Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#36, May 12, 1999


by Marylaine Block

I often wonder why we think machines can solve our problems. Do we want to keep murderous kids from running wild in school? Our solution is a metal detector. To protect kids from dangerous web sites and smutty TV shows, our solutions are filter software and the V-Chip.

It is, of course, especially odd that we think technology will fix problems that technology helped create.

But none of these are first and foremost technological problems -- they are human problems, of trust, of getting along together, problems rooted deep in our history and culture. Why do we think machines can solve them?

Probably because for Americans, machines have always served social and psychological needs as much as practical needs. We cherished our guns not just because they defended us from hostile natives, but because they defended us against encroaching government. Guns are indissolubly linked in the American psyche with independence and freedom.

We have used machines both to isolate ourselves and to bring us together. Railroads weren't just a means of transportation for us but a means for asserting our "manifest destiny," opening the entire continent for us to roam in. Dams that brought water and power to arid states opened up more space for Americans to claim as home, and air conditioners made it possible for people to live in desert and tropical climates (virtually all the growth in sun belt states came after the widespread adoption of air conditioners). The automobile was the perfect agent for our restless quest for freedom.

The telegraph, telephone and internet, on the other hand, tied our enormous country together, and made it possible for us to stay in touch with the people we left behind.

At first, radio and television brought us together, as mass audiences sharing common experiences: the reassurance of FDR's fireside chats, the shock of the assassination of a president, the mourning shared with his widow and children. Television even brought together nations, with the Live Aid concert to raise money for starving Africans.

But with the coming of cable television, there is no mass audience anymore, and there are few widely shared experiences other than media circuses like the OJ trial and disasters like Oklahoma City and Littleton. Our technologies have separated us again, in service to another cherished American value: choice. Why watch a State of the Union address when you can catch a rerun of Baywatch, an NBA game or a rockumentary on Jefferson Airplane?

We combine our technologies and values at will: togetherness, traveling by car on a family vacation. Apartness, solving the problem of squabbling kids in the back seat by installing an in-car entertainment system, with separate screens and headphones for each child.

We have used our machines to increase our control and extend our reach, even into outer space. We've used computers to make us smarter by increasing our ability to retrieve, exchange, analyze, and sort information (though they haven't increased our capacity to turn our information into wisdom).

Virtually all our technologies have become agents of another cherished value: buying and selling. We talk to clients on cell phones in the car on our way to meet with other clients. We buy and sell and auction things on the internet and QVC. We even put advertising on our rockets.

When Americans turn to technology to fix a human problem, we ARE asserting our values. For one thing, a technological fix saves time, and it's easier than trying to work out our differences:

Installing a V-Chip is easier than trying to persuade Hollywood producers and writers to tell less antisocial stories. Installing a filter takes less time than exploring the internet with our kids, and making sure they understand our values. Installing a metal detector is easier, God knows, than teaching kids to respect each other.

The problem is, that with all our machines for communicating, we aren't really getting through to each other any better than we ever did. Do you suppose that if we just pulled the plug on all our machines, we might start talking to each other? Might we get together and negotiate our differences?

If our technological fix for the Y2K bug doesn't work, of course, we may just have the chance to find out.

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