Man vs. Machine

by Deck Deckert

January 28, 2002

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Once it was humans vs. nature and nature almost always won. Then humans discovered tool making and little by little, nature began to yield. The tools evolved into machines, ever more powerful machines, machines capable of battling nature nearly to a standstill. But a funny thing happened on the way to this brave new technological world: we discovered that we were no longer total masters of our machines.

It's almost a good news, bad news scenario.

The good news is that we now have machines that make life easier, more comfortable and more exciting for the average individual than it was for the richest and most powerful king in the not-so-distant past.

The bad news is that those same machines threaten our lives, the ecology, our privacy, our jobs, our sense of self, and sometimes our sanity.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," author Arthur Clarke once said." And much of our technology is close to magical.

We control the weather in our homes, stores, offices and even the privatized village centers we call malls. We travel in what our ancient ancestors would have considered magic carpets, watch events as they happen halfway around the world, talk to people thousands of miles away, eat food grown a continent away, send space ships to the outer reaches of our solar system and beyond.

Doctors using miraculous machines can look and reach inside our bodies to find and repair faulty organs, remove dangerous growths, reattach limbs torn off in accidents, give the blind sight, the deaf hearing, and help many of us live long beyond the three-score-years-and-ten limit we once accepted as a normal human lifespan.

At the same time, the machines that make all this possible can also spy out our most private secrets, monitor our every move, pollute our air and water, destroy our forests and marshes, obliterate an office building, a city, or even a country — and keep us alive and in pain long after we're ready to die.

Take the telephone, for example. It is a marvelous invention that allows us to talk to loved ones a mile or 10,000 miles away, conduct business quickly and efficiently, summon help in an emergency.

The good news is that with the arrival of the portable phone, we are never out of touch whether we are in our cars, backyard swimming pool, or flying 35,000 feet above the Pacific.

The bad news is, of course, that we are never out of touch — whether we are in our cars, our swimming pools, or flying across the ocean. We have given up a large measure of privacy for what appears to be an increasingly dubious advantage of convenience. We are never off duty.

Even if we manage to be out of hearing of the summons from the phone, our answer machines dutifully take down the message we may have been trying to avoid. The answer machine also makes it impossible to use the little white lie: 'I tried to call you but no one answered.'

It's even possible that some telephones can be harmful to our health.

There have been allegations that cellular phones can send harmful radiations into the brain, causing cancer and other problems. The FDA says that there is no proof that the phones are harmful. But several quick-thinking companies have already begun selling devices that will, they say, make cellular phones safe for human use. We can only hope that they are more effective than the "x-ray proof" underwear that sold well in an earlier era.

The fax machine is another one of those mixed blessings. How wonderful it is to send instantaneous personal and business letters. But instantaneous correspondence virtually demands an instantaneous response. The wheel turns faster and faster, so fast that the fax machine is becoming obsolete. Now it is email that demands immediate attention, and 'instant messaging' can catch you so unaware that you feel like a rat in a trap. The wheel also catches our children younger and younger. Children as young as six and seven are being given their first computers, complete with email accounts.

The computer, of course, is the most magical of inventions, so magical in fact that no science fiction writers foresaw its appearance, at least not in its metamorphosis as a household appliance. Even the scientists who produced the first room-sized clunkers that required an army of technicians didn't see what was coming. One of the computing pioneers solemnly concluded that the world could use perhaps a dozen computers to handle all its computational needs.

But the magical utility of the computer also comes at a price. Computers are used increasingly to turn skilled labor into a series of seemingly unconnected, boring and unsatisfying tasks, that are then shopped around the world to countries with the cheapest labor. White collar work is not immune from this. Computers have turned countless interesting clerical positions into mind-numbing production-line jobs. Secretaries who used to work as assistants-without-titles have become "word processors" who sit all day mindlessly typing while the computer counts every single keystroke and gives periodic reports to a supervisor who will note if the keystrokes stop for more than a few seconds at a time.

Other jobs have been lost entirely as computers take over tasks which only humans once were able to perform. Thus life is more constrictive now in terms of work options. When we are young, we are told by institutions and parents that we can be independent, self sufficient. But that is increasingly an illusion in the modern world, in large part because of our technology.

The Internet opened a new world of communication. Radio, TV and Cable offered communication of the one to the many. The Internet offers the many to the many. Everyone can be an Internet publisher with a web site, can talk to friends and family all over the country and world, post messages in discussion groups, and chat with friends and strangers.

The Internet also offers governments and corporations — to the extent that they are distinguishable — the chance to spy on our every message, our every visit to a web site.

Another price we pay are new ailments. Two generations of workers have now spent an appreciable part of their working lives in front of computer monitors, pounding away at computer keyboards.

The monitors produce radiation that probably isn't harmful, but nagging doubts remain that it might just be responsible for everything from cancer to miscarriages. Every year or so a new study will proclaim that all is well, while another will suggest that more research is needed.

One computer-age ailment that is not in doubt is carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful and sometimes crippling condition that is caused by too-long stints at the keyboard using hands, wrists and fingers in ways nature never envisioned.

The news industry has been so corrupted by the concept of infotainment, that the technology involved is of little significance. Or is it? Computers have made it possible to create faked news photographs and video tapes that are impossible for the average reader or viewer to detect, making all images suspect.

Even in the area of sheer entertainment, where the new technology has had an enormous impact, there are pluses and minuses. Computer animation has reached the point where only an expert knows whether the action on the screen is real or a simulation. Virtual reality is the new buzz word for an even more significant advance. Virtual reality refers to gadgets designed so that the viewer moves inside the illusion. Wearing a space-age helmet with goggles and earphones, the viewer moves inside the image. He can "walk" through a building that hasn't yet been built, he can "drive" a race car around a track at 150 mph, or "fly" a spaceship to the moon. The technology is crude now but will improve rapidly.

Not even sex is immune from the encroachment of technology. Anyone who has ever had anything to do with virtual reality has at least briefly considered the possibility of virtual sex. Curiosity and titillation are two of the driving forces, but there are others. In this age of aids, what could be safer than having sex with someone on screen?

Moralists will be appalled, sensualists will be intrigued, corporate businessmen will be plotting ways to monopolize the market.

And the world will be changed in ways we can't yet see.


       Deck Deckert has spent nearly two decades as copy editor, wire editor and news editor at several metropolitan newspapers, including the Miami Herald and Miami News, before becoming a freelance writer. His articles and stories on everything from alligator farming to UFOs have appeared in numerous U.S. publications. He has written two young adult novels under a pen name, and co-authored a novel about the NATO war on Yugoslavia, Letters from the Fire, with Alma Hromic, who he met in an Internet discussion group. Deckert and Hromic subsequently married and are writing a book about their experience with Internet romance, Cyberdance.

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Deck Deckert on Swans

Essays published in 2002 | 2001


Published January 28, 2002
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