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Please, No More Edsels At Least

I wrote a while back about my feeling that the complexity of technology is accelerating so rapidly that we can’t even understand how little we understand about it anymore, so I was interested to read this essay by John C. Orr over at The Kenyon Review, called “Back to the Future: The Continuing Appeal of The Education of Henry Adams.” (The book for which this blog is named.)

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October 15, 2008
 

I wrote a while back about my feeling that the complexity of technology is accelerating so rapidly that we can’t even understand how little we understand about it anymore, so I was interested to read this essay by John C. Orr over at The Kenyon Review, called “Back to the Future: The Continuing Appeal of The Education of Henry Adams.” (The book for which this blog is named.)

As Orr points out, Adams

… glimpsed in the dawning twentieth century…a version of technological sublimity, the sense of awe and terror in the face of new inventions. …Adams was essentially in the first generation to experience what has been called the technology gap, in that he was born into a world in 1838 where the most advanced technology was easily understandable and relatively easy to replicate. [W]hat we often fail to recognize amid the witty urbanity of The Education is the profound frustration he felt at not being able to understand the technology that was transforming his world. In response, he set out to educate himself about the new horizons that modern science was opening….

But what separates us from Henry Adams is the ease with which most of us adapt to new technology without having the slightest inkling of how it works. By and large, we have neither the initiative nor the leisure of a Henry Adams to spend hours trying to understand it. Thus, that gap in our understanding causes us only momentary frustration if we experience any at all.

[A]s he predicted, the curve of acceleration continues. He stared owl-eyed at the dynamo; I occasionally stare owl-eyed at my flash drive, and the sense of a new force of occult power inhabits me every time I pray to my computer to save the file that I have been toiling over just as Adams prayed to the supersensual force of the dynamo.

Anything that can be done to heal this "gap" seems worthwhile. Recently the provost of a large state university wrote in a newsletter that extra money would be diverted to help liberal arts scholars in a world—and campus—devoted to the technological:

The members of our faculty most in need of discretionary funding are humanists and artists in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Fine and Applied Arts. The Humanities/Arts Flexible Scholarship Support Program will make available to these faculty members $1,000 in research funding per faculty member per year….

But the money appears to be earmarked for particular uses:

As Arden Bement, the director of the National Science Foundation indicated recently, the future leadership of our nation will depend on our ability to solve critical problems facing our society. The solutions of these problems can only be found at the intersections of engineering and sciences with the arts and humanities.

Those particular intersections will, of course, be important in matters big and small, as well as in matters that I imagine few Americans who’ve grown up since the 1950s thought we’d be talking about now, such as how to feed our people. (Michael Pollan’s piece in the Times magazine this week was an open letter addressed to the future President-Elect and was titled “Farmer in Chief.”)

But are all—even the most important—puzzles at the intersection of Engineering and Arts, of Science and Humanities? The future leadership of our nation, as the provost puts it, will be saddled with billions, maybe trillions, in debt. They’ll need to find ways out of difficult wars glibly started. They’ll have to decide what constitutes ethics for a country under pressures it hasn’t seen since it became a world power. Most of these critical problems, it seems to me, will require great minds, not new technologies or their explications. In America we’ll need Lincolns, not just Fords.

I’ve been re-reading Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare this week. Maybe it’s masochism after all the other bad news. The book is an account of the three years Miller spent traveling around America when he’d returned in 1939 after an expatriate decade in France. The jacket copy says, “Miller’s bad dream of the forties is still with us. He saw a nation of big business and little men, mass media at once soporific and violent, giant industries …polluting the environment, of credit buying, cheap cars and gadgets ad infinitum, of misinformation and prejudice—a spiritual and aesthetic vacuum.”

It’s an odd, uneven book, often self-indulgent, and Miller tries hard to be shocking, amoral, and ecstatic. Sometimes he sounds unhinged or like a child. (“I see no reason why I should lose my balance because a madman named Hitler goes on a rampage…. A great scourge never appears unless there is a reason for it…. Those who believe that the only way to eliminate those personifications of evil is to destroy them, let them destroy…. I don’t believe in that kind of destruction.”)

But he has it right when he says, “We have everything—everything it takes to make people happy. We have land, water, sky and all that goes with it. We could become the great shining example of the world; we could radiate peace, joy, power, benevolence. But there are ghosts all about, ghosts whom we can’t seem to lay hands on. We are not happy, not contented, not radiant, not fearless.”

You know who is fearless, radiant, content, and happy these days? Lt. General Henry Obering, Director of the Missile Defense Agency, who as I write is on C-SPAN briefing the press about a successful anti-missile missile test, one of those critical intersections between engineering and humanity.

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