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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.

Drones

Predators allow us to kill hundreds of would-be terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan in ways that we otherwise might not have with special forces missions. It gives us, then, new advantages. Yet Afghanistan will be won or lost not through technology per se, but through age-old considerations about the cost in blood and treasure of making the Taliban accept our political agenda of a constitutional Afghanistan, and the degree to which we select the proper balance between hearts-and-minds counter-insurgency and punitive killing of the enemy — and have courageous troops, good officers, fine equipment, sound strategy, and public support to carry out those missions. The danger, then, is that some think we can disconnect from the war, and assume console killing from Nevada substitutes for much of the cruel calculus of the battlefield.

The horror, the horror …

Of course, we can now see daily horrific images from Syria. Thousands there are photographing the Assad (no longer apparently Hillary Clinton’s purported “reformer”) atrocities, which in turn can then be text-messaged in real time around the world. That results in millions watching grotesqueries in a way they could not when the father’s bulldozers leveled Hama and 20,000 corpses beneath it.

But is the world thereby more moral, more shamed, now more ready to intervene and stop what it did not in Cambodia or Rwanda? Maybe, maybe not. But the decision will be made largely through a balance of humanitarian considerations and realpolitik (blowback from intervention, costs, losses, aftermath, etc.). These photographs from Syria may make our choices more clear, but I doubt they themselves will change much about our ultimate decisions — other than to cause greater embarrassments for a short time should we not act. The German people did not need photos from Auschwitz to know well enough what their government was engaged in; I remember hearing vague accounts of Rwanda, and could imagine the level of carnage without seeing hourly pictures. The Clinton administration chose not to intervene not because it did not have enough evidence.

Facebook to Google

When I walk about in the rural countryside of central California I see the very poor texting while they peddle at intersections, and I see the same zombie-like mesmerization while walking a few hours later on University Avenue in Palo Alto, not far from the ground zero headquarters of it all at Google and Facebook. Millions are second-by-second obviously reading and typing away in a manner not true just a decade ago. And whatever they wanted to do back then, they are certainly doing it faster and more easily now. Twitter language surely is faster than old-fashioned English.

But are they speaking any more clearly, writing more effectively, gaining more pleasure from reading a tweet than a letter? In some cases yes, in others no. But as an out-of-it observer, who reads students’ papers, receives lots of emails and paleo-letters, and visits many campuses, I do not see any marginal increase in either happiness or literacy. In our zero-sum lives, for every minute spent writing “Hey, Liz, just hanging at the mall, whatsup?” at 60-second intervals, there is also another minute lost. I am not saying that those lost seconds would have been spent browsing Dante or reviewing advanced electronics, but they might have. It is not inconceivable that the brain can be more productive while silently walking than by walking and texting — or even that it might be pondering how to be a better friend or communicator than friending and communicating instantaneously without such requisite prep.

Electronic Gotchas

Thanks to the Internet, in about a minute I can find a past quote from Obama about recess appointments, filibusters, campaign financing, super-PACs, taxes, debt ceilings, deficits, Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, preventative detention, or Iraq, and then juxtapose it to another diametrically opposite quote — and thereby demonstrate that Obama is duplicitous, hypocritical, and demagogic in a way unusual even for politicians. These electronic trails surely make politicians more careful of what they say, since John Q. Citizen has access to it in a way unthinkable in our recent past.

But so what? I’ve written such columns frequently, and posted such a contrast today on the corner at National Review. Proof upon proof only makes Obama supporters sigh about these unfair and perhaps racist “gotchas,” and his opponents only more exasperated at the sheer hypocrisy of it all.

Instant access, exact quotations, even a video of the remark certainly bring high drama to the argument, but like the fifth footnote about the articular infinitive in Thucydides at the page bottom, they become redundant. To the degree such juxtapositions are determinative depends not on their number or clarity, much less on mastery of Google, but rather to the degree that they are used effectively to illustrate an argument, a skill that is not so predicated on technology. Humans are just as likely to say “So what?” when presented with ten vivid discrepancies, as they are with a vaguely remembered single anecdote, if there is no higher purpose to such data retrieval.

Nothing, Everything — or Something?

Cell-phoning simply has accelerated what was — or was not already — there. I like finding the GPS directions to a Starbucks in a strange city, and appreciate those engineers who gave us such options. But coffee is coffee, existence is existence, and if I don’t use my saved time wisely, it is not necessarily any better invested than in stopping and asking directions.

The point is not to denigrate high-tech, but to remind us that it a tool that is as good or bad — to paraphrase Shane — as the person using it. But with one great caveat, today’s glitzy technology is so impressive, so captivating to the human brain that it has the ability to confuse us about master and slave, cause and effect, the pump and water in a way the abacus or the telegraph did not. Sometimes consumer high-tech is the Catholic pessimist Tolkien’s master ring, a thing seemingly of great potential, but one that might corrupt those who think they can use its power for goodness.

Use it — but beware that at best the speed, ease of use, and greater awareness at our fingertips simply accelerate, emphasize, and accentuate whether we are dunces and boors or pretty informed and decent folk. And at worst, it is more likely to make us the former rather than the latter.

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