[The future popularization of air travel] will bring the immediate, absolute, instantaneous, universal and perpetual abolition of all frontiers, everywhere… The old Gordian knot of gravity will finally be untied… Armies will vanish, and with them the horrors of war, the exploitation of nations, the subjugations of populations. It will bring an immense and totally peaceful revolution. It will bring a sudden golden dawn, a brisk flinging open of the ancient cage door of history, a flooding in of light. It will mean the liberation of all mankind.
~ Victor Hugo, Letter on Flight
The enthusiasm and naiveté are breathtaking, symptoms of a viral techno-messianism we contracted during the Enlightenment, I suppose. But the millennium did not arrive on the wings of the aeroplane. Nor did it arrive with the telephone, penicillin, the nuclear bomb, space travel, the Internet, the decoding of the human genome or the Segway scooter. The real trouble with being human has nothing to do with lack of physical and mental enhancements. The real trouble is that while the kingdom of heaven may be within you, so is that portable hell, the human heart.
In the coming century phrenology will assuredly attain general acceptance. It will prove itself to be the true science of mind. Its practical uses in education, in self-discipline, in the reform treatment of criminals and in the medical treatment of the insane will give it one of the highest places in the hierarchy of the sciences; and its persistent neglect and obloquy during the last sixty years will be referred to as an example of the most inconceivable narrowness and prejudice…
~ Alfred Russel Wallace
If it didn’t require us for its survival, science would do just fine. Instead, it’s like a telescope mounted on top of a swaying tree. There’s something almost endearing in how easily we admit the errors of former times while insisting on our own enlightened certainties. We like to mistake the advancement of science and technology for moral progress. The first inventor of the wheel probably thought he could never be wrong about anything ever again.
The machine which at first blush seems a means of isolating man from the great problems of nature, actually plunges him more deeply into them.
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars
It’s hard to feel optimistic about man. If technology is an attempt to escape human limitations, the limitation it seems most irked by these days is our inability to completely do away with each other. The awkward need served by new forms of communication is the need to be in touch with as many people as possible while keeping as far away from them as possible. To invoke Dostoyevsky, it’s easy and gratifying to love mankind in the abstract or from a distance, but it doesn’t count for much.
………………………………He will make
Nature ashamed of her long sleep: when art,
Who’s but a stepdame, shall do more than she,
In her best love to mankind, ever could.
~ Ben Jonson, The Alchemist
Some people pride themselves on being “early adopters” of new technologies. I tend to be among the late-if-ever. True, I sometimes find myself coveting this or that fresh gadget. The feeling usually passes. The last thing I need is another screen to sink my eyes into, another wire to plug into my ears. What I do need are more trees and rocks and water. More living things. None of our digital alchemies equal even the most homely sparrow pecking through the trash or the worst imaginable winter afternoon. A napping mother is always better than a stepmom bearing Greekish gifts.
The trouble with the world today (in case you want to know) is that you can’t tell the crazies from the passably sane. You’ve noticed this if you spend any time in a grocery store. It used to be that a prowler among the produce who talked to himself, debated invisible adversaries, or professed love in the direction of the cauliflower was immediately understood to be off his rocker. You pretended not to notice; you casually left that person’s vicinity. All was well with the world.
Nowadays, however, you step closer. You look twice, three times. Is he talking on a mobile phone? Look again, around his ears; he may be wearing a hands-free device. Like Alice, you don’t want to go among mad people, but you want to know what you’re dealing with. Just a little reassurance. Nothing on the left ear; check the other. He certainly seems to feel strongly about something or other, doesn’t he? But, ah! There it is, see! That thingy curled up on top of his right ear. What a relief. -Excuse me? No, no problem at all, mister. No – that won’t be necessary. Have a nice day!
The effect of technology on society is to proliferate symptoms of schizophrenia. Even non-adopters breathe it in like second-hand smoke. I remember the first time I saw someone talking on a cell phone with a hands-free device in a grocery store. Not badly dressed for a crazy, I thought. When I realized what he was doing, I could hardly believe it. I stood laughing in the dairy section, like a crazy person, for a full five minutes. What a clown, I said to myself. Doesn’t he know everyone will take him for a lunatic? That’ll never catch on!
It’s worth observing that despite the broad use of such technologies today, the average number of grocery store soliloquists encountered in any given week hasn’t much changed. One might have expected otherwise. What’s the meaning of it, I wonder? Could it be that there are fewer crazy people around than there used to be? That seems unlikely. Maybe they’re getting better drugs. Or maybe, since insanity is traditionally expressed by behavior counter to social norms, the crazies these days are the ones going quietly about their business.