- The Washington Times - Friday, January 26, 2007

Perhaps a technology writer is not wise to question the value of technology, but it may be worth asking: What have we gotten from it? We have seen, and continue to see, a tremendous flowering of electronics, genetics and engineering of all kinds.

Heaven knows where it’s taking us.

Technology shapes us, rather than the other way around. But presumably we develop it to improve our lives. Has it done so? In many ways, clearly it has.

Think of medieval dentistry. In modern countries people are not hungry, cold, constantly sick or more ignorant than they want to be. It beats the alternative.

In other respects, I’m not so sure. For example, are kids happier with video IPods, high-definition television and computer games than they were with a dog, a fishing pole and the woods?

This isn’t an exercise in nostalgia. I wonder whether certain needs aren’t built into people, and whether technology hasn’t pulled us away from them. Digital TV is slick engineering but, although people demonstrably do gawp at the lobotomy box for several hours a day, it doesn’t seem to make them happier.

Sometimes the country seems to live for the mad pursuit of better gadgets: telephones with cameras, disk drives big enough to park your truck in, cars that talk to us and tell us how to get to Seven Corners, golf cars that trundle around Mars and show us pictures of rocks. Interesting stuff, yes, and not easy to do. But the technology that brings us clever robots has other effects.

One has been to separate us almost entirely from the natural world. We live, entertained by electronics, in temperature-controlled houses. Then we go to work in marvelous automobiles, heated and air-conditioned, with GPS and six-CD, high-fidelity stereos. Then we sit all day in front of computers in air-conditioned offices. Then we take Prozac, which is yet more technology, to alleviate the effects.

Maybe people are emotionally constructed to be happier when more physically active, less caught in a high-tech cocoon, closer to the outside world.

It could be that the fault is not with the technology but with the uses we make of it. True enough. But we do not seem able to control the uses we make of it. If we invent TV, we can’t not watch it. If we invent cars, we can’t not build remote bedroom suburbs.

A subtle effect has been to end the localness of life.

In 1920, towns governed themselves largely as they saw fit. Regional accents flourished. Washington didn’t have much to do with local affairs because communications weren’t good enough. Today, with computers and the Internet, the federal government can micromanage the entire country.

More ominous is the growth of surveillance. Few outside of government want it. However, I suspect that we can’t not do it. The technology makes it so easy.

The cameras keep going in; e-mail is simple to monitor; databases grow and are cross-indexed. It isn’t what we wanted, but it is what we are getting.

It is natural that long ago people sought to find ways to avoid work and to be comfortable and secure. But now our lives are so easy that we need gymnasiums to provide artificial work. Life is so secure that we have had to invent hang-gliding and rock-climbing so as to have an element of adventure.

Maybe we have technologized ourselves into a world more physically than psychically comfortable. Perhaps being able to do something is no guarantee that you will be glad you did it.

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