merit to it, but it is foolish to divorce people from technology altogether. It’s not about guns, and it’s not about the lone-wolf, mentally-deranged, mass shooter – it’s about all of us and our social relationships with one another and, subsequently, with our technology. The example used of a pilot crashing a plane would only ever eventuate because of the following: 

  • the travel industry (pilot training; people being able to travel) 
  • airline commission (safety and governance of flights)
  • people working at airlines and airports (maintenance and ground crew)
  • government (issuing passports; aviation law)
  • engineering (building/creating and maintaining the plane)
  • energy industry (fuel for the plane)
  • food industry (feeding passengers)
  • the weather (influencing flight paths and schedules)

An entire system would be on display, so why do we continue to only focus on the technology or the mental health of the person behind a given disaster? Both technology and the person of interest exist only in relation to the bigger picture. If we want real change, we have to look at the socio-technical system. The pro-gun argument on focusing on the people is also true of the people who argue such a view. If they have guns, others can easily appropriate weaponry from them. They try and remove themselves from the very system they help propagate. In the immortal words of Martin Heidegger:

Image result for heidegger technology quote

I’ll leave you with the following poem which itself is an example of how the American identity has become the gun, but also speaks to how different nations would interpret the same image of a gun. There is a theory called sociomateriality which looks at how technology comes ‘to matter’ to people as part of their being in, and their relation to, social practices. In America, the technology known as the gun matters in terms of the country’s identity, law, and culture.

For example, show an American a picture of a machine rifle, ask them what that ‘technology’ is used for, and depending on where in the country they hail from, they might say either protection or murder. However, show the exact same photo to someone from another western country, and they will likely say that the gun is used for murder or a school shooting in America. They would not relate the gun to their own context because in their world, guns have no place as part of their immediate social system; they only know its place in relation to a social system they are made aware of thanks to their own social practices’ inclusion of international media and news stories. 

Technology usage, its applications, and its ‘mattering’ are always in-context to a social culture.

Image result for america is a gun poem

Cover photo by Australian artist CJ Hendry

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