By VIRGINIA POSTREL
I was buying Christmas presents for my niece and nephew when I spotted a novelty so amazing I had to get one for myself: a tiny laser pointer, just two inches long, that hung on a key ring and cost a mere $11.95.
Rationally, I know that tiny lasers are everywhere, reading CDs and relaying data along fiber-optic lines, among other tasks. But a self-contained laser smaller than my little finger and cheaper than a CD still seemed like a technological miracle too cool to pass up. What a great era, I thought, when high-tech wonders can become so ordinary, the stuff of toy-store impulse buys.
Little did I know that my delightful new toy was the nation's latest "crisis."
Less than a week after I bought my pointer, the New York City Council passed an ordinance making it a crime to sell one to anyone younger than 18. New Jersey's Senate has passed a statewide ban on such sales; the bill is awaiting action in the state Assembly. Milwaukee probably soon will make it illegal for anyone younger than 18 even to possess a pointer. A number of smaller cities already have passed such measures.
In Philadelphia, City Councilman Richard Mariano has introduced a bill modeled on an anti-graffiti measure that bans spray-paint sales to minors. The proposed ordinance, which faces little opposition, would require shopkeepers to keep pointers locked up or behind the counter, to demand identification from any would-be buyers younger than 25, and to record every buyer's name and address. Three violations could cost a shop its business license.
This rush to make buying or owning laser pointers a crime for anyone younger than 18 and to treat adults who buy them as potential miscreants is ridiculous. And while the fate of the nation does not hinge on laser pointers, the attitudes expressed in the current hysteria are pervasive and disturbing.
It is a familiar pattern, triggered by any new technology that is delightful and cheap: Some people use the new product in annoying ways. In response to this "crisis," politicians rush to ban or control the product, citing worst-case scenarios and concerns about "our children." As a result, young people see their worlds get a little narrower, their imaginations a bit more constrained, their lives entangled in yet more laws. All of us have less privacy and less freedom.
Like beepers, mimes or people who talk through movies, laser pointers can be plenty irritating. Mischief-makers enjoy harassing other people by shining red laser spots on them. A Web site created by a 14-year-old hobbyist offers such anti-social suggestions as "Shine laser at movie screens when you're at the movies. Very fun and thrilling," and "Use laser pointer in crowded restaurants to shine at children's food while they're eating."
To control such antics, movie theaters, concert venues and sports arenas often confiscate the devices. Such specific, private sanctions are far more appropriate than laws that demonize an entire age group and treat mere possession of the pointers as an offense.
After all, not everyone who fools around with laser pointers bothers strangers, disrupts classes or concerts, or otherwise acts like a jerk. In the hands of an imaginative teen or a teacher more interested in learning than in zero-tolerance policies laser pointers offer hands-on experience with practical physics. They are just the sort of cheap, pervasive technology that has given so many young inventors, tinkerers and scientists their start.
The more people enjoy using the pointers, the more likely they are to explore how they work. Even the prankster-hobbyist offers Web browsers useful safety and technical information, along with examples of benign fun. ("Turn on a fan ... and shine the laser at the side of it. If you do it right, the laser beam will hit the blades and will create a perfectly solid laser beam.") And he says he has learned a lot about lasers and optics from experimenting with pointers.
To justify their bans, politicians claim laser pointers are incredibly dangerous. Cops, they say, will think the laser beam is a gun sight and shoot someone. "The city has banned the sale of laser pointers to minors, cracking down on a fad before it leads to tragedy," is how the Associated Press parroted the New York City spin.
No such tragedies have occurred. They are simply part of the familiar political equation: Technology equals death. Politicians get no headlines if they simply wait for education, custom and common sense to take care of potential problems.
Superficially more plausible is the old parental warning: "You'll put somebody's eye out." These lasers are low-powered, however, so merely flashing them at people will not cause eye damage.
Of all the trouble teenagers can get into, irritating people by shining red dots on them and perhaps learning a bit about optics along the way is pretty far down the list. Far more worrisome is the political culture that tolerates and encourages laws that treat new inventions as public crises, stifle imagination and turn decent young people into criminals.
Virginia Postrel is the editor of Reason and a contributing editor for IntellectualCapital.com. Her new book is "The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress."
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