by Victor Davis Hanson
March 20, 2014
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
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
The latest fad of
near-insolvent universities is to
offer free iPads to students so that they can access information
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,
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 (Obamacare)
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
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
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 pre-modern
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
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
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
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...