- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 30, 2009

During the past 20 years, science and a growing economy gave Americans the most sophisticated and leisured lifestyles 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. Such human audit of the growing power of computerized commerce requires more, not less, educated workers than ever before. This 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 and 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 past year, I had many brushes with this growing dysfunctional side of America - experiences common to millions. A Macy’s clerk copied my address incorrectly; 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 phone-bank American 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 names and addresses printed differently from those on 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 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.

However, on the other end of the equation, modern life is becoming not so modern 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 we hire better auditors of our electronic world, it will not matter how many innovative thinkers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet 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 pre-modern.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.