Sunday, March 01, 2009

Blinded By Science

I’m essentially a Luddite/ technophobe rather than a 21st century techie. I don’t own a cell phone, iPod, or any other new-fangled device. But I do enjoy the Internet for its instant access to so many things (I especially love Pandora). I email and write this blog, but I don’t have MySpace/Facebook friends and I don’t twitter (I don’t cotton to anything that begins with twit). I concede that word processing has made writing (and writing better) much easier than in the day of the typewriter. I also confess that my weary wrists and eyes have instilled in me a great desire for voice recognition software. And, to my surprise, last week’s Charlie Rose interview with Amazon guru Jeff Bezos has motivated me to begin a savings program for an Amazon Kindle 2, the leading wireless, handheld, electronic book specifically designed for the pleasure, portability and intimacy of long-form reading with a new kind of screen that looks like a printed page.

Clicking on the title of this post will take you to a July, 2002, New York Times article about the overall convergence between science fact and science fiction, a reality that has increased exponentially over the past seven years. The information in that piece illustrates my agreement with Martin Luther King Jr.’s dismay that “We have guided missiles and unguided men,” Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and R. Buckminster Fuller’s conviction that “Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons.”

I'm particularly troubled by modern society’s passion for information/communication technology, which, ironically, has resulted in our being less well informed and has truncated much of communication into aliterate abbreviations. I also think it's ironic that many of the same people who express disdain for spirituality of any kind seem to embrace the idea of the unfailing power and continuance of technology with the fervor of true believers. Given the energy problems we now (and will later) confront, why aren’t more people concerned about how we will communicate, protect information, preserve history and culture, and just plain function, if the juice gets turned off? If our country, or any other technologically-developed nation, lost its electricity (by whatever means, for whatever reason), we would literally descend into anarchy and barbarism within a couple of weeks. Does it make sense to so completely depend on technology that we trust will never fail or be destroyed?

I was very taken with Jeff Bezos and his optimism that energetic, innovative youth and technological advancement will save our country and the world. He says we’re living in an Idea Economy and that if business and industry are willing to experiment (and therefore possibly fail), think and act long term, and focus on the consumer instead of worrying about the competition, we can grow and improve and resolve major issues faster than you can say YouTube. (I think the same can be said of government: if our leaders stay focused on us and what we most need, instead of playing political team sports with each other, we could rise out of our crisis with speed, substance and sustainability.)

Bezos also says the Kindle 2 can currently display 250,000 titles (books, magazines and newspapers) and his long term goal is to offer every book that has ever been published in every language all over the world – an admirable and exciting goal. He says we must re-think publishing and look outside the ancient box of "printing books on dead trees." I agree. But hard-copy publishing has a permanence and capacity for survival that far surpasses a blip on a screen. Kindle gets its power from a satellite. Satellites have been known to fall or self-destruct or be shot down. Then what happens to every book that has ever been published in every language all over the world?

Information technology is creating new possibilities and opportunities, but at a high and disquieting cost. The publishing industry – books, newspapers and magazines – is in an unprecedented state of upheaval. Small publishers and independent book stores are already nearly extinct. Newspapers from coast to coast have been shrinking for 20 years and are now dying like flies. The Rocky Mountain News, one of Denver’s leading papers for over 150 years, died this weekend; The San Francisco Chronicle is hanging by a thread; hundreds of smaller papers turned to dust last year and now, many of the majors, nationwide, aren’t sure how long they can hold out. This is extremely dangerous and important for many reasons, not the least of which is: even if the cable news channels were to achieve the high level of news reportage and analysis that is currently only offered by the best news publications, as well as public television and public radio, they too will disappear if the wires are cut. Meanwhile, the economy also has public broadcasting on the ropes.

I don’t mean to be a Gloomy Gussie, I’m just scared. I think our science and technology are running ahead of us and that in many regards we’re living in a high-tech fool’s paradise. How do we strike a better balance between natural, traditional and new? I don’t know the answer – but I think it’s important that we start asking the question.

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