Technology and Judgment

August 02, 1994|By ROBERT BURRUSS

KENSINGTON — Kensington. -- A framed photo near my desk shows blue sky sandwiched between layers of white clouds -- being penetrated by six fiery streaks that are, according to the caption, ''an MX missile's re- entry vehicles as they headed toward Earth over the Kwajalein Missile Range in the Pacific.'' The missile had been launched from Vandenburg Air Force Base, 4,000 miles away.

I found the photo, I think, in Harper's, republished from Aviation Week & Space Technology, probably in the early 1980s. The blues, grays and whites, and the six white diverging streaks fascinate first the eye and then the mind. The film exposure must have lasted several seconds to capture as streaks the light made by the white-hot air in front of each 10,000-mile-an-hour warhead. The photo shows the products of our highest technology surviving the violent turbulence of high-speed atmosphere transit, in the service of ancient irrational ends.

There's a scene in the movie ''Patton'' where George C. Scott, as General Patton, looks out upon the smoldering remains of tanks and bodies on the morning after a battle. ''God help me, I do love it so,'' he says as he walks toward the wreckage.

George Patton may never have said such a thing, but the sheer animal pleasure implicit in ''God help me, I do love it so,'' addresses feelings of satisfaction that words cannot convey to the uninitiated. In that one scene, the George Patton character seems as a kind of artist, whose medium was steel and high explosives, fire, and human bodies, and whose art was devastation -- the more the better.

Traditional urban liberal sensibilities guide us to deny the aesthetic appeal of war and of photos of MX warheads burning through the blue stratosphere. Such scenes and sentiments we call ''bad'' and even ''evil.'' And yet, and yet . . . that denial, TTC examined closely, is itself an acknowledgment of the animal power and brute thrill simultaneously implicit and explicit in war, and in technology and weapons, and in both devastation and creation. ''God help me, I do love it so,'' could as well have conveyed the feeling of God himself on the seventh day, looking upon his work. He called his work ''good,'' and therein lies the point of this comment on technology and judgment.

A significant yet mostly unacknowledged creation in the Book of Genesis is moral judgment. God created light and called it good, so implicitly darkness is evil. Among the creations in Genesis are the Siamese twins of judgment and hierarchy -- of light and goodness over darkness and evil.

In the photo of the MX warheads, light, from above, shoots earthward, conveying implicit energies and powers that would have made the Old Testament God even more jealous.

My own efforts in Cold War weapons design were small. In one job I designed an engine for an anti-submarine torpedo; in another I analyzed the performance of an anti-submarine mine. In those jobs I learned about the instinctual side of technology and felt the power and the ambiguity of being a high-tech destroyer.

My fellow engineers and I were designing weapons for a third world war. In our logical and social minds, we did not want a war. But the process of weapons design requires that war be alive in an engineer's vivid animal imagination, to guide the use of technical knowledge, of high reason to -- in Western judgmental and hierarchical terms -- old, dark and lowly instinctual ends.

Instinct and reason maintain a close but separate affiliation in weapons-design work. The schizophrenic split of reason and instinct is amplified by the frustration of being deprived of seeing the products of wild imagination brought to use. For the weapons engineer, the wild, irrational, instinctual aspect of self -- from which all creative insight derives -- longs for the thrill of seeing the engineered creations, our art, completed and used, while the rational self wants no war.

The Cold War is over. Gone now is the perceived global-scale threat that drove technical development and basic research of the kinds that stimulate insight and make life challenging and fun, and that expand our collective view of our world. The Cold War sent life from earth to the moon. To some, that is judged a foolish reason for technical endeavor. But leave judgment to God. Technology lies beyond moral judgment, and so does man, presuming as we do that we are actually worthy of moral judgment, good or bad, and that any real God really gives a damn.

We and our wars and technologies, our thoughts and actions, are ultimately as beyond moral judgment as the actions of a storm, a volcano, a falling snowflake, a warm day in July or the end of the world.

Our species is a geologic force. God help me, I do love it so. Let only God and small minds pass moral judgment on the things we creatures of the soil do.

Robert Burruss is an engineer who writes about technology and society.

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