Americans now have more computer power in their smart phones than did the Pentagon in all its computer banks just 30 years ago. We board a sophisticated jet and assume that the flight is no more dangerous than crossing the street.
The downside of this complete reliance on computer gadgetry is a fundamental ignorance of what technology is. Smart machines are simply the pumps that deliver the water of knowledge — not knowledge itself.
What does it matter that millions of American students can communicate across thousands of miles instantly with their iPads and iPhones if a poorly educated generation increasingly has little to say?
The latest fad of near-insolvent universities is to offer free iPads to students so that they can access information more easily. But what if most undergraduates still have not been taught to read well, think inductively or have some notion of history? Speeding up their ignorance is not the same as imparting wisdom. Requiring a freshman Latin course would be a far cheaper and wiser investment in mastering language, composition and inductive reasoning than handing out free electronics.
Technology also confuses us about the vast power and force of nature that remains more formidable than Yahoo or Google. Computer models assured us that the Earth would be now be getting really hot. But over the last 17 years, when carbon emissions reached historic levels, temperatures mysteriously have stayed the same or cooled. Nature remains fickle, complex and unfathomable, and can defy even computer-enhanced theorizing.
When wind-chill temperatures fell to 40 degrees below zero in the frigid Midwest this winter and there were occasional storm-related power outages, was it better to have a computer-controlled central heating system or an ax, some wood and a cast-iron stove?
The politicos who peddled the Affordable Care Act did so not just on the impossible logistics of giving more coverage to more people at less cost. They also hyped their new user-friendly website that would make getting health care no different from buying shoes on Amazon.
Yet behind the cheery web pages on our laptops lie millions of hours of complex computer programming — as arcane a task as deciphering Byzantine Greek manuscripts. Technological failure has all but sidetracked Obamacare. And the resulting shock is not surprising, given how something so difficult to do was sold to us as if it were already done.
Jets have all sorts of transponders, navigation computers and sophisticated tracking systems. So how could we for days lose track of a 250-ton Malaysian jetliner that recently disappeared from radar screens as if it were some lost clipper ship of the 1840s?
The answer is easy: The oceans are still big and the night remains dark. Jets, in comparison, are quite small. The seas are rough, the skies often stormy. For all our computerized sophistication, we really can lose a jet in a big and still wild world inhabited by millions who have not quite mastered technology, or who use technology to thwart technology.
The problem is not just that high technology is human-produced, and thus often crashes in the same way imperfect humans often fail. Sophisticated electronics also often disguise the brutal premodern world with a thin veneer of postmodern egotism.
Just because we post on Facebook, sell stuff on Craigslist or charge things on a Target card does not ensure that old-fashion Boston Stranglers or contemporary Bernie Madoffs are not lurking in the cyberspace alleyway to harm us. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod reminded us roughly 2,700 years ago that sometimes intellectual or material progress brings with it moral regress.
Our billionaire Lords of High Tech are not necessarily any different than entrepreneurs such as Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller or Leland Stanford of the late 19th-century Gilded Age. A fortune made in social networking is hardly any more noble than one made from monopolizing the railroad business, gobbling up steel companies or setting up tax-avoiding trusts.
Billionaire tech wizard Steve Jobs gave away less of his fortune than did Andrew Carnegie. Google offshores profits with accounting gimmickry that would have made J.P. Morgan proud. The hip Solyndra bunch got government-insider money and concessions of the sort that Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington garnered to build the transcontinental line. Yet the old robber barons at least used government money to create something; their modern green techie counterparts squandered it.
Sending employment abroad is a Silicon Valley specialty. That the techie wizards of Menlo Park wear jeans, listen to rap and surf the net endlessly does not mean that these profit-driven grandees outsource fewer jobs than did U.S. Steel in the 1950s.
To paraphrase Shane of Western movie fame: A laptop is only as bad or as good as the person using it.