Change happens. Let's hope it's for the better.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote his first novel in 1952. Bill Gates was anxiously waiting to be born so he could get started on that first billion. Putting a computer in your lap was likely to happen only if the machine's gross tonnage collapsed the floor above your office.
Half a century later we know that Vonnegut's book, Player Piano, was not so much prescient as it was an amusing/depressing commentary on human nature -- and especially human nature faced with ever more complex and pervasive technology.
Among the scenes that have stuck with me in the 30 years since I first read it is this one. After the popular uprising has pulled down the all-encompassing, technology-based infrastructure propping up society, and while the wreckage still clutters the streets, the book's central character sees a group of people clustered around a machine. Actually, it's a beverage vending machine that some tinkerer has managed to get going again.
Each customer waits for his turn to approach the device. Over and over it makes its mysterious sounds, and then dispenses a sickly liquid that may have some fleeting relationship with citrus fruit . . . Tang ex machina.
What really haunts me about this scene is the certain knowledge that I'd be in that line, cursing the machine for eating my quarters, pounding it with rage when the cup doesn't drop, yet filled with vague satisfaction when it has finally done its job, and I can take a sip.
Can you tell me the difference between that machine and the one you regularly curse and pound on . . . the one you're staring at right now? The one you spend WAY too much time with? Wait, don't answer that question. I'm as thankful as anyone for the wonders my PCs have brought to my life. I'd never have become a writer without them. They'll probably save my life someday, if they haven't already. They'll take us to Mars and maybe someday to the stars. Still.
Something's lost and something's gained in living with them everyday. I'm not a Luddite, damn it, and I don't think Vonnegut is either. But you have to think about what has defined humanity for 99.99 percent of our history as a species. If you do, then you may conclude that a four-hour date with a shoot 'em up computer game is just a little less human than drooling over Baywatch on TV, and watching TV is just a little less human than listening to The Lone Ranger on the Philco in the living room with mom and dad, and maybe listening to the radio is just a little less human than sitting around the campfire gnawing on a mastodon bone, while Og tells that good one about bear and coyote again.
I don't want to go back. I generally like jets, Pentiums, Frisbees, elevators, plastic eyeglass lenses, lowfat potato chips, modern dentistry, DVDs and representative democracy. I even think the hours my daughter spends instant messaging are a reasonable facsimile of social interaction.
What I'm hoping is that technology will eventually lead us back the way we came, only new and improved. The village without the violence. The agrarian society without the famine. The community without the calumny. The nation without the nationalism. The explorers without the exploitation.
It could happen. Technology could help make it happen. It might not happen. Technology could keep it from happening. I sure don't know which way the wind is blowing, but I hope you'll keep it in mind as you prepare that new widget or wonder of programming wizardry for beta testing. Vonnegut and Marshall McLuhan said be careful. Those tools you're shaping always shape you right back.
Mat Kaplan is the Director of Technology and Distance Learning for University College and Extension Services at CSU Long Beach. He also works on the staff of the Planetary Society, and writes thanks to Microsoft, a Pentium III and Mr. Tobin at Narbonne High School.