Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 20 2009 9:12 AM

Tunnel Vision

When I left the political beat to start writing about science and technology, I had hoped to get away from the polarization, oversimplification, and shouting that infests much of the blogosphere. So it's disappointing to see those bad habits creeping into technology journalism, particularly in a Slate family publication.

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Last week, three people at Slate researched possible technological means of detecting and blocking tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. We put together a summary of the options with their pros and cons.

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The next day, our sister publication, Foreign Policy , published a blog post ridiculing the list as "really terrible advice—almost a parody of the worst sort of technocentric thinking that military reformers like H.R. McMaster have been fighting against for decades ." The post, by FP 's Web editor, Blake Hounshell, went on:

There's a sad history of people who don't understand—or, for political reasons, pretend not to understand—why technology won't solve their political, economic, and social problems. Take Robert McNamara, who in 1967 announced plans for a massive, ill-conceived " electronic anti-infiltration barrier " to stop inflitration [sic] of men and materiel from North Vietnam. Or take the moronic " virtual fence " that some in the U.S. government concoted [sic] to address illegal immigration ...

Terrible, parody, worst, moronic. This is the way many bloggers write today, especially when they don't understand or don't wish to acknowledge the complexity of the subject. They come to each item of news or analysis with a preconceived agenda—in this case, the perils of "technocentric thinking"—and treat the item before them as an occasion to repeat their shtick.

What gets lost in the shtick is the actual material at hand. The Slate article can't be "really terrible advice," since it recommended no particular approach. Nor can it be "the worst sort of technocentric thinking," since it said nothing about whether technology was preferable to political or economic proposals for resolving the Gaza conflict. The exact sentence that introduced our list of ideas was: "Here are some of the options."

Hounshell thinks economic remedies make more sense. You can't shut down the tunnels, he argues, "until you permit free trade in and out of Gaza, end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, raise income levels in northern Sinai, and pay Egyptian officials high enough wages such that they don't feel the need to take bribes. There is no technological solution, so best of luck with the rest of it."

There's no contradiction, of course, between closing the tunnels and opening the borders to trade. To me, that's the logical combination. People in Gaza need and deserve the same goods as people anywhere else. What they don't need is missile parts. For the last couple of years, missile parts going into Gaza have brought nothing but grief, first to Israelis, and now to Gazans. The best way to separate Gaza's consumer-goods traffic from its weapons traffic is to bring the former to the surface, out of the tunnels. But that alone won't stop the weapons traffic. Hamas wants weapons and has the money and sponsors to get them. If it can't smuggle them in by surface routes, it will seek them underground. To patrol and block the underground channels, technology has to be part of the solution.

That's how technology fits a messy problem like Gaza. It's seldom the whole answer, but it's usually part of the answer. Just ask Israelis about their "security fence" against suicide bombers from the West Bank. It's not a solution by itself—lasting peace requires political and economic progress for Palestinians—but it has sharply reduced the bombings. And reducing the bombings has improved prospects for political progress between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

So let's ease up on the invective against technocentrism. Technology is more complicated than that. At its best, so is journalism.