Politics & Policy

I’m Not Afraid of Technology

Even though they are about to slice me open.

So: Tomorrow I go under the knife.

The doctor explained to me that I only have, what? a one-in-a-thousand chance of something going so terribly, terribly wrong that I could end up singing with the Vienna boys choir, guarding Caesar’s harem, or working in Lanny Davis’s law firm. But not to worry, one in a thousand is pretty good odds. At least that’s what I thought — until my surgeon told me that he’s never made that kind of mistake after performing thousands of these procedures. So now, all of a sudden, I’m worried he’s due.

Anyway, I’m going in for a hernia — which I know is not a glamorous operation. If I said, tomorrow I’m having my pancreas enlarged or having a digital modem implanted in my appendix, this would be much cooler. As it is, I have the kind of ailment we associate with trusses (I hear Al Sharpton tells the ladies that it’s his “virility belt”) and those old men we see in airports whose wives carry all the luggage. Call them, Jonahs of Tomorrow!

If you’re wondering what exactly a hernia is, I’ll tell you. First, have you ever heard a bald man explain why he’s bald? Well, as many will tell you, baldness has to do with an excess of testosterone, not a lack of it. That’s the irony. Losing your hair is seen as a sign of meager manliness in our follically obsessed culture, and yet it is really a sign that you’re so manly it makes your hair fall out. Anyway, that’s what all those bald wimps tell me and they’re sticking to their story.

It’s similar with hernias. I am so brave that my guts cannot be contained. Just like baldness, hernias are largely a genetic or congenital condition, and there’s very little one can do to prevent one from developing. As with my case, some people have such so-called intestinal fortitude, such pure, powerful guts that the muscles designed to restrain and contain their incarnate courage simply buckle and fold at the pressure. Once your guts break the puny shackles designed to contain them, they march like Germans on French soil, which is to say, unchecked. So, surgeons must be deployed — much like the Allied forces — to do the job that these weak French surrender-muscles were incapable of doing. This is my story and I’m sticking to it.


So tomorrow, when a stranger lets his fingers do the walking in places that even prison Romeos and Miami airport customs officials would gladly leave alone, I have to place my faith in modern technology and expertise.

I don’t have a problem with this. But, more and more, a lot of other people do. For the last decade technophobia has been gaining ground. Intellectuals, activists, and murderers of the left have decided that everything from plastics to paper make the world a worse place. The Left is naturally distrustful of technology because it tends to feed uncertainty for workers; promote unknown consequences for the environment; and elevate science and reason over extremely ornate but useless arguments (the kind of arguments we find in English departments everywhere).

This explains how the neo-Luddite Kirkpatrick Sale could write in The Nation that the Unabomber’s Manifesto was the work “of a rational and serious man, deeply committed to his cause, who has given a great deal of thought to his work and a great deal of time to this expression of it.” It explains how Paul Ehrlich — the anti-car, anti-cow, anti-biotech, and perhaps anti-fire “scientist” — could be taken seriously by the New York Times crowd for thirty years while being wrong about virtually everything he’s ever written or said — including the “ands” and “buts.”

Alas, technophobia recently got a big boost from a guy named Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems. He launched an attack — first in Wired, then elsewhere — on the “illimitable power” of technology. His argument is more specific and nuanced than that of most Luddites, which makes sense considering that he is one of the architects of the digital revolution. Joy fears an unholy trinity of technologies: nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and robotics. These advancements are unique, he says, because they have the ability to replicate themselves and intelligently fend off attempts to destroy them.

Joy thinks troublemakers, bad scientists, or terrorists could lose control of what they create, and that the blowback could destroy us all. He suggests that technology needs to be controlled by those responsible enough to deal with it. This priesthood would act responsibly, keeping hacker and Unabomber types from destroying the world.

Now, this fear is an old one. By my rough calculation, it is the subject of, oh, say, eighteen zillion morality tales, science-fiction movies, novels, and Biblical injunctions, starting with — depending where you start counting — Pandora’s box, Adam and Eve, the Golem myth, Frankenstein, or the early Godzilla movies (when Godzilla was a bad monster; later, the smog monster made the same point).

Now, just because such Chicken Little predictions have pretty much always been wrong doesn’t mean that this one is. Just because Bill Clinton always lies doesn’t mean that at some point — like monkeys banging on typewriters — he’ll never stumble on the truth. But in both cases, more than a little skepticism is in order.

In the meantime, less impressive people than Joy continue to make the most ridiculous statements about technology. Since I have a lot to do between now and my appointment with Dr. Shaky Hands (“Damn, looks like I picked the wrong week to quit coffee”) and because whenever we see the phrase “less impressive people” we immediately think of Matthew McConaughey, I will get to the point (okay, I know; we normally think of Alec Baldwin. Another time).

The popular culture is increasingly willing to accept the idea that the costs of technology outweigh the benefits. In the last Star Trek film — this is significant, considering that, historically, Star Trek is the popular culture’s most pro-tech product — we were told that technology is the enemy of a rewarding life. In the movie Contact, which was adapted from the book by Carl Sagan, McConaughey asks, in what is supposed to be a profound moment, “Have we really ever gained anything from technology?”

Well, I’ve been reading a wonderful book, A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance by William Manchester. In it I learned what I always knew, if you know what I mean. The average “poor” American today lives better than most kings a few centuries ago. Most medieval monarchs were illiterate. They often died of everyday diseases. Sanitation was, to use the clinical term, “icky.”

Meanwhile a rich peasant lived a life that was worse than even the most egregious child-welfare horror stories. Here is how Erasmus described the average home of a prosperous peasant:

…almost all the floors are of clay and rushes from the marshes, so carelessly renewed that the foundation sometimes remains for twenty years, harboring, there below, spittle and vomit and wine of dogs and men, beer…remnants of fishes and other fish unnameable. Hence, with the change of weather, a vapor exhales which in my judgement is far from wholesome.

And that is how prosperous peasants lived. The poor folk lived outside, often year-round. They lived in villages without names that did not exist on maps. If they got lost a few miles from their home it was possible they would never find it again. If they had rags for clothes they were lucky. It was unimaginable that they would ever be clean, which is why skin disease and festering sores (called “Dershowitzes”) were nearly universal — as were lice, rats, and all sorts of stuff that can now be found only under my own couch. Unsurprisingly, dentistry was not quite the art it is today.

But hey, “Have we really ever gained anything from technology?”

Okay, I’m just procrastinating now because I don’t want to do all the other stuff I have to do before tomorrow. So I will really get to the point.

If you go to the site of Hernia.org, which I assume most of you do regularly (ten thousand visitors a day from the White House!), you will see pictures of what some African men looked like because their hernias were left untreated for years (this is not what I look like). I will not provide a direct link because that’s not the kind of site we run here. But, for you wacky cubicle-dwellers who like to say “Hey Alice, could you come here for a second?” just so you can freak her out with some pictures you found on the web, you now know where to go.

But, for the less curious, let’s just say that if these guys wanted to go for a walk, they’d need a wheelbarrow for certain parts of their anatomy.

Anyway, if the technophobes had their way, they wouldn’t even have the wheelbarrow, and neither would I.

See you soon, I hope.


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