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Works and Days

High-Tech Nothing

February 24th, 2012 - 11:26 am

Faster or Smarter, Neither, Both?

I am not a Luddite who wants to destroy looms. The modern age has made life comfortable in ways unimaginable just twenty years ago. I live in a house that my great-great-grandmother built over 140 years ago — and cannot imagine doing so, as she did Hesiod-like, without running water, electricity, or a phone, not to mention some Zantac and Zyrtec in the cupboard.

But we should remember what technology is — a delivery system, a pump — not our essence, not water itself. Human nature remains constant and predictable while the ever-changing rate of technological growth obscures this insight. That I can talk to Argentina with a four-second dial, or find out how to treat leprosy on the Internet in ten seconds, or be constantly directed by a soothing female voice how to navigate through downtown L.A. does not thereby mean I have any more to say to an Argentinian than my great-great-grandmother might have, or that thereby I would be necessarily more or less willing to drop historic prejudices against lepers, or that I would have any more business in L.A. than did my grandfather with his nine-farmer open party-line, strung along the road with vineyard wire on eucalyptus poles. I could, of course, but that fact would hinge on considerations that might outweigh the speed or ease of my knowledge and decision-making.

I bring all this up because in the last two weeks I heard and read some strange things about how technological changes have transformed our very politics and way of life. Here is a sample: the ubiquity of ultrasound scans has turned public opinion against abortion; drones have revolutionized our ability to conduct asymmetrical wars; cell-phone cameras have outraged the world about Bashar al-Assad’s butchery in Syria in a way that was not true during the news blackout over Hafez al-Assad’s earlier liquidation of Hama; social networking and the Internet have created new sorts of communities and networks; and the Internet has kept politicians honest, since now we have instant recall of everything they’ve said or written.

All are true to an extent — but not to the extent that we think. Let me explain.

Abortion

It is a fact that the nation is now about split evenly between pro-choice and pro-life positions, in a way the former view used to easily trump the latter in polls. And it is also accurate to say that with the ability to see a moving, live fetus during the first trimester, it is harder to convince Americans that life does not begin until birth or at least the latter months of pregnancy. But does that fact mean that Roe vs. Wade will be overturned soon, or that the public will pass referenda and the courts will uphold them barring abortion?

I think hardly. The truth is that about half the voters still support abortion even if they know that they can now see the fetus that is to be aborted, very clearly even in the first few weeks — and with the latest equipment even earlier. Notions about choice, or convenience, or embarrassment — or almost anything — are innate to humans, and cannot so easily be changed by unequivocal evidence that abortion clearly entails terminating a visible living, growing human. Ultrasounds — and even more exact imagining to come — simply bring home the reality of abortion. But that fact does not necessarily thereby mean that many are not already accepting of that reality and know full well the consequences of abortion. Abortion remains, then, an ethical issue, whose contours can be altered, but ultimately not necessarily all that altered, by technology. Whether to kill a human or not was not the only consideration of the pro-choice adherents, and proving to them that such a choice entailed just that fact did not necessarily change hearts and minds, however it may have clarified some of the issues involved.

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