Monday, February 7, 2011

Gadgetry to the Rescue!

Over the past couple years I’ve read the news reports and listened to the commentary about the airport security systems in the U.S., how they invade everyone’s privacy and work on the assumption that technology will do a better job than the human eye and experience at picking out potential terrorists. It occurred to me that the TSA isn’t alone in this attitude. In fact, it pervades our society. I’m still trying to decide whether we’re better or worse off for it.

I saw it in medicine years ago, when I was studying to be a naturopath. I learned how to look at a person, watch their body and their movements and their speech, as well as study their detailed medical history, to find the source of their health issues. I had a friend in med school at the time. He complained of having to memorize all the ‘normal’ numbers for a scad of blood tests, so he could look at a printed paper from a laboratory and tell what was wrong with his patients before he ever met them. He also took a class in which he learned how to stack as many patients as possible into an hour of appointment time so as to maximize profits. I’m not kidding. Mind you, he’s a good doctor, one who actually wants to help people, but still…

I keep seeing ads for cars that will keep you from swerving into another lane or hitting the car in front of you, in case you’re too tired to pay proper attention to your driving. I’m glad to know that we have the capability of making people safer in an automobile, but concerned that some folks will take the new technology as an opportunity to drive when they’re fatigued far beyond the limits of safety. Last I heard, most highway accidents were caused by lack of sleep. We’re past the days when the horse knew the way home even if you nodded off in the wagon.

We love our technology, our gadgets, and I include myself in the ‘we’ of this sentence. Computers have made my life as a writer and editor much less difficult (I wish I could say effortless). They make it quick and easy to diagnose what’s wrong with my car. Technology made my gallbladder surgery almost a minor occurrence, in comparison to that of a friend who had the same surgery fifteen years before I did and spent a week in the hospital, recovering from being slit from stem to stern. Technology has saved lives around the world through weather forecasting, medical advances,  transportation safety. So I’m not knocking it. But I do wonder if we put a little more faith in technology than we should.

Ah, there it is. Faith. That’s the kernel I’ve been looking for. We’re looking for something, or someone, to save us. God. Goddess. An authoritarian figure in a white lab coat. A computer that knows everything, including the questions we need to ask. Like little children, we want a power outside ourselves to take care of everything. If that power isn’t forthcoming on its own, we’ll invent it and then give ourselves over to it.

We even put it in so many words. In the Middle Ages God was going to save the world , or at least particular parts of it who behaved according to a specific set of rules. Then much later, antibiotics and vaccines were going to save the world. So was the atom bomb. (Irony, yes, but they did actually say it.) Then computers. Have you noticed, though, that the world hasn’t changed much in its essentials in spite of all this? Perhaps that’s because we’re looking in the wrong place.

Technology is only a tool. How we approach various technologies and how we use them makes all the difference in the world. No computer, no matter how powerful, is going to step up and save us from ourselves. It’s a nice fantasy but it simply isn’t going to happen.

Instead of putting our faith in technology, how about we put that faith in ourselves? Yes, bad people do nasty things; they always have. But there are plenty of good people in the world as well. Instead of hoping and praying that some fantastic invention will magically solve all our problems, how about we take what we’ve already got and figure out how to use it for good? There are already folks out there doing just that, but they don’t often make the headlines the way the gadgets do. Maybe it’s time to do something with those gadgets that will make headlines, the good kind.

As my grandmother used to say, it ain’t what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it.