Politics & Policy

Is America Premodern or Postmodern?

A highly complex society, staffed by the inept, can be terrifying.

During the last 20 years, science and a growing economy gave Americans the most sophisticated and leisured lifestyle in history. We inexpensively call or e-mail anywhere in the world. With online shopping and banking, Americans acquire and spend electronically — without seeing those with whom we do business. Taxes are filed over the Internet, and stocks are bought and sold daily online.

But with such ease and reliance on computers comes ever-increasing vulnerability. Brilliant engineers may have designed our laptops, cell phones, online commerce, and 1-800 call lines. But someone still has to answer the phone, enter data into computers, and assist customers who fall through the electronic cracks. And such human audit of the growing power of computerized commerce requires more, not less, educated workers than ever before.

And here is where problems arise.

Too many of us are growing more illiterate — reading less and watching television more. A conservative estimate of the national high-school dropout rate is 20 percent. Even for those who graduate, too often a therapeutic curriculum emphasizing self-esteem; race, class, and gender issues; and drug, alcohol, and sex education has crowded out language, science, and math.

A highly complex society, staffed by those who are unable to read well and compute at basic levels, can be terrifying. One mathematically inept transcriber or an American receptionist who cannot speak fluent English can do the public a lot of damage.

Their mistakes can get embedded into complex computers — the force multipliers of human error — whose functions they do not fully understand, which in turn automatically begin sending out mistaken notices, bills, and payments.

To rectify these mistakes, the exasperated consumer dials in to a computer bank, pushes various buttons, is put on hold and, with luck, eventually finds a living, breathing real person — in India. (That said, Indian fixers often prove to be better educated and speak more precise English than their American counterparts.)

In the last year, I had many brushes with this growing dysfunctional side of America — experiences now common to millions. A Macy’s clerk copied my address wrongly; then others sent three bills to a nonexistent location; and then, without my knowledge, still another reported the undelivered bill to a credit bureau.

DirecTV charged me each month for unwanted NFL football premium channels. Every time I called to stop payments, the American phone-bank receptionists either put me on hold, failed to understand basic requests, or spoke English so poorly that communication was nearly impossible.

Most recently, a forger somehow got hold of my Citibank check-router number and began writing phony checks. In our impersonal world, the charges went through unnoticed to my account — even though the forger used clearly counterfeited checks with differently printed names and addresses from my own. We are a long way from my grandfather’s world, where an actual person would have spotted such amateurish fraud.

I am sure that corporate dons, in their profit-loss models, have factored in all these potential foul-ups — and concluded that the greater profits of hiring poorly paid, poorly educated clerical workers — or simply turning everything over to impersonal computer audit — outweighs the greater risk.

But, on the other end of the equation, modern life is becoming not so modern at all for the rest of us. The more sophisticated the chain of our culture becomes, the more it is rendered vulnerable to a single weak link of the ever-more unsophisticated — costing us time, money, and peace of mind.

Unless our schools return to an emphasis on language and mathematics, and then hire better auditors of our electronic world, it will not matter how many innovative thinkers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Warren Buffett America produces.

Just a few poorly educated cogs in our vast electronic wheel can easily undo their work, making our glorious postmodern life once again premodern.

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