A Boomer Congress Is Making Rules for Tech That Will Be Used by Millennials' Kids

It's an interesting time to be a member of Congress, asked to weigh in on flying robots and undetectable homemade guns. A generation that didn't grow up with this tech is tasked with determining rules for technology that doesn't yet widely exist.

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Amazon's announcement that it would (someday; not soon) want to deliver packages by drone was apparently in part aimed at spurring government approval of the autonomous devices. It's an interesting time to be a member of Congress, asked to weigh in on flying robots and undetectable homemade guns. A generation that didn't grow up with these technologies is tasked with making up rules for technologies that don't yet widely exist.

The drones aren't the most pressing tech issue facing Congress. On Tuesday, the House is expected to vote to extend 1988's Undetectable Firearms Act, a law passed after Glock began producing weapons made of plastic. The law mandates that weapons include enough solid material to be detectable in a metal detector in an attempt to ensure that manufacturers aren't producing weapons that could be snuck into secure areas. In 1988, there was no way to predict that people might, within the law's lifetime, have the tools to create plastic weapons on printers in their own homes.

Just as autonomous drones weren't seen on D.C.'s horizon a decade ago. The Hill reports that lawmakers, prior to this week, worried largely about the privacy implications of drone-mounted cameras flying around. The idea of self-directed quadcopters carrying the latest Steven King out to the suburbs probably seemed a lot more distant to them before Sunday's 60 Minutes report on Amazon. The drone issue is largely up to the FAA, but Congress clearly wants to weigh in.

Neither technology is simple even for those who have the time to explore the technology. The Wire's own attempts to 3D-print a gun were an abysmal failure — and we like to think that we're pretty tech-savvy.

How does Congress compare? It's tempting to look at the age of members of Congress as a guidepost to their familiarity with tech, though it's a sketchy and somewhat biased metric. For the record, the average age of members of the House is 57, according to the Congressional Research Service. For the Senate, it's 62. Plenty of 57- and 62-year-olds pilot drones and 3D-print guns. But it is safe to assume that the average age of enthusiasts skews younger.

More important may be the members' background. That CRS report breaks down Congress by previous occupation. The 535 members of Congress include "2 physicists, 6 engineers, and 1 microbiologist" — the extent of those with a scientific background — as well as "5 software company executives." (By comparison, there are 29 former farmers.) Some of the 102 educators in Congress may have a more robust technological background; it's hard to say.

There are numerous incidents in which members of Congress have revealed that their technical knowledge isn't terribly robust, from former Sen. Ted Stevens comparing the internet to a series of tubes to members of Congress referring to the NSA's "megadata" collection over the summer to the fumbling interpretations of Healthcare.gov's flaws. This is why lobbyists exist: to influence and shape how members of Congress see the issues before them even as they try to get up to speed.

As CNN reports, the Obama administration and Democrats want more than an extension of the Undetectable Firearms Act over the long term. They want "all guns be required to contain metal in the functioning parts of the firearm" — essentially prohibiting any 3D-printed weapon. Until, that is, home 3D-printing of metal takes off. That's the thing about these rules: they last a long time, can't foresee everything, and affect things that evolve far faster than the government can possibly track. Good luck, Congress. Your grandkids are counting on you to make the right decision.

Update, 2:00 p.m.:  The House passed the 10-year extension, with only one "no" vote.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.