The Problem with Computers
Perhaps it is out of place to decry the stultifying effects of computers in a publication entirely reliant upon them. Nevertheless, computers do deaden the brains of millions of the most intelligent and industrious of us. Indeed, computers may have brought about as much ignorance as televisions have.
Computers bring wealth and power and make the acquisition of knowledge far easier. Without computers, I could not read Clarice Feldman or Jeannie DeAngelis. But the computer industry puts us on an endless treadmill of soon to be obsolete knowledge and earns for us wealth and power we do not know what to do with.
On the bookcase behind me sit three rows of books, two short and one long. The long row is made up of computer books. What I hate about these books is that I keep having to replace them. Microsoft comes out with a new version of Office, HTML 4 turns into 5 (why, I don’t know), and Adobe hacks my bank account. Most software upgrades seem to have more cosmetic changes than substantive ones. Menus are rearranged and names changed, and we have to figure out all over again how to perform basic tasks. We pay computer companies for making us work.
One short row is made up of math books. These I do not have to replace. Teaching methods may change, as well as systems of notation, but the substance does not. It’s the same calculus as when I was in college. My only complaint is that the demonic computers have invaded once pristine textbooks, which now require graphing calculators.
The other short row is also being invaded, but like the math book row, it remains largely intact. Granted, computer jargon has infiltrated my dictionary, as have other barbarous assaults on our language. Arrogance and stupidity are killing the distinction between like and as, can and may, less and fewer, indicative and subjunctive, though it’s more the fault of television than of computers.
The thirst for self-esteem without accomplishment and change for change’s sake have attacked my Bibles, with the absurd proliferation of translations, which have stolen from us still small voice, restoreth my soul, sufficient unto the day, and whited sepulchres, but it’s easy enough to hold onto a King James Version, though most editions have dropped several books from the original and few readers know it. I don’t have to buy a New Revised Standard Version when I already have a Revised Standard Version. I don’t have to buy a New American Bible and throw away a Douay-Rheims. Besides, Greek and Latin Bibles have changed little in recent centuries. I even have Luther’s translation, albeit with modernized spelling.
I can read an old edition of Shakespeare with as much edification as a new one, if not more. Here again, the only defect is the spelling. Any reasonably intelligent person can easily read Chaucer or even Gawain and the Green Knight instead of the so-called translations, which are Middle English for the Pepsi Generation, and Shakespeare’s English is two hundred years nearer our own.
Plato and Aristotle – and Augustine Aurelius, Moses Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas – are more modern, in the sense of being more relevant to the present day, than a soon to be forgotten New York Times bestseller. If you want something recent, you can always read Blaise Pascal, or something hot off the press, such as John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, or J.R.R. Tolkien. The only reason you will ever have to replace them is the flimsiness of the paper.
For two millennia, the West valued only lasting knowledge. Plato desired what is true always and everywhere. Christians sought the things that remain. Jews received their identity from events thousands of years ago. Now fashion rules, and anything lasting is suspect.
Of course, computers do many wonderful things. I like my iPod Classic (which Apple has just cruelly discontinued), but I love the Bach and Beatles I listen to on it. Not much good to have the latest iPhone and listen to Lady Gaga. I like iBooks and Kindle but love Vergil and Dante. I like word processors (though not Word) but love words. My phone makes keeping passwords easy, but passwords are for soldiers, not for me. I never needed passwords when I had a slide rule and the ability to do complicated calculations in my head, before calculators and computers made me lazy, and I allowed my mind to atrophy.
Here in high-tech Austin are tens of thousands of extraordinarily intelligent, successful, and clueless programmers, chipmakers, and database wizards who haven’t figured out yet that Republicans are not going to stop them from having sex with whomever or whatever they want. The local bestsellers are almost all about food. The family newspaper no longer refers to the “B-Surfers” rock band, but calls them by their real name, the “Butthole Surfers,” and it partners with the Austin Independent School District to put newspapers in classrooms. The City Council says that it is going to eliminate traffic jams by turning downtown streets into plazas with concrete benches we are supposed to sit on in the sun, to enjoy 105-degree afternoons. It thinks that our streets are not narrow enough and that the problem with Loop 1 is that the lanes are too wide. Prosperous liberals hate Mitt Romney for having money, sometimes for having less than they have. They live free in Texas and wish they were in some uncivilized place where the natives lack education and basic amenities, such as Nepal or New York City.
Wealth and power, we are learning the hard way, do not by themselves make our country better and stronger, not as long as coastal billionaires try to demonstrate their moral and intellectual superiority by buying elections and telling people what to do, and silly and self-important people think that they are the only ones who know that this country has a racist past. Wealth and power are useless when the rich and powerful believe that they can control the weather by not building a pipeline.
The conditions of life in a high-tech economy seem to leave little time, and, what is worse, little taste for knowledge of enduring value. Unless the evanescent skills necessary to create and use our increasingly ubiquitous computers have a solid foundation, we build our castles on sand, and here comes a storm and washes them away.
High-tech industries would seem to benefit most from a free economy, which rewards innovation and punishes stagnation. Why then are the five-star generals and buck privates of these warring firms so hostile to the free-market principles that make them so much money and could make them a lot more if systematically carried out? There has to be an explanation.
General Schwarzkopf dazzled us with displays of our amazing weaponry and then said that we had won the war because we had better fighters.If Saddam Hussein had our weapons and we had his, we would have won anyway.
Today we can’t beat the most backward people on Earth because the commander in chief does not want to. Soon we will have bullets that can fly around corners, but the Taliban will be throwing acid on little girls for going to school. We will be able to see on an iPhone 7 in real time the disfigured faces of the children we have abandoned. Makes you think, doesn’t it, while you still can.