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Dispatches from the present


Human Costs


I’ve taught the ethics of technology for thirty years. When introducing the discipline to students, we tend to start with its origin story in the mid-twentieth century, when developments in science and technology nearly destroyed the human race. The field of science, technology and society emerged out of the reckoning after World War II. From gas chambers to atomic bombs, it was clear that we humans couldn’t always handle our own inventions. We did not spend enough time learning how to decide when or if ever our most destructive creations should be put to use. The first iconic story within the discipline, its original tragic figure, was J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Here was one of the few great scientists who was able to rally enough scientific and engineering talent to quickly build the most fearsome weapon ever created, a device terrible in its capacity to kill masses of people all at once. We dropped it once. Hiroshima. We killed as many as 140,000 people with one blast and its poisonous, lingering aftermath. Then we dropped it again. Nagasaki. Half as many dead again. These were the inventions that our country rushed to completion under Oppenheimer’s expert management.

Beyond the carnage there was, for those of us who study technology in society, an additional tragedy: that the man who made this impossibility possible soon realized that he had set us down a destructive path from which we should turn back. No bigger atomic bombs, he pleaded. Let’s not build the hydrogen bomb, let’s not start an arms race that would lead to bomb after bomb—the biggest of which was fifteen hundred times more powerful than the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

But the military powers that were did not listen to him. Instead, they stripped him of his security clearance and he died a sanctioned man, no longer a war hero but an unpatriotic critic whose opinions were no longer welcome in the halls of the Pentagon.

This is the character Christopher Nolan tries to capture in his magisterial film Oppenheimer, which is expected to win many Academy Awards this weekend. Told the way that Nolan tells it, the story fits in with his other epic projects, from The Dark Knight to Inception to Interstellar. These are grand, beautiful fantasies where we are entertained by the technological sublime, amazing, fantastical worlds wrought by machinery and imaginative vision.

Nolan’s attraction to the epic—as captivating as it is—threatens to obscure the human cost of Oppenheimer’s invention. There is no real death in the film. Sure, the scientist’s mind seems to break down in the Los Alamos gymnasium, in the days following the detonation. True, Nolan shows Oppenheimer uttering those famous words when the Trinity test actually worked, quoting the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.” But in Nolan’s film, he talks like that all the time. So does most everyone else. (“Are we saying there’s a chance that when we push that button, we destroy the world?” says Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves. “This isn’t a new weapon—it’s a new world,” says Sir Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr. “Amateurs  seek the sun, get eaten. Power stays in the shadows,” says Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss.)

I happened to be in Tallinn while Nolan was filming Tenet, and I watched from a highway bridge as an armada of cars drove backwards in synchronization. I thought they were rewinding a scene but it turned out that the whole film was based on one car chase that happens forward and backwards in time. It’s a moment of sheer technical cinematic brilliance when you watch it, but as a plot element it makes little sense. In Oppenheimer, we see beautiful explosions, intricate machinery, superhero romances and revenges gone bad. It is gripping and beautiful, but I can’t help feeling that a deeply human story is being buried under a near-mythological one.

Oppenheimer wasn’t the only ambitious film about destructive technology to come out this year. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a much smaller production with no Oscar nominations to its name and a story far less grand, but to me more real than Nolan’s epic. Sting operations by the FBI and the arrival of September 11th have pushed radical environmentalism into the shadows in recent years, but Daniel Goldhaber’s film turns Andreas Malm’s polemic into an eco-thriller set in West Texas, where a group of young activists plan to blow up an unguarded section of a new pipeline built over land seized by an oil company under the law of eminent domain.

We watch breathlessly as delicate bomb designs are set and detonated. As in Oppenheimer, we zoom into this technology and wonder if it will work. Except this time it isn’t a grand covert project that gathered our nation’s most famous scientists under the auspices of a world war, but rather a handful of disheartened millennials desperate to do something to end the climate crisis. What is unique to Pipeline is the heartfelt, unresolved conversation between the activists about why, and whether, their actions are justified:

Theo: They’re gonna call us terrorists, ’cause we’re doing terrorism.
Michael: Who cares what they call us?
Dwayne: We ain’t hurtin’ nobody.
Shawn: Boston Tea Party, they were terrorists of their day, they didn’t hurt anybody.
Dwayne: Patriots.

Xochitl: Look, anytime anyone has challenged authority, they call it terrorism.
Michael: If the American empire calls us terrorists, then we’re doing something right.

Rowan: We’re not hurting anyone.
Alisha: We’re spiking oil prices.
Logan: Revolution has collateral damage.
Alisha: Yeah, but who’s the collateral?

Yes, it is violence; yes, some people will be harmed. “We have a right to defend ourselves,” says Xochitl, later in the film. “We could set a new legal precedent, and if we get off, more people follow, more bombs happen, fossil fuel gets priced out of the market.”

“This flashy shit is pure ego,” Alisha responds. “Okay, so you scare some oil companies, but you’re really gonna fuck over poor people…. You don’t get to decide how people live and die.”

I wouldn’t say that Goldhaber’s film condones eco-sabotage, small-scale bombs as opposed to giant ones, but it shows why ordinary, impassioned people might be convinced to try it. Of course they emphasize that they want to destroy property not people, and we know that doesn’t always work. But the film recites what is a classic resistance narrative inside the field of STS: it all goes back to the Luddites, who smashed the machines of the early industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. When is it right for the oppressed to rise up? Often. Using violence or nonviolence? Violence to property or to people?

Something happens to the viewer when a film hinges on some perilous, dangerous technology that might at that moment explode. We see how fragile our whole civilization is, based on tools that at any moment could fall into the “wrong hands,” which of course are our own hands. It’s not enough to display the excitement in these morally challenging stories; after watching, we need to hold onto the feeling of these characters, fictional and real, who felt they did something for society that had to be done. And to ask: What are we willing to do?

Einstein famously alerted Roosevelt that an atomic bomb was possible, and if the good guys didn’t make it, the bad guys would. But he wouldn’t—couldn’t—work on it. Both a great scientist and a great humanitarian, he still stands for the humility that science must have when confronted by moral quandaries its practitioners have never been trained to address. Oppenheimer ends with the two scientists talking by a pond at Princeton. “When I came to you with those calculations, we thought we might start a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world,” says Oppie. “I remember it well. What of it?” says the old master. “I believe we did,” he replies. A good line—and, as the ravages of technology faced by the activists in Pipeline attest, probably true. But a superhero line all the same.