Deus Ex Machina
Machines have never impressed me much. You know how horses can sense your fear, and they’ll mess with you? I think machines sense my antipathy, and they don’t like me, either. Every car I’ve ever had, save one, was possessed by the Devil. I’m certainly not against technology per se; I couldn’t get along without my Bialetti Moka Express. I’m quite fond of electric lighting and indoor plumbing, too. It’s just that I’m in touch with my inner Luddite. I think technology is vastly overrated, and we just need to throttle back some. A little moderation, please.
Deus Ex Machina (“God from a machine”) is defined as something that appears suddenly, promising the solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty. The new iPhone 5 just came out, so people just can’t live without the latest self phone. Each new marvel that comes out is touted as the best ever. New! Improved! Faster! Now— with both 4G LT AND zero Trans Fats! It’s been my experience that every time something claims to be new and improved, it’s worse than before. On call-in radio shows calls are dropped all the time, or there’s a bad connection, please try calling back. This never happens with land lines. So I’m not impressed.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, Our Friend the Atom was going to bring us into a Golden Age of cheap, clean atomic energy. They told us electricity would be too cheap to even meter. It turned out that our friend the atom is far too deadly to even invite over for dinner. Nuclear power is a dead end, literally. As for those who still believe it’s a viable option, I think they should offer their back yards or swimming pools for storing spent fuel rods. Let’s check back with them in ten or twenty years, and see if they’re still “hot” on the idea. At the same time we were told that automation would free us for a life of leisure. Well, lots of people are out of work now, if not homeless, in large part due to automation. I wouldn’t call their condition leisurely in any sense of that word. Again, I’m not impressed.
No technological marvel impresses me less than the computer. Sure, they’re very useful in many ways, and word processing makes writing much easier. But it’s not the be all and end all that people make it out to be. An opportunity arose recently to illustrate this point. I needed to know the publication date of Melville’s Moby Dick, and decided to perform a little scientific experiment. I reached for my copy of Webster’s Biographical Dictionary — which I remind the reader, is a cloth-bound heavy tome requiring no electricity, phone line, or internet connection. It took me 20 seconds to find the answer: 1851. How much faster could I find this little fact on the internet superhighway, where information is at our fingertips? Now I have the original model that came out before dial-up, the wind-up. There’s a crank on the side you have to turn like the telephones in movies from the 1930s. It’s the equivalent of driving an old beater. Hey, it gets me there.
It took three minutes to boot up, and another to log into my Stone Age internet provider, AOL. Ignoring the “You’ve Got (Junk) Mail” option, I bypassed my crappy browser, Internet Explorer, and clicked on Mozilla Firefox. That took a minute or two to load. I did phrase the question such that the answer would appear on the first page of matches, so it wasn’t necessary to click on one and wait for the website to load. Altogether, it still took four minutes, fifty-two seconds to get the same answer. Oh! I see penalty flags all over the field; it was a rigged contest! Fine, let’s make it a fair fight. The computer is in the other room, and the dictionary is about four feet away. So I had Google ready to go, then walked back into the living room and sat down. Okay, start the clock: this time it took only 24 seconds, and half of that time was walking into the computer room. My old fashioned John Henry, that steel drivin’ man method STILL won. Yes, it was close, but my point is that sometimes the old ways are just as efficient, so byte me!
Yes, I am a bibliophile. I love the feeling of a book in my hand, of turning the page. My friends know enough to never buy me an Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader, because I’d hurl it back at them like a juiced-up Roger Clemens fastball. If you want to damage your eyes by reading a book on a computer screen, knock yourselves out. Me, I’m not impressed.
Monsanto and Dow Chemical have created genetically modified Frankenfoods, they say to feed a starving world. First, lack of food isn’t the reason so many people around the world are hungry; that’s a function of greed and politics. Second, these GMOs have never been tested satisfactorily. In fact, current studies are linking them to everything from gluten intolerance (never heard of before GMOs) to autism. This exemplifies the sheer hubris that we can improve on nature, and it’s not only ignorant, but dangerous. Nature always has the best ideas, like the new strains of superweeds that are immune to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Not only am I not impressed, I’m furious that in the U.S. GMOs aren’t required on labels.
Computers make thousands of stock trades each second. I wonder if anyone thought to put in safeguards, so that some cascade effect doesn’t wipe out the global economy in an instant (collapse took .02 seconds). Definitely not impressed.
Social networks are the new public square these days, and that’s fine. They’ve been very useful for coordinating revolutions, and that’s reason enough to praise them. For myself, I have quite enough friends that I can visit in real space time, and I much prefer public places with real plants, insects, and birds, to virtual space.. Neither do I feel the need to constantly check in and be checked in on. And so once again, I’m not impressed by any of this. I think we can all take a tip from “The Matrix,” where Neo’s friends told him he should unplug for awhile.
Privately owned and easily hacked electronic voting machines, owned primarily by conservatives, and with proprietary software to boot, now determine our elections. Gee, what could possibly go wrong?
We’re destroying the natural world in our efforts to create a virtual one. So we end up with situations like the Korean couple, arrested in March 2010. They had let their 3-month-old baby starve to death, while they were spending all their time at an internet café raising a virtual child. If this isn’t madness, then what is?
More people, or the right people, ought to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and heed the warning. It’s not just about some ungainly monster lumbering around the countryside. He’s a metaphor of industrialism run amok, and raises the question of who will be master and who the servant. Today, nearly 200 years later, these themes resonate like never before. Only in this horror film there are legions of ungainly monsters rampaging across the planet — Exxon-Mobil, General Electric, and Monsanto, to name a few of the many. The problem is that these foul creatures are protected by governments, courts, and the police, and we villagers are at their mercy. Progress for its own sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.