Saturday, November 20, 2010

Innovating Utopia?

"You can't legislate morality." This line is guaranteed to be uttered whenever there is a public debate about laws that govern behavior. The problem I have with its application is that it is an absolute statement, and therefore a bit of a strawman argument. Of course you can't effectively guarantee prohibition of anything, but the law and its consequences can certainly serve as a deterrant which can curb behavior. And I think this is what supporters of any kind of prohibition are expecting--that society will not condone behaviors that they feel are harmful to the general welfare of a population, and that to a certain degree, those who might otherwise engage in a certain behavior will think twice and refrain from the action. Nobody expects that any law will be adhered to perfectly by everyone.

Of course, an even greater deterrant than punishment is the physical inability to perform a task. If someone barely knows how to turn on a computer, you can be assured that this person will not be engaging in illegal file sharing. We can only speculate how much more money the RIAA or the MPAA would lose if baby boomers who had no moral compunction against downloading also possessed the knowledge to do it.

Still, for every law that has been introduced or every regulation that has been put in place, there has arisen a cohort of individuals who figure out how to cheat, how to beat the system. As they say, when there is a will there is a way. But that saying can actually be applied both ways. I think we are now entering an era where if the collective will is strong enough, certain prohibitions can be upheld with near 100% effectiveness.

For example, the technology now exists to block cell phone texting functioning in moving vehicles. And in most states there are now laws against texting while driving. Put two and two together, and it doesn't seem that far fetched to think that anyone's willingness to flaunt the law could be rendered moot. And the mind wanders to other possibilities. Apparently, we live in a society where we are willing to surrender convenience (and perhaps much more) in the name of safety and security. Considering that exponentionally more people are killed every year on highways than are murdered by terrorists, is it crazy to think that technology could be mandated in order to reduce human error? I'm guessing it wouldn't cost too much to make cars that won't start unless seat belts are fastened. Are ignition locks for everyone inconceivable? Forty or so years from now, when the Eisenhower Interstate System turns 100, while it be retired in favor of the (Insert Future President's Name) Automated Highway System?

As driving is a privelege and not a right, such unilateral actions would presumably hold up fairly well in courts. But then again, protection against "unreasonable search and seizure" is a right, and this right is being interpreted rather loosely in airports. Could we perhaps see a day where every firearm is manufactured with some kind of "smart" detection which only allows itself to be fired by a legal owner? Could every item of any value be implanted with a GPS chip that prevents theft?

Maybe we can't legislate morality, but can we automate it?


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