Technological advances continue to bestow previously unimagined gifts - the "delete" button tops my list - as well as unimaginable horrors, from video games in which players simulate murder and violence toward women to Internet hunting expeditions in which desk jockeys kill real animals with the push of a button.
Who knew we'd be having such fun?
The hunting game is for real, in concept if not yet in practice, and seems with hindsight to have been inevitable. The brainchild of Texas rancher John Underwood, the original plan was to allow hunters to shoot paper targets via their Internet-connected computers. That plan quickly morphed into a more exotic adventure, allowing shooters to kill real animals.
Live-shot.com, selected by Fortune magazine as the worst technology product of 2004, would allow hunters to monitor animals through a Web browser connected to a video camera that is mounted on a hunting platform, along with a rifle, at Underwood's 330-acre ranch.
From his desk overlooking, say, Lake Eola in Orlando, the hunter can manipulate the camera, panning and zooming in on animals as they come into view. When he's ready, the hunter aims, fires and - voila! Trophy head soon to be delivered.
If ever there were a common cause for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the NRA (National Rifle Association), live-shot.com would seem made to order. Killing animals with a computer keyboard from a remote location is so stunningly wrong, almost no one is unoffended, including traditional hunters as well as some Texas wildlife officials.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which oversees hunting rules, is investigating how and whether to stop Underwood, who claims he's trying to meet the needs of disabled hunters or others who can't afford a hunting trip. The hitch for officials is that the animals Underwood intends to offer for "harvesting," such as blackbuck antelope, wild hogs and Corsican sheep, aren't regulated under Texas law, which covers only native wildlife.
Moreover, the issue is ethical rather than biological. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is only supposed to regulate on biological grounds. Absent prohibitions against remote hunting, Underwood hopes to have his faux safaris available by next spring.
The ethics of high-tech killing, whether in computer real time or through video simulations, which thus far have escaped government regulation, poses new challenges for those charged with protecting the innocent, as well as for anyone concerned with our fragile humanity.
The physical distancing in both cases also permits an emotional distancing that has observers appropriately concerned. Killing is so easy when you only have to push a button. No bloody muss, no emotional fuss.
Some of today's video games have pushed the limits of what any sane adult would find acceptable for children, yet we can't seem to apply the brakes. Freedom of speech trumps common sense as children have access to games in which, for example, gangsters kill cops, steal cars, solicit prostitutes and beat them.
That's the gist of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," which won game of the year in the second annual Video Game Awards. The fun, of course, is that the player gets to commit and experience the killing and stealing. Although books and movies inarguably offer vicarious experience, there's a profound difference between imagined and simulated experience.
That adults should be free to enjoy these un-trivial pursuits isn't up for debate, but few would argue that children have a right to such "entertainment." Studies show a correlation between video game violence and increased aggression in children and adolescents, especially among those already so inclined.
Which is not to say that a 14-year-old who plays "Grand Theft Auto" necessarily will pack heat in his lunchbox. Still, it's hard to argue that pretending to kill and maim people is helpful to a civilized society. Why wouldn't we restrict minors' access to such potentially damaging materials?
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is trying to do just that by promoting two bills that would criminalize the sale of graphically sexual or violent games to minors. The video game industry prefers to continue regulating itself by posting ratings on packaging to help guide parents.
Whoever wins this battle, it's clear that the war for childhood innocence will continue to be a long, hard slog. As we pick sides, we might be mindful that the leap from paper targets to live animals in Texas was a puddle jump. We may someday measure with regret the psychic distance between video-simulated rape and murder and the real thing.